Saab and Mercedes-Benz withdraw from Rallying

Nostalgia, as any tycoon will tell you, has no place in business, and any profit-seeking company which allows its board the luxury of sentiment runs the risk of seeing that profit diminish dangerously. Motor car manufacturers are no exceptions, and the whole, vast operational sphere of any car maker is calculated to provide one result; profit.

Development, design, advertising and the quest for publicity and prestige are just a few of the many ancilliary activities of a car maker which do not in themselves produces tangible, measurable profit, but they all form part of an operation to produce a better product, to increase sales of that product and to reap a healthy profit. After all, quality is essential for sales, and to sell you must first tell the public what you have for sale.

The Saab company was one of the first to realise, back in the ‘fifties, that the sport of rallying offered the opportunity to combine all those ancilliary activities in one operation. If they took their cars rallying, they could compress long periods of testing into days or even hours, they could discover weaknesses quickly and thereby improve the weak components, and if they managed to win they would have the added benefits of prestige and publicity.

There was no sentiment about this. A business opportunity presented itself to Saab executives, and they took it. That they were successful cannot be denied, and the hat-trick of victories in the RAC Rally by the famed Erik Carlsson undoubtedly put the two-stroke Saab not only in the public eye but very high indeed on the sales graphs.

Since that time Saab has made far fewer model changes than most manufacturers, but the time came when a heavier and less agile car, the 99, had to replace the old 96, in which a V4 engine had already ousted the old two-stroke unit.

Other manufacturers, in the meantime, were not slow to sieze the same opportunity, and eventually Saab faced the situation in which their front-wheel-drive cars, despite turbochargers, were outclassed. The year 1980 was particularly unproductive as far as results were concerned and, about a month after a disastrous showing in the British Open Championship ended with both cars retiring from the RAC Rally, the announcement was made in late December that the company would be bringing its rally activities to an end.

This was indeed a bombshell, but on reflection hardly a surprising one. Saab was the longest running factory rally team in the sport, but you can’t keep a team going on sentiment and tradition. There were still development lessons to be learned from expeditions to tough, punishing rallies, but these had become increasingly expensive, and without the benefit of winning publicity the company felt it was time to stop.

The Saab team has been around for so long that without the men from Trollhattan the sport will be like Arms Park without any red jerseys. But nostalgia, as we have said, has no place in the boardroom, and the official reason for the closure, the prevailing economic climate both in Sweden and elsewhere, can only be accepted as valid. A thriving competitions department would be inclined to argue against such a decision, but the singular lack of recent success must have weakened the strength of such arguments, if there were any. Furthermore, the FISA decision not to restrict future rallying to the new Group A category of car (very little modification) must have been an equally important factor.

Saab has always taken the production car as a base for rally development, shunning the practice of producing limited-run models designed specifically to win rallies. Even the Turbo came out of a well used mould, but there are limits to what a heavy, f.w.d. car can do, particularly when entry lists will continue to be open to highly modified cars of comparatively low volume production.

Although Saab’s own rallying activities will cease, the division known as Saab Sport and Rally will continue to support deserving private drivers and to supply competition parts to anyone who may need them. But in the case of number one driver Stig Blomqvist the future is not all that clear. Not only is he contracted to drive Saabs, he is also a company employee, and will be able to continue with test driving, demonstrating and PR activities in very much the same may as Erik Carlsson still does so admirably well, helped by the administrative backing of his former co-driver Torsten Aman.

However, Saab has been fair to Blomqvist and he is free to seek drives with other manufacturers. What is more, even if he does this, his full-time job will still be open for him at Saab. Naturally, at 34 years of age he is not ready to give up active rallying and is presently trying his hand in the contract market. This must be a new experience for him, for although he has been made many offers in the past to tempt him away from Saab, he has never needed to initiate his own bargaining.

Saab’s cessation marks the end of one of the longest chapters of rallying history, and notwithstanding the hard commercial reasons, one cannot help bringing a nostalgic lump to the throat. The innovative tactical experts from Trollhattan have never been given to sudden changes of course, but the hope nevertheless remains that one day they will be back.

