The stunning, underachieving Lancia LC2

An enduring beauty (that couldn't last): On looks alone the Lancia LC2 was a stunning sports car challenger to Porsche; in terms of results, it was an underachiever

Pole position by the better part of a second. Some early glory at the front of the field. And then a dramatic technical failure. The story of the Lancia LC2’s debut at the 1983 Monza 1000Kms set the tone for the career of a car that has come to be regarded as a glorious failure.

Glorious for a multitude of reasons. Lancia’s attempt to take on Porsche in the still-new Group C category resulted in a car that was nearly always quick. Witness Piercarlo Ghinzani’s debut pole on home ground at Monza and the 12 that followed. It also turned up a thing of beauty, with or without the Martini Racing stripes. Yet more glamour was provided by the car’s alternative name, the Lancia-Ferrari, a reference to the source of the V8 developed into a twin-turbo Group C powerplant by Lancia.

Then there were the drivers. The line-up chosen by Lancia’s factory Martini Racing squad, run from out of Fiat’s famed Abarth workshops in Turin, reads like a who’s who of Italian Formula 1 in the 1980s. Ghinzani, Patrese, Alboreto, Nannini, de Cesaris, Fabi, Baldi and more were all given a turn behind the wheel of the LC2.

The LC2 was a failure for just one reason. One that explains why the Lancia barely made a dent into Porsche’s Group C hegemony. The LC2 struggled to finish races at the start of its career in 1983 and was still struggling to finish them, at least cleanly, three years later. There were victories along the way, but each of its three successes can be regarded as in some way tainted. The reality is that Lancia never beat the Rothmans Porsche team in a straight fight over a 1000km race distance.

Not just for those glorious reasons listed above – the speed, the looks, the drivers – did the world expect more from the Italian manufacturer when the LC2 was unveiled to the world at the Mueso Martini at Pessione, near Turin, in February ’83. The Group C contender is the Lancia sports car everyone remembers, but it was far from the most successful. The Group 5 Beta Monte Carlo won three world titles for Lancia, including the overall World Championship for Makes crown ahead of Porsche in 1981. Its successor, the Group 6 LC1 barchetta of ’82, may have fallen a few seconds shy of making Riccardo Patrese a World Champion, but it did win as many races in one season as the LC2 did in its multi-year career. The reason Lancia built a Group 6 contender around the Monte Carlo’s 1.4-litre straight-four turbo when Porsche, Ford and others were developing the first Group C coupés is the same reason why the LC2 was never a match for the Porsche 956/962. So argues Lancia competitions boss Cesare Fiorio.

“Sports car racing was a side programme for us because Lancia’s main motor sport activity was and, to my mind, should always be rallying,” says Fiorio, who never engaged the LC2 in a full season of World Championship events. “The LC1 was a very cost-effective programme, partly because we used the engine from the Monte Carlo at a time when we had no suitable engine for Group C. The LC2 was a bigger investment, but the budget we had compared with what some people imagined we had was very small.” Fiorio argues that it would be wrong to compare Lancia’s efforts with those of Porsche.

“Group C was a big, big programme for Porsche,” he says. “Don’t forget it was Porsche’s main programme; we always had rallying to look after.”

Gian Paolo Dallara, whose company developed the LC2 in conjunction with Lancia, backs up Fiorio’s claim. “We used an off-theshelf gearbox from Hewland, for example, and there was never enough development,” he recalls. “It was a low-level programme with a low-level budget.” That much was obvious to the drivers. It was evident to Teo Fabi, a regular with Lancia from 1981 to ’83, that the Italian manufacturer wasn’t putting the same resources into Group C as Porsche.

“I don’t know the figures, but it was clear that we were definitely spending less money than Porsche,” he says. “You could see that just by looking at the effort at the tracks.” Porsche had been in at the start of Group C with the 956 and Lancia’s efforts to catch up weren’t helped by the fact that the LC2 was rushed out, argues programme manager Gianni Tonti.

“We had to do a completely new car – chassis, aerodynamics and engine – in less than eight months,” says Tonti, who would remain in technical control of the LC2 project until leaving for the Euroracing run Alfa Romeo F1 team in May ’84. “Porsche had been studying Bob Wollek took pole at Le Mans in this updated LC2 in ’84, but engine problems persisted, even with a new 3-litre unit (right) Group C for a long time before 1982 and it used an engine that was not new. We had a white sheet of paper.”

