I had an extended four hour trip on a train recently, but luckily I’d loaded my iPhone with a couple of rally videos to while away the time.

The first of them was titled ‘Audi Quattro – the official story’, and had me enthralled from the outset. I’ve seen a few Quattro videos over the years, but this was a new one on me.

The Audi Quattro changed the face of rallying like no other car before it, or since.

For the newbies to rallying, the Audi Quattro was the car that revolutionised the sport and changed it forever. When manufacturers such as Opel and Lancia were pushing on with rear-wheel drive cars, the Germany marque bucked the trend by throwing a clunky four-wheel drive system into the boxy Quattro.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The car debuted in the 1981 January Rally in Austria where local star, Franz Wittman, took the victory, but it was later that month, on the Monte Carlo Rally, that the Quattro really made a name for itself.

Audi had scored a coup in signing Finland’s Hannu Mikkola to drive for the team, and it didn’t take long for the Finn to get into his stride.

1984 Audi Quattro Group B rally car 001 4084The Group B Audi Quattro in the Rally of Portugal in 1984.Mikkola takes up the story ….

“We did the first stage near Grenoble – a short stage, 14km, nearly all uphill. I remember (Bernard) Darniche started one minute in front of me. When I had done 7 kays I passed him – it was like a sharp bend and then maybe half a kilometre straight and there was maybe 100km/h difference in the speed.

“When we came to the start of the next stage Ari (Vatanen) pulled up next to me and said that he and David Richards had had a bet as to what was my time, as nobody really knew how the car would go.

“Dave Richards said that I did the same as the best time, and Ari said that I was 10 seconds faster than the best time. I remember very well I said, ‘yes you are quite right, but I was one minute and 10 seconds faster than the next fastest time’.

“That was a real shock for everybody,” Mikkola recalls.

While reliability issues were predictably the Quattro’s Achilles heel in that first season, and Vatanen went on to win the World Rally Championship in a privately entered Ford Escort RS1800, the die had been cast for the future of the sport.

“We’ve been asleep for too long, and now comes the rude awakening,” one rival team manager said at the time.

Within its career the Quattro notched up 23 victories in the WRC, won the Manufacturers’ Championship twice, and took both Hannu Mikkola and Stig Blomqvist to the world title in 1983 and 1984.

But it could have been a lot more successful. The world’s first, and only, female world championship rally winner, Michele Mouton, was on track for the title in 1982, but a gearbox failure let her down on the final round of the championship. Stig Blomqvist also took second place in 1985.

Blomqvist-1984-Rally-NZ-750Stig Blomqvist driving his works Audi Quattro to victory in the 1984 Sanyo Rally of New Zealand.

As a 12 year old, I was lucky enough to see the Quattros in action in the 1984 Rally of New Zealand, when Blomqvist and Mikkola did battle with the rear-drive Lancia 037s of Markku Alen and Walter Rohrl.

It was also my first experience of a WRC event, and I remember vividly the sound and speed of the Audis in the forests of the North Island. The 5-cylinder Audi engine was something to behold when being pushed to the limit, and from the first moment I saw them in action, I was a Quattro fan.

I returned to NZ in 1986 when the Group B era had really moved up a gear, but unfortunately by then the category had been banned by FISA (now the FIA), and Audi had withdrawn from running the Group B Quattro in the WRC. Nevertheless, my memories of Peugeot’s 205 T16 E2 and the Lancia Delta S4 (the Quattro’s main rivals) are strong …. but that’s a story for another day.

Before then, however, the final version of the Quattro would set rallying alight, and would be forever remembered as one of the sport’s most iconic (and brutal) cars.

1986 Audi Quattro S1The Audi Quattro S1 E2 had nearly 600bhp and produced some of the sport's most iconic rally footage.While rivals such as Lancia and Peugeot had developed purpose-built cars for Group B, Audi had steadfastly stuck to the production Quattro as the base for their car. There was no rear-engined rally weapon for the German team. Instead, the Quattro continued to have an engine mounted so far forward (in front of the front axles) that handling was always one of the car’s weaknesses.

What it lacked in handling, however, the Quattro S1 E2 made up for in sheer power – over 550 brake horsepower in a car weighing just 1090kg. By the time Audi withdrew the car from the WRC, the S1 E2 was making 590bhp, or 444kW.

The speed and sound was one thing, but it was the looks of the S1 E2 that really made it stand apart. It featured huge wings and spoilers front and rear to increase the downforce, yet on fast events like the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland, the car would still do “wheel stands” as it launched over the many crests and jumps.

The S1 could accelerate from 0-100km/h in just 3.1 seconds, and the fans loved it, as did the drivers.

“We did the testing for the suspension and wings, and on one test road, at the same time they were doing a Formula 1 race,” Hannu Mikkola recalls.

“Where we were testing was exactly the same length as the Formula 1 track, only on a gravel road. We were only four seconds slower than their lap time, so we said (this car) is really going fast!”

The last years of the Group B era have been referred to as a period of Nirvana, the true glory days of the sport. And while such a statement is obviously debatable, there’s no doubting that the mid-1980s were a period of growth in the sport, where manufacturers and spectators showed a passion for rallying that has perhaps not been seen before, or since that time.

Unfortunately, or maybe predictably, Group B was on an ever-decreasing spiral that was soon out of control. The cars were incredibly fast, and mid-mounted engines and fuel tanks situated behind the driver and co-driver soon led to predictable outcomes.

Spectators were flocking to events in their hundreds of thousands, and without any real plan on how to keep them contained, the inevitable happened on the 1986 Rallye de Portugal when Joaquim Santos’ Ford RS200 speared into the crowd, killing three spectators.

For Audi, it was the final straw, and the factory team never entered a Quattro S1 E2 in a World Rally Championship event again.

Henri-Toivonen-crash-1986The smouldering remains of Henri Toivonen's Lancia Delta S4 after he and co-driver, Sergio Cresto, were killed in the 1986 Tour de Corse.But it was the deaths of Finnish superstar, Henri Toivonen, and his co-driver, Sergio Cresto, that eventually spelt the end for Group B altogether.

Toivoinen’s Lancia Delta S4 crashed into a ravine on the 1986 Tour de Corse, burst into flames and literally burnt to the ground. The car’s occupants had no chance of survival whatsoever.

The cars had become deadly weapons, as Audi’s Walter Rohrl explained, “It seems to me, that (a person’s) thoughts are already too slow for that car,” he said of the Quattro S1 E2.

Audi continued in the WRC in some form when the switch to Group A was made at the end of 1986, with the factory team running a Sport Quattro throughout 1987, but this would be the last time we’d see Audi officially running a team in the WRC, much to rally fan’s dismay.

Nearly 30 years on, the German marque with the four-ringed logo has still not returned to the fray in the World Rally Championship, with their motorsport participation limited to touring cars and sports cars.

Will we see them back where rally fans feel they belong? Disappointingly, the answer is probably not, at least not while their parent company, Volkswagen, are dominating the World Rally Championship.

Even if we don’t see Audi in the WRC again, rallying has plenty to thank them for. The Quattro was an incredible car, driven by incredible drivers during a period of rallying that we may never see again.

I’m most thankful I was able to see the Quattro in action when I did.

- Peter Whitten

 Here's a few video tributs to the Audi Quattro and Group B:



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