“They did it exactly the same way when they stopped racing”. That was the precise comment by D.S. J. when we discussed over some choice Christmas fare the unexpected decision by Mercedes-Benz, announced towards the end of December, to cease rallying activities and to withdraw from all the rallies which had been planned for the works team in 1981.

At the end of 1955 the sudden decision to stop racing and to transfer mechanics from competition to somewhat neglected production car development work came when the team was riding a wave of success, having just won both Grand Prix and Sports Car World Championships for that year.

But at the end of 1980 things were different. Even though they had just won the Ivory Coast Rally, last round of the 1980 World Championship, the team had spent nearly all the year in a trough rather than on a wave, and there must have been grave misgivings in Stuttgart concerning the wisdom of continuing rallying a modified production car the repeated failures of which could well adversely affect the reputation of its showroom counterpart.

In the past two years Mercedes have largely used the 450SLC, then the 500SLC, and were well advanced in preparation to begin 1981 with the 500SL. Cars had been built, contracts signed with drivers and even reconnaissance started for the Monte-Carlo Rally, but in the midst of a celebration after the win in the Ivory Coast the boardroom suddenly pulled the rug from beneath the feet of the rally team.

Announcing the decision, Professor Werner Breitschwerdt, management board member responsible for research and development, said that although the cars rallied in 1980 had demonstrated their ability to withstand the arduous conditions of endurance rallies, there was really no model in the current Mercedes range which could be considered capable of winning a sprint-type European rally.

On the endurance side, they had won against little opposition in Argentina, won in the Ivory Coast, but had failed in the Safari when it seemed that success was within their grasp. In rallies such as the Acropolis, Portuguese and New Zealand’s Motogard, they had really been outclassed on twisty, hilly terrain.

Another underlying reason could well be the appearance in Germany of a new, left-wing Transport Minister who may have voiced strong criticism of the heavy spending by the Mercedes team — and it most certainly has been heavy compared with that of other teams. What is more, exhaust emission controls are about to be introduced in Germany, and engineers may have been switched from building rally cars to work on emission reducing equipment, much as they were diverted from racing to development back in 1955.

In May, after a disappointing Acropolis Rally result, a somewhat dejected Erich Waxenberger. development man in charge of rallying activities, returned to Stuttgart with the suggestion that competition activities be suspended until the new small car, as yet unannounced, becomes available for use by the team. He was overruled by the board and instructed to carry on with the programme.

Six months later the roles were reversed, and it was the board members who took the decision which Waxenberger had proposed earlier. But the suddenness of the announcement took everyone by surprise, for contracts with 1981 drivers had all been signed and those financial agreements had to be honoured.

The newest member of the Mercedes team is reigning World Champion Walter Rohrl who chose to leave Fiat at the end of 1980 to take up rather more than the role of contracted driver with Mercedes. In fact, he became a company employee on January 1st with terms of reference which included not only competing and test driving, but increased future involvement in commercial affairs.

Without any actual competing to do for Mercedes in 1981, Rohrl was expected to consider leaving Mercedes, but he has chosen to stay, perhaps with an eye to the security offered by lifelong employment rather than just a short-term contract.

However, the company realised that rally drivers can easily become rusty, so Rohrl has been given the freedom to drive for another team in the meantime, provided that he does not accept offers from BMW, Audi or any Japanese manufacturer. Approaches have already been made by Opel, and although Rohrl will carry on as a Mercedes employee he will drive occasionally this year for the Opel team.

There have been many who mocked at the silly organisational mistakes made by Mercedes in the early days of their return to rallying some two years ago, but more recently they showed that they learned quickly even though they did bring mighty forces to bear in no-cost-spared efforts to win. Colourful and controversial wherever they appeared, the team had its own peculiar stature even though mechanical failures caused them great concern.

The announcement made no mention of a future return to the sport, but there are hidden signs that they will be back when a more suitable car will be available. The sport needs characters, and even with all their stern endeavour, the Stuttgart people can certainly provide them.