Malcolm Wilson took MRG as co-driver on the RAC Rally...
There is little doubt that no other current rally car creates as much interest, or in some areas controversy, as the Audi Quattro. The most technically advanced car to grace the World Championship arena until the arrival of the GpB Lancia Rally, the Gp4 Quattro is the car on which the majority of (rich!) aspiring drivers would like to get their hands — at least once! Certainly the impression is that the Quattro with its four-wheel drive and turbocharged engine is a relatively easy machine to drive, or if not exactly that, it is seen by some as a short-cut to success.
A large number of myths have grown up around the Quattro in the two years it has been involved in World class rallying — it made its competition debut in the WRC on the 1981 Swedish Rally — and the opportunities to prove or lay to rest at first hand some of the stories which surround the Ingolstadt machine are rare indeed. Like the original "supercar" — the Lancia Stratos — the rallying Audi Quattros in private hands are few and far between. There is a good reason for this. The Quattro is not an easy car to maintain and thus demands very specialised skills. In modern parlance it is referred to as "labour intensive" which translates into the fact that on rallies it is a car which requires regular attention in particular areas, notably the fuel injection system, turbocharger and suspension, wheel alignment being vitally important if one is to avoid driveshaft failures. Thus the Ingolstadt based Audi Sport team is very careful as to whom it grants the "concession" to run rally cars on its behalf.
From the outset the factory expressed the desire to set-up national teams in various important markets, and largely this aim has been achieved with Quattros run semi-independently in countries such as Sweden, Austria, Germany, Italy and the UK. The Audi Sport UK team is maintained by David Sutton, the West London based preparation expert who built up a reputation with the Ford Escort RS1800 (in 1981 he prepared the cars which gave Ari Vatanen the World Drivers' title) before becoming involved with Audi. Sutton this year prepared a Quattro for regular factory driver Hannu Mikkola to contest the British Open Championship, and on two occasions (Brazil and New Zealand) was made responsible for organising the official factory entries for Michele Mouton and Mikkola. He also took on the running of a Quattro in the Italian National Championship for Michele Cinotto. Ana result of his close links with the factory team, Sutton was given the responsibility of managing what was in effect a "B" team of Quattros for November's Lombard RAC Rally. Crucial to Audi's hopes of clinching the Manufacturers' title, the factory itself entered regulars Mouton and Mikkola whilst Sutton had his own UK car plus that of German Harald Demuth. Also brought in were privateers Lasso Lampi from Finland and American champion John Buffum. With Mikkola in a factory car the "empty" seat in the Finn's regular UK Championship Audi was eventually given to young British driver Malcolm Wilson, the 26-year-old from Cumbria having had an exploratory outing in the car on a national championship rally in October. Then he'd been leading comfortably until literally the last corner of the last stage when he embarrassingly slid off the road. He had nevertheless impressed Sutton — Wilson had driven for Sutton and Rothmans on the odd occasion in 1981 but without much success — and was eventually offered the RAC drive. It was in Wilson's own words a "chance of a lifetime", and after gaining approval from Ford with whom he has a contract to test the so far un-rallied GpB 1700T Escort, he offered the chance of co-driving him to your correspondent. It was an ideal opportunity to see first hand our how difficult (or easy!) the Quattro is to handle.
It is now a matter of history that Wilson eventually finished tenth after being delayed on three Welsh stages when the gearbox jammed in third. Otherwise the Pirelli supported Quattro ran without problems, and Wilson learnt that the Audi is not as easy to drive fast as some would have had him believe. The main problem surrounded the adoption of left-foot braking, a technique pioneered by the Scandinavians and initially used to overcome the inherent understeer of front-wheel drive, although more recently the more ambitious Nordic drivers have used it on rear-wheel drive cars so as to unsettle the vehicle and provoke oversteer whilst keeping the engine "on the cam".
Despite, or indeed because of, four-wheel drive the Quattro tends towards understeer, particularly over loose stages, and those drivers with experience of the car tend to left-foot brake most of the time. Counteracting understeer however is not the prime reason. With a power band which starts at around 4,000 r.p.m. it is imperative to keep up turbo boost pressure. Although the Quattro has an undisputed traction advantage due to its four-wheel drive system, this can be cancelled out on tight corners when boost pressure falls off, a further complication being the futility of using the handbrake on a car which has all its wheels driven!
Wilson discovered these facts early in the event, and although quite happy in himself that he had mastered the principles of left-foot braking, lack of experience meant he did not have the confidence to carry it to the limit. As a result times during the first two days of the rally were acceptable but not startling. Therefore for the remainder of the RAC he decided to drive the car conventionally, only using left-foot braking on hairpins. This brought about an immediate improvement, and he was able to move up the placings on merit rather than due to retirements. However, Malcolm would be the first to admit that in order to wring the last ounce of performance out of a Quattro it is imperative totally to master left-foot braking.
From a co-driver's point of view the Quattro is a delight. The last time I sat in a competitive rally car was in 1976 with Pentti Airikkala in an Escort. Therefore due to the time span any differences tend to be more marked. The acceleration and grip out of bends are obviously far more impressive, a fact not entirely unexpected, and between about 5,000 and the maximum 7,500 r.p.m. one literally feels as if you were being shot out of a cannon. One soon however comes to accept this stunning traction and acceleration, a more lasting impression being made by the rally car's almost standard saloon car ride. The Escort. as I recall, used to pummel one into submission with a continual battering from the suspension, one also being acutely aware of lateral movement from the live rear axle. The all-independent suspension Quattro suffers none of these problems, seemingly floating over the bumps and undulations of a forest track at speeds regularly in excess of 100 m.p.h.
On the deficit side the Quattro is incredibly noisy inside, even more so than a Mini Cooper S with straight-cut gearbox and rally exhaust system. The din is so bad that on road sections one has to resort to using a headset and intercom in order to make commurdcation possible. Finally, there is an impression of inherent strength. One simply feels safe, and despite the efforts of the Audi Sport team to reduce the weight of the car by the use of Kevlar, one is left with the feeling that there is still more than enough steel left to protect body and soul from the impact of most trees. However, this is not the sort of comment one would wish to make to a driver as it can inspire over-confidence!
In all aspects the Audi Quattro is an impressive rally car, but one must not lose sight of the fact that during the World Championship season it has been matched and beaten by the conventional, but reliable Opel Ascona 400; a car which is much more forgiving to drive than its German counterpart. Technically the Quattro should have dominated the World Championship, but the fact that it didn't hasn't dissuaded other rally orientated manufacturers from pursuing a line of four-wheel drive development for the future, but as Lancia proved on the RAC there are other avenues to explore in the quest to match the ubiquitous Quattro. — M.R.G.