The 80s were a revolutionary period in rally. In one decade, four-wheel drive was introduced in competition, the first female racing driver won the San Remo Rally, and Group B made the world go mad. Before all these developments, the world of rally was establishing itself both professionally and logistically. Manufacturers had started taking an interest in the sport due to its rising popularity, so they hired engineers, mechanics, and pit crews to attend the racing drivers. That was a contrast to the previous setup, which entailed groups of friends that set aside weekends to race on closed circuits. The FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) also brought in several regulations to improve safety and level the playing field.
In 1977, in Ingolstadt, Germany, while testing the four-wheel-drive Volkswagen Iltis for the military, Audi determined it handled the snow very well. One of the project team members, Jorg Bensinger, found that the Iltis was much better than any other car on loose surfaces like snow and mud. At this time, the light bulb flickered in his mind, and he considered using the same system for coupes and sedans. The idea was sponsored by Walter Tresser, the head of Advanced Special Vehicles, and Ferdinand Piëch, the Chief Technical Executive in charge of the project. Piech himself clocked several test drive kilometers on the prototype.
Though the concept of giving sport and rally cars four-wheel-drive seemed revolutionary at the time, there was some internal and external resistance. For one, setting up a center differential to split the torque between the front and rear axles would mean making the car appear blocky. That did not align with the mission statement of Audi at the time to make sophisticated-looking road cars. There was also some conflict concerning the name of the new drivetrain. Piech’s team designated it ‘Quattro,’ but the Audi marketing team wanted the name ‘Carat.’ Externally as well, the FIA had a rule in place to block admission to any four-wheel-drive cars in rally.
So while Audi ironed out the internal dissatisfaction about the prototype Quattro’s aesthetics and branding, they also tested in secret. In 1979, Audi made their move at a meeting of the motoring authorities, and petitioned that the four-wheel-drive rule be scrubbed. The other members unwittingly obliged, without an idea of what Audi had in store and the Audi Quattro debuted at the 1980 Geneva motor show. The success stories flooded in shortly after. In 1981, Hannu Mikkola overtook a Lancia Stratos that had started before him. Michèle Mouton also became the first woman to win a WRC round in San Remo. Quattro then went on to win the World Rally Championship in 1982 with drivers Mikkola, Mouton, and Stig Blomqvist capturing positions 2, 3, and 4.
Audi had climbed from a place of obscurity to seniority in rallying over one year from their unfair advantage. Their apparent superiority and the ambition of rising Lancia sparked one of the most entertaining David and Goliath rivalries in rally history. The all-wheel-drive Quattro was way ahead of the field in terms of traction. They also had a team of veteran winners and overwhelming support from parent company, Volkswagen. Other teams like Lancia paled in comparison with what they had to play with. Team boss Cesare Fiorio had a shoestring budget but had a team of ambitious drivers.
Similarly, the rear-wheel-drive Lancia 037 was not the best option for snow or mud terrain. Sensing he would need talent to inspire the team to greatness, Fiorio secured the skills of Walter Rohl, a brilliant rally driver, and previous world champion. It was a bittersweet result for Lancia’s head. He had gotten the best world rally driver of the time, but the racer’s desires for glory had withered. Rohl was quite fussy about his appearances and would choose which stages he would race. For example, he did not race in Finland because it was hilly, and he apparently did not like jumps.
Fiorio did have experience on his side and employed every trick in his book to give Lancia the advantage. The pit crews would occasionally change the tires in the middle of rally stages and pour salt on the snowy tracks to give their cars a better traction advantage when they sped through. They also appeared to races they had an extra edge in with more cars. For example, Lancia would show up with four cars in stages such as Corsica, and then pull no shows in Sweden. The goal was to gain as many points as possible in the easy stages and abandon those races they could not win.
Sensationally, Rohl did win the 1983 championship for Lancia at San Remo. It was the last time Lancia would be so triumphant on the world stage. By this time, the world had recognized what all-wheel drive could do, and Quattro would inspire Group B rally where several outlandish modifications would be permitted for the sake of performance. In a touch of irony, Rohl moved on and joined Audi Sport in 1984, leading the charge to their second world championship win that decade. After they had turned rallying on its head with entries like the Sport Quattro, Audi made the drivetrain suitable for circuit racing. Audi inspired a new approach to rally, which was seen in the years to come. The next dynasties from Mitsubishi and Subaru manufactured their cars with sophisticated all-wheel-drive systems for rally and track.