Short, sharp shocker

The Audi Sport Quattro evoked respect from its drivers, fear from its opponents and awe in rally spectators. Andrew Frankel tested one and felt a combination of all three phenomena

It dawns on you slowly, at least letting you absorb the hideous truth at your own pace. A soft breeze of suggestion blowing on your face becomes a howling gale of conviction. My God, this car is ugly. Think what you like of the short, squat, bewinged monster in the photographs on these pages; just take my word, it is a fairy tale princess of a car compared to how it appears in the flesh.

I'm glad. Beautiful cars belong on the racetrack, where wind-carved aerodynamics and non-existent ground clearance have their essential place. In the history of the sport there have been just three startlingly attractive rally cars, two Lancias and one Alpine and, of them, I'd say only the latter has a true claim to beauty. Rally cars are about purpose, and if that means pugnacious, then so much the better.

No car did pugnacious better than the last Audi quattro, the S1 Evolution 2, the ultimate iteration of the car that started it all. The quattro began life as a clever and professionally executed commercial road car concept and ended as a short-wheelbase, 520bhp, Kevlar-bodied, Group B maniac.

And yet people forget. Look at the outside and its hard to remember that, at its heart lay a road car. Look under the bonnet and you cannot forget. Lancia and Peugeot built dedicated competition machines, with their engines behind their drivers, while the quattro's is not just in the nose but every square inch of it is in front of the axle line. It was put there to help package a road car and it would be hard to imagine a location where agility — the simple ability to change direction in a hurry — could be more compromised.

Yet the Audi Sport quattro helped the marque to the title in 1984 and was beaten to the constructors' championship the following year only by Peugeot with its bespoke 205 T16. The 1986 season was just three events old when the Ford RS200 ofJoaquim Santos went off the road in Portugal, killing four spectators. Audi withdrew from the championship and Group B died before the year was out.

Group B. My mind's eye remembers it as such a recent era, as if the vibrancy, speed and thrill it encompassed have somehow served to squeeze the 14 years between now and its passing. But you have only to look inside the Audi to be taken aback at how far the world has progressed. A modem World Rally Car presents its driver with a smart and ordered office, all crucial controls honed to a point of ergonomic excellence. Information is presented by LCD display, clearly and unambiguously. It is not like this inside the Audi. It is as if someone has loaded a sawn-off shotgun with parts bin dials and fired them at the dash. Some even landed in front of the passenger and only when provided with the incontrovertible evidence is it clear this was actually intended. Column stalks are standard Audi while the centre console is a splat of switches, toggles and fuses. Confused? Well, yes, now you mention it.

None of this actually matters very much; not for the purposes of this exercise. Today there are no times to set, just a lot of time, a lot of Tarmac and a car I craved to understand. I've driven a few quite old rally cars and one very modem one but a Group B car? Never even sat in one of the evil little demons. Even so, it's just a car: all the controls are where you'd expect and the driving position is positively airy compared to any contemporary racing car. So let's go back to basics.

What we have here is an Audi quattro with, most importantly, some 12.5in hacked out of the wheelbase behind the door and clothed from head to toe in Kevlar panels (save the steel roof). At 1090kgs, it weighed over 200kgs less than the already light road-going Sport quattro, 215 of which were built to homologate this rally car.

The engine is a twin-cam, 20-valve version of the famous straight-five which displaces 2142cc. This is less than the road-going car, so it comes under the 3-litre class once the multiplication factor of 1.4 for turbo engines is taken into account. The unit produces a nominal 520bhp at 7500rpm, though this naturally varies according to the boost setting, while some 3681bft of torque is available at 5500rpm. The forced induction comes courtesy of a colossal single KKK blower and the entire powerplant is governed by Bosch Motronic fuel injection.

Four wheel drive is, of course, permanent and is simply regulated by a central Torsen differential, a viscous coupling at the front and a limited-slip differential at the back. There is a six-speed gearbox with phenomenally dose ratios: first is quite tall while sixth will run the engine out of revs by 120mph.

The factory career of this actual car was short to say the least. 'Born' on 2 August 1985, it was driven by Stig Blomqvist to second place in the 1000 Lakes rally behind only the Peugeot T16 of Timo Salonen before Walter Rtihrl rolled it into retirement on the RAC Rally. It was sold and converted into a rallycross car before being restored to full factory specification. Its only duty these days is to provide the weaponry for Michele Mouton to terrorise the Formula One hotshots at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

The first surprise is how civilised it is. The engine is no more difficult to start than a normal quattro — you push a button instead of turn a key — and it idles at least as equably, albeit at nearer 2000 than 1000rpm. Most surprisingly, it's quiet Turbochargers always damp down engine noise but this alleged monster truly makes less noise than some road cars. First engages as easily as it would on a Ford Fiesta and, so long as someone has told you about the on-off competition clutch, there's nothing at all to stop you going for a potter.

