Tuesday | 02 Jun 2020

Top 5 tech breakthroughs

Sit last year’s FIA World Rally Championship-winning Hyundai i20 alongside the Renault-Alpine A110 which did the same job 46 years ago and the difference is enormous.

But what have been the biggest progressions in rally car technology? What’s helped make that leap from 1973 to 2019? As part of WRC Tech Month presented by Wolf Lubricants, we count down the top five technical breakthroughs that delivered the cutting-edge World Rally Car machinery of today.

#5 Turbo Charging

Forced induction has been around in rallying since the 1970s, thanks to cars like Saab’s 99, but it was Group B which took the blower to another level.

Realising four-wheel drive needed more grunt to offset the extra weight of the transmission and cumbersome handling, turbos were bolted to the side of all engines with the exception of Austin Rover’s MG Metro 6R4, which went a more traditional V6 three-litre route.

The argument for natural aspiration is response (something Lancia countered with a supercharged and turbocharged Delta S4), but ultimately experts came up with an anti-lag system which kept the turbo spinning off throttle and made boost available on the touch of the throttle.

#5 Turbo Charging

#4 Aerodynamics

Winding all the way back to the beginning, the Alpine A110 was a car with an aerodynamic appeal. Fiat’s 131 probably less so, but Lancia’s Stratos definitely cut through the air efficiently. But downforce? In rallying? Not so much in the 1970s.

Group B brought astonishing levels of power and acceleration down the straights and in an effort to help get the cars through the corners, wings were bolted onto the Metro 6R4 and the evolutions of the Audi and Peugeot.

At that time, there really wasn’t much science involved. Like everything in Group B, size mattered most. The biggest ironing board available front and rear, please!

World Rally Cars took aero to the next level and the most recent hardware has gone a step further. Cars are tweaked mid-season to add a dive plane here or an extra fin there. Airflow is monitored closely and downforce levels have helped build the speed tremendously.

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#3 Tyres

The connection between the car and the road. The WRC delivered ground-breaking technology like the puncture-proof tyres offered firstly by Michelin and then Pirelli through the 1990s, but the main performance steps come in terms of compound and construction.

The real science is in the chemistry of cooking the tyres. Get it right and you provide a durable cover that quickly reaches a peak working temperature and stays there for the duration of a stage or loop of stages.

But don’t think this is all new. Much of the early work of tyres was driven by the likes of 1960s hero Rauno Aaltonen, who pressed Dunlop development aboard his Mini. 

#3 Tyres

#2 Suspension

Ask Tommi Mäkinen about the first time he drove a Toyota Yaris and the biggest difference from when he was winning four back-to-back world titles in the 1990s and you’ll get a one-word answer. Suspension.

Since the onset of four-wheel drive, the gains made in suspension have hiked corner speeds higher than any other aspect of rally car design.

The latest multi-adjustable dampers can be tuned to the road ahead, allowing the car to settle after jumping higher, faster and further than ever before. Gone are the days of cars pitching and wallowing down the road once the Fafe ballistics are done. Now they fly, they land and they go. No drama.

But there’s more to suspension than just landing the leaps, it’s about the way the dynamics of the car are dealt with. M-Sport technical director Christian Loriaux delivered a new way of thinking with his 2006 Focus RS: a much softer car that delivered both traction and precision. The Belgian’s work can be traced into today’s cars.

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#1 Four-wheel drive

When Audi launched its four-wheel drive Quattro in 1980, there was more than the odd sceptic around. How could it work?

The car would, undoubtedly, handle like the Volkswagen Iltis military-based vehicle from which it took the idea of fitting a driveshaft to each wheel. The Iltis, it’s fair to say, wasn’t noted for its handling…

And, to an extent, they were right. Audi’s original Quattro wasn’t the easiest thing to drive. But when Hannu Mikkola drove chassis #6 as a zero car at the 1980 Algarve Rally, the writing was on the wall. The Finn whooped the well-driven and rally winning Ford Escort RS1800. By half an hour.

From then on, manufacturers scrambled to find a way to take drive to all four corners. The revolution had begun.

And the evolution wasn’t far behind. Active front, centre and even rear differentials digitised the delivery of that power and offered drivers – at the height of their use in the early 2000s - a mind-boggling array of settings to scroll through from surface to surface and even corner to corner.