The first LC2 didn’t run until the month after its launch, or just one month before its race debut. It was no surprise that the car had a troubled debut at Monza. Ghinzani had badly damaged one chassis in practice, but still managed to claim pole by nearly eight-tenths of a second. He did use qualifying tyres, but denies today that it was a big-boost effort designed to secure Lancia some Sunday morning headlines on the debut of its new machine.

“I had done most of the testing in the car and I knew Monza very well because it was my local circuit,” he recalls. “I had a good feeling with the car and managed to make the pole.” Ghinzani, who was still a couple of months away from his Grand Prix debut, led the first 23 laps before his left-rear Pirelli exploded. He was fortunate to avoid a “very big accident” when the tyre let go on the start-finish straight rather than 500 metres before in the Parabolica. Tonti and Ghinzani disagree on the reasons for the blowout. The engineer claims that Lancia’s tyre partner in the World Rally Championship merely lacked experience in top-level sports cars and was incapable of building a tyre that could carry an 800kg racing car at speeds upwards of 180mph. Ghinzani believes Pirelli misinterpreted the data given to it by Lancia and Dallara.

“The construction of the tyres ended up being not strong enough, because there was a misunderstanding in the level of downforce the cars would be generating,” recalls Ghinzani. “That was why it was a big issue at Monza where there were many high-speed corners.” Pirelli’s problems resulted in a late switch of tyre supplier to Dunlop for Silverstone and the rest of the season. Running crossplies on a car designed for radials undoubtedly took the edge off the Lancia’s competitiveness.

There were only flashes of Ghinzani’s Monza pace, but plenty of retirements. Engine maladies, precipitated by the use of UK-spec petrol, forced both cars out at Silverstone. Differential failure did for the two LC2s – one factory, one customer – at the Nürburgring. Gearbox, fuel pressure and turbocharger issues resulted in an early bath for all three Lancia crews at Le Mans. An 11-week gap in the World Championship schedule allowed Lancia to regroup. The result was that three LC2s finished the Spa 1000Kms in September, while the works team notched up a fourth place in the European Endurance Championship round at Brands Hatch later that month.

The next round of the Euro series, which encompassed the five World Championship rounds in Europe at the start of the season, gave the LC2 the first of its three victories. Unlike at Brands, there were no Rothmans 956s at Imola, but Joest and John Fitzpatrick Racing, who’d both vanquished the works Porsche team that season, were present. Fabi and Hans Heyer, who rejoined Lancia in the absence of the team’s F1 stars, took what the former describes as “a much-needed victory”. It was something Fiorio “clearly wanted”, recalls Fabi. Imola may have broken the LC2’s duck, but arguably a more significant result occurred when Patrese and Alessandro Nannini split the Rothmans Porsches in second at Kyalami. The updated ’84-spec LC2, of which the car pictured here (chassis 005) is the first example, allowed Lancia to continue that improvement. Revised suspension geometry changes, facilitated at the back by a new gearbox casing designed in-house, aerodynamic modifications and, from Le Mans, a 3-litre engine kept Lancia near the front of the field among the best Porsches. More poles followed, including one at Le Mans for new signing Bob Wollek in chassis 005. There were some strong results, too.

Barilla and Baldi finished third and then fourth in the opening races at Monza and Silverstone, though each time they encountered engine problems in the closing stages. There was a further podium at the Nürburgring, this time for Barilla and Nannini, and then a barren spell until victory number two for the LC2 right at the end of the season. Patrese and Nannini’s win at the Kyalami 1000Kms came against opposition even more limited than at Imola the previous season. There was just one other Group C car on hand, a second-string Porsche, and that encountered problems. So weak was opposition that the second-placed Lancia driven by Barilla and Wollek finished 40 laps ahead of the car in third, a locallyentered Nissan Skyline.

