Putting a brake on the nuclear option

When Rob Collinge climbed as high as fifth on the 1980 Safari Rally in a Range Rover, it was treated as light relief. The general view was that Collinge must have been some driver to set such good times in a lorry; that’s how people looked at four-wheel drive in those days. When Hannu Mikkola rocketed into the lead of the 1981 Monte and then marched away with the Swedish in a works Ouattro, it convulsed a sport that wasn’t noted for technical innovation. In less than a month, Mikkola and Audi created a problem to which the FIA has not yet found a solution.

The latest policy to seep out of the Rallies Commission may be viewed as an end to a war between the manufacturers and the rule-makers that has teetered on the boundary between cold and hot for the last three years, or merely another battle in a campaign that has no end in sight.

The problem can be stated simply enough: four-wheel drive confers such traction benefits that it outclasses two-wheel drive in almost any conditions encountered on a rally. It can raise performance to a lethal degree, yet it is hard to grant every manufacturer easy access to it without raising the spectre of precisely those levels of performance. Everyone wants it, but the FIA has never yet found a way of letting everyone have it in safety.

A year ago, Paris cut the Gordian knot. Sick of the constant bickering between the two-wheel drive, F2 lobby led by Patrick Landon of Renault and the four-wheel drive lobby epitomised by Ove Andersson of Toyota and Ford’s Chief Engineer, John Wheeler, the FIA swept away four-wheel drive and turbochargers at a stroke. Aside from the fact that modern saloons are very largely front-wheel drive, it amounted to a return to Gp 4 in the late 1970s, to the world of the Escort RS and the Fiat 131 Abarth.

Yet the dictatorial solution was no solution. In the teeth of fierce opposition from the World Championship establishment, the FIA has retreated, yard by yard. At first, it relented on the four-wheel drive ban; now, the Rallies Commission has decided that turbos are acceptable too and that the kit car rules should be extended to four-wheel drive. Crucially, it will almost certainly be possible to convert a two-wheel drive car to four-wheel drive.

The broad front ranged against Formula Two included virtually all the top drivers. That may have influenced the FIA in part, but there is also the limited support for the new Two Litre (two-wheel drive) World Championship to consider. To date, Skoda is the only manufacturer to have made a whole-hearted commitment and it looks very sickly indeed compared to the established series. Its apologists argue that it was announced as recently as November 19 and that the FIA might have been patient but those pleas look to have fallen on deaf ears. Indeed, the tide has turned to such a degree that not a single manufacturer voted against the four-wheel drive proposal.

The new rules aren’t simply a victory for the four-wheel drive producers, which are overwhelmingly Japanese. Oriental wealth and customs mean that cars such as the Celica GT-Four and the Lancer E3 are saleable; people can afford them and they are unlikely to be stolen. It seems that the Rallies and the Technical Commission have recognised the plain truth that European makers don’t have that scope. By bringing four-wheel drive within the terms of the kit, it will allow European and European-based firms to turn the Clios and Escorts of the future into four-wheel drive World Championship contenders, having made as few as 20 examples – the same figure for evolution in Gp B. Production lines, red tape and budgets will all be circumvented or reduced.

The FIA believes that performance is controllable. The 34-millimetre turbo restrictor should place an impenetrable ceiling on power even with free turbos, intercoolers and manifolds while the retention of standard rear suspension mountings will ensure that a converted two-wheel drive machine bears a distinct resemblance to the shopping car on which it is based. Kits will not herald the return of Gp B.

Others are less sure. The word “prototype” (which might in truth be applied just as readily to a Clio Maxi) has been used, accompanied by the suggestion that the death knell for motorsport on ordinary roads has been sounded. While the four-wheel drive manufacturers declare contentedly that a compromise has been reached, and that we can look forward to peace and plenty, the doubters maintain that the detail is unresolved and vital. Some front-wheel drive saloons have dead axles, rather than wishbones and trailing arms; how will these be converted to four-wheel drive? In any case, how can we be sure that the 34 millimetre inlet has tamed the turbo menace?

Indulgently, the four-wheel drive men will tell you that of course there is a place for F2, at national level, with limited manufacturer support and therefore limited costs. In practice, even that question isn’t straightforward. National championships may be left to national bodies such as the RACMSA, yet the RAC won’t get a free hand if there are three European Championship rallies in its domestic competition and four-wheel drive turbos are allowed in those. The Japanese naturally want four-wheel drive in the well-publicised Asia-Pacific Championship and of course, the FIA ought to treat that in the same way as the European and Middle Eastern contests.

The World Council will vote on the issue on March 30. The new policy recognises that four-wheel drive cannot be uninvented rather like nuclear weapons and offers the most attractive solution devised thus far. Yet the seeds of resentment and further argument continue to drift on the wind.