And what a remarkably fine potterer the Audi Sport quattro S1 is. You could tootle all the way to Scotland in it; the ride is splendid for a competition car, there's not too much noise and the heavily padded race seats support you in a way that makes road-going equivalents seem positively inadequate. The six speed 'box is childishly easy thanks to its quick, strong syncromesh and the engine feels pleasantly responsive on part throttle, almost as if there was no monster KKK blower under the bonnet

But there is and, once the Audi is warmed and all temperature and pressure gauges are pointing in the right direction, it is time to make it work. Second gear, the road's straight, foot flat on the floor at 2000rpm — and it accelerates with the alacrity of an arthritic Land-Rover. 3000rpm, still nothing. At 4000rpm the boost gauge lifts, ffickers, and slowly starts to register positive pressure. Then, at 5000rpm, the needle suddenly hurls itself across the gauge.

I'd been told to keep it to 7000rpm but, to be honest, it's not easy. This most calm and relaxing of all competition cars I've driven has turned into the feral beast I'd been hoping for all along. Thank God the gears are quick and easy because you need them at a rate which makes returning your hand to the steering wheel between shifts if not impossible, then certainly entirely pointless. Five blasts of power, five flutters of the wastegate and you're there: maximum revs in top gear, acceleration cut only by my right foot and the extraordinary aerodynamic properties of its monstrous wings.

Except it's not that easy. Amid the mayhem it unleashes, sits yourself, trying to change gear and, of course, trying to keep it pointing in the right direction. Despite a straight piece of track and fourwheel drive, the Sport quattro goes left, right and left again, hunting around on its competition Michelins, reminding you that, above all, rally cars are set up to change direction very quickly and, consequently, are not that fond of the straight-line stuff. Despite its size, configuration and technological variance, it reminded me briefly of a Lancia Stratos that had once scared me stupid by doing exactly the same, only on a public road.

I was cowed by the Audi — I didn't trust it, not in the very least. All I'd done was test its engine performance in the most tame of environments and still it had worried me. What would it be like when I started to hurl it around?

Delightful as it happened, but only after I had climbed a near vertical learning curve. So many competition cars from all spheres are so much easier to drive hard and fast than they are just playing about It's a breed the quattro defines. You can tell at once that it is a compromise — that for all those wings, the hydraulically driven alternators in the boot and that huge slice cut from the wheelbase, the engine is simply in the wrong place. It's an instinctive understeerer and, with a greater turbo lag even than in the 800bhp Beatrice-Lola F1 tested last month, you can't balance the car on the throttle. Lift your right foot an inch and boost goes, the power goes with it and you run out of corner before it returns. If 1 were a wizard at left-foot braking, I could have ameliorated the problem, but I'm not and I couldn't.

What I was able to do, however, was drive around it. The technique is this: approach the corner too fast, turn in early to counter the understeer, tugging it round as savagely as you can and simultaneously plant your foot back on the throttle, while your brain is insisting it should be on the pedal in the middle. Then, and this is the secret, do not move your right foot. Not for anything. As the apex approaches, so the boost will arrive and the Torsen duff will do its stuff, shuttling at least 400bhp to the rear wheels. At this stage, the engine location ceases to matter and you will be broadside, with smoke pouring off the rear tyres, car in an implausibly well balanced powerslide. Run out of revs or road and you simply have to lift your foot and it will instantaneously resort to its natural, understeering state.

Now we had a rapport and I no longer mistrusted it. I respected it, remain to this day slightly in awe of it, understood exactly why even the best drivers of the day were nervous about it — but I can also see how you could become addicted to it. None of this, however, is what fascinates me most about the Sport quattro. Just occasionally I drive a car with real pioneering spirit, one which went about its business in a way different to any other car in the history of its field; most memorable was another of Dr Ferdinand Piech's little brainchilds, the Porsche 917. Both became victims of their own success: the Porsche was simply banned, the Audi overtaken by those who nicked its concept and encased it in a purpose-built shell. But not before it earned its place in history as the most important rally car of its era. Given that its era encompassed the glorious, tragic age of Group B, that's some accolade.

Hannu Mikkola once described the quattro as 'the most terrifyingly effective way of covering loose surfaces at speed ever devised by man' and, in its day, no definition would have suited it better. Today, even without comparison to a modern WRC car, it feels old, compromised and even clumsy if you don't drive it properly. How pleased I was, therefore, to get to know it a little better, to seek out and find some of the magic within that magnificently awkward exterior.

The Audi quattro may not be the best rally car ever to stalk the special stages but, right now, I'd be hard pressed to name a greater one.