The 1985 season should have been Lancia’s year. There were more of what Dallara calls “small development steps”. Crucially, the team switched from Dunlop to Michelin tyres. Patrese was on pole at each of the first three races, but could finish no better than third with Nannini. There were cases of what might have been, as always with Lancia, most notably the race gifted to the Kremer Porsche team at Monza when a fallen tree brought a premature halt to proceedings. The LC2’s third, final and most worthy victory was notched up at Spa by Baldi, Wollek and pole winner Patrese, who switched cars for the final stint of the shortened race. The result is there as a Lancia win, in the history books, but in the psyche of sports car racing that event is remembered for the death of Stefan Bellof. “No one remembers Lancia for finally beating the factory Porsches, and that includes me,” says Baldi. “I don’t recall much about that race, just arriving on the scene of the accident a few seconds after it had happened and knowing it was bad.”

The LC2 may have a ‘proper’ victory ahead of the factory Porsches on its CV, but over time it has done little for the reputation of the car. The Lancia Group C car is remembered more for its failures – or should that be retirements? – than its successes. Four-time Le Mans winner Henri Pescarolo, who made a one-off appearance at the 24 Hours in the LC2 in ’85, reckons it was a question of mentality within the team.

“I am not sure it was a question of money, more the team’s philosophy,” says the Frenchman, never one to pull his punches. “I felt they were working to have the quickest car, rather than the most reliable car.”

Pescarolo’s most bizarre Lancia story is its attempt to nurse the LC2’s Hewland VG200 gearbox through Le Mans. “Fifth gear was always the problem, so we used the same ratio in fourth and fifth,” explains Pescarolo. “Each driver had to use a different fifth gear ratio. One driver was doing one-twothree- four, the other one-two-three-five.” Fabi concedes that Lancia sometimes had a hit-and-hope attitude to finishing races.

“On reliability it seemed to me that Lancia was hoping for good luck rather than doing a serious development programme to make the car last,” he says. “We never had enough time or resources to do enough kilometres to check the car’s reliability.” That last statement backs up Fiorio’s claims. “I could not put all my best people on the Group C programme,” he insists. “You might see that as a mistake, but I had to make choices and we chose rallying over long-distance racing.

“It is wrong to say that Lancia could not build reliable cars, because our reliability in our rally programmes was always strong and is the reason why we won 15 World Championships.” The LC2 factory programme petered out after just two races, entered at the last minute, at the beginning of 1986. Le Mans was never on the schedule, but the week before Nannini was scheduled to take part in the Norisring sprint round of the WEC, test driver Giacomo Maggi was killed in an LC2 at Fiat’s La Mandria test facility near Turin. A factory Lancia sports car would never race again, although privateer LC2s raced on sporadically until as late as 1991.

Another tragic accident involving a Lancia, little more than a month before Maggi’s death, actually had the greater impact on the sports car programme. The fatal crash that claimed the lives of Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto in an S4 Delta on the Tour de Corse not only precipitated the demise of Group B, but also Lancia’s involvement in sports cars.

“All the manufacturers were called together and told that there too many accidents because the cars had become too fast,” explains Fiorio. “We, more than anyone else, were in no position to complain and we were faced with having to throw everything away and build a brand new car in just a few months.

“That required all our engineers and available people focusing on rallying. We knew we’d have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week if we were going to have a competitive car for the start of 1987.”

Lancia’s fleeting success with the S4 and its subsequent domination of world rallying with a line of Group A Deltas in the late ’80s is justification of the LC2 programme, according to Fiorio.

“We went racing as a means of improving our experience and increasing the experience of our engineers,” he says. “The LC2 gave us the possibility of building a supercar like the S4.

“We gained a lot of knowledge of composite construction and lightweight materials from racing. Many things we used in rallying weren’t in our technical culture before we went racing.” Many of the drivers who were part of the Lancia programme went on to greater things in sports cars. Fabi was a future World Champion with Jaguar, while Baldi would drive for the Mercedes, Peugeot and Porsche factories.

“I wasn’t really interested in sports cars when Fiorio called: I thought I was an F1 driver,” recalls Baldi, who is a member of that select band of drivers to have won the big enduros at Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring. “I didn’t start enjoying long-distance racing until a little later, but Lancia was the beginning for me.” The programme was also important in the growth of Dallara Automobili into the world’s
most successful racing car constructor.

“The relationship with Lancia was a milestone in the growth of the company,” says Dallara. “We had been used to dealing with small teams with little money; with Lancia it was the first time we were working with a manufacturer.”

Glorious failure? Perhaps not. Maybe it’s time to reassess the legacy of the Lancia LC2.

Thanks to Jan B Luehn for his help with this feature. This car is for sale: