Evan Rothman

Handbrakes & Hairpins

When the R in WRC stood for something...

The glory days of rallying. The craziest era in motorsport. The heyday of the World Rally Championship. These cliches are often over-used in describing Group B World Championship rallying.

Back then, rallies weren't restricted to competition over weekends. Services weren't confined to a car park. Media centres were actually pubs filled with rally drivers angling to get their version of events straight with a journalist while talking over beers, burgers and cigarettes. Team motor homes were just that, not pop-up office blocks with security tighter than an international airport's customs control point. Cars weren't limited to 300bhp and a tome of regulations and technical guides. Drivers weren't guarded nor hid away in their motor homes either. Sponsors didn't rule the order of the day. Fans were truly passionate and celebrated each stage as if it were the only state ever in the world of rallying.

Audi, Citroën, Ferrari, Ford, Lancia, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Opel, Peugeot, Porsche, Renault, Talbot and Toyota all built and rallied their Group B monsters throughout Europe. From 1982 to its demise in 1987, manufacturers pumped vast amounts of money into WRC competition. Incredibly clever engineers were allowed the freedom of design to work around the loose laws of the days, and it resulted in some of the most exciting rally cars ever to drive in anger. To meet homologation regulations, manufacturers developed 200 road-going specials, which were then stripped back even further to be the fire-spitting and gravel-eating machines we've all spent inordinate amounts of time ogling on YouTube during work and weekends.

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1985 was the height of the Audi-Peugeot-Lancia battle. As with 2015, the season-opener that year was the Rallye Monte Carlo. Ari Vatanen, Stig Blomqist, Walter Rohrl, Miki Biasion, Bruno Saby and Henri Toivonen topped the entry list in their iconic Audi Quattro Sports', Peugeot 205 Turbo 16s and Lancia 037s. The event comprised of 34 stages and 851km of timed competition for the 151 entered crews. Weather? As always in January in that part of the world rain, snow and icy conditions were expected, and road conditions ranged from dry asphalt to slippery and muddy tar to snow and ice-covered asphalt, and usually all in a stage like the famous Col de Turini. This was the jewel in the crown of the WRC, much like the Monaco Grand Prix is for the Snore-mula One brigade. But, this was the Monaco Grand Prix without the safety barriers, fire marshals, wire fences to keep spectators at bay, and you can add the pitch darkness of 2am stage starts, and couple that with dry conditions at the bottom of a mountain pass and sheet ice on the summit in the in the mountains. You most certainly had to check your sanity at the start line.

This clip perfectly sums up this battle at the start of 1985 that was to set the tone for the remainder of the season. Vatanen versus Rohrl. Peugeot versus Audi. Man versus machine versus the elements. Rallying doesn't get any more pure than this...

Ari Vatanen's a maestro in a rally car. Of course, as a Finn it is in his blood. To drop 8 minutes in a penalty from event organisers that resulted in a loss of over 5 minutes to your closest rival and dropped you to second place would surely signal the end of anyone's hopes of a victory on this demanding and unique rally. But, Vatanen never slowed up. Not on one corner. And, you can be sure that the ever-professional and super-cool Rohrl pushed his Quattro to its limits on every inch of road. But he was still unable to keep the seemingly possessed Vatanen behind him even with a cushion of minutes. Rohrl lost his lead to Vatanen after what must have been a frustrating situation for Rohrl, and then the Finn continued to not only power to the victory but to humiliate the German team: the winning margin was a massive 5 minutes 17 seconds.

The fastest of the Group B cars, two of the most talented WRC drivers in the sport's history, and 851km of competition: victory would only ever be dictated in two ways: a handful number of minutes or just mere seconds. Either a rally was won by psychologically dominating rivals or it was a fight for tenths of seconds over hundreds of kilometres. This was, after all, the pinnacle of rallying. Those men exhibited driving skills and speed that rattled and confounded the rest of the field, and even themselves towards the end of 1986. A special event with a special history. And, those drivers: Crazy. Incredible.

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