Years of the Dragon

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A strange brew of fiery Latin passion and Brit cool made Sandro Munari, iI Drago, a potent force in 1970s rallying, writes John Davenport.

Curious thing, the trick question. Name a rally which has been a part of the world championship for 30 years but which eight of our 16 world champions have never won. Give up? Well, the answer is Monte Carlo. It’s an event that bestows its favours generously on some drivers, and on others not at all.

One on whom it did smile was Sandro Munari. A bit too early in the game to play for world champion, he did win the FIA World Rally Drivers’ Cup in 1977, and as part of that achievement notched up his fourth Monte Carlo win; his third in a row. His story is incredible: he never intended to drive rallies, and if you were to ask which was his first rally as a driver, we would be back to trick questions again as the answer is astonishing…

Munari was born just after the start of WWII in the River Po delta region of Italy. In the late 1950s the young Sandro saw an article in a magazine about a new craze: go-kart racing. He visited the local scrapheap and was soon the owner of an engine and running gear from a Vespa scooter. With a home-made steel-tube chassis, he went racing. At one meeting he met Arnaldo Cavallari, who was already rallying an Alfa Romeo Giulia for the Jolly Club, and they became firm friends.

“At that time I had no knowledge, zero interest in rallies,” says Munari. “But one day Arnaldo rang me to say that his co-driver was sick, could I come and write pace notes for him on a rally route near Ferrara?

“I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do, but he said, ‘Come anyway’.” It worked out well, and Cavallari even let Munari drive his rally car on the way back from their recce.

Time passed as Munari improved his experience with karts. Then in 1964 Cavallari asked him to step in to co-drive on some Italian championship rallies. They won several of them and Cavallari secured the Italian championship that year. In October they were offered a works Alfa for the Jolly Hotels Rally, the precursor to the Giro d’Italia. Confusingly, the car was to be run by the Jolly Club (no connection) and when its boss Mario Angiolini submitted his list to Alfa’s Reparto Corse for five crews, a trial was suggested at its Balocco test track.

Munari recalls that conditions were not the best: “The track was very wet and they had Alfa racer (Teodoro Zeccoli) there to show us the car and the lines. He set a time, then they sent out Arnaldo. He did 10 laps and got within 5sec of the time. Then it was my turn. I just had my karting helmet, which looked a bit funny, but I thought, ‘What the hell!’ I did my best, but after just five laps they signalled me to come in. I was very disappointed. Was I that bad? But then Mario told me I had been just one second slower than Zeccoli and that they were scared I would go faster. We got the drive.”

The rally did not go particularly well. The first test at Enna-Pergusa saw Cavallari put the car in a lake, and then it broke its suspension on one of the hillclimbs. And before the event Munari had confessed to Cavallari that he would prefer not to drive any of the tests: his talent was as yet unconfirmed, his confidence seemingly low. But Angiolini was determined to get him a drive. The following summer he called Sandro and, for the first time, Lancia entered Munari’s life. At that time the low-key Lancia effort was run out of the factory but controlled by a ‘consultant’, Cesare Fiorio, son of the Lancia marketing director.

Munari: “Cesare was trying to win the European Cup for Manufacturers and he wanted cars in all kinds of European rallies. He was taking René Trautmann to Finland and wanted Mario to run two more cars as back-up. So I found myself agreeing to do the 1000 Lakes. I was in a Flavia co-driven by Antonio Ghini (for many years subsequently Ferrari’s PR man) and after we had been round the route once in a big American car, he decided I should do all the driving.”

It was some debut. Trautmann left the road, Giorgio Pianta took a Flavia Zagato to 36th and Munari, in his first proper rally as a driver, was 43rd, five places ahead of a chap called Blomqvist in a Saab! Anyway, Fiorio’s mission was accomplished and now he’d had a chance to meet and assess Munari.

“It was almost wintertime when Cesare rang and asked if I would be free to do Monte Carlo,” continues Munari. “Of course I said yes, but again I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I had no real experience on ice and snow. But they did arrange for me to go with an experienced guy, Georges Harris, who insisted on doing pace notes on all the road sections — he had been on the 1965 Monte in all the snow when everyone was late — but this meant that I didn’t get much idea of the stages or how to drive. I had this idea about braking and accelerating at the same time with the right foot, but it was not until later that I found out about left-foot braking.”

All things considered, they did well to finish. It was the year of the headlamp scandal, and so just about everything else got overlooked. But Fiorio offered Munari further rallies in the new Fulvia coupe. In San Remo, on the Coupe des Alpes and Tour of Corsica, he failed to finish, his most bizarre retirement coming on the Alpes where he was struck by a Citroën 2CV while waiting to turn left at a traffic light in Grenoble.

He fared better in 1967, starting with fifth place on the Monte and a second on the Geneva Rally. But as his ability progressed it soon became clear he needed a better co-driver: he secured the services of Luciano Lombardini, previously with Leo Cella. They won several Italian rallies before finishing second in Spain and then, gloriously, winning outright on Corsica.

This victory was an outstanding achievement in a 1440cc car. No one had ever finished this non-stop, 24-hour rally without some road penalty. Indeed, Shell had put up a prize fund for a clean sheet that accumulated with each year that passed. Munari and Lombardini missed collecting big time by just 8sec on Cozzano-to-Riventosa: “It was a long section, perhaps 84km, in the night. It was raining and just 4km before the end I spun. The road was so narrow that I had to drive back to find a turning place.

Without that we should have been in time and not penalised a whole minute. On the recce, we met the Alpine drivers and they were sure this section was not on, dry or wet. They just laughed when I said I was sure it could be done. We overtook 15 cars on that section, including two Alpines!” Of the four special stages incorporated into the rally, Munari was fastest on three, despite the presence of Vic Elford’s factory Porsche 911R. It was a stunning performance from a driver who had been rallying scarcely two years.

This was a key victory for both Lancia and Munari: it saw Fiorio move into the position he was to hold for more than 20 years, boss of Lancia’s motorsport activities; for Munari, it implied more rallying, and for 1968 that meant starting off with Monte Carlo. Lombardini had been on the point of retirement, keen to spend more time running the family cheese and wine business near Bologna, but he was persuaded to stay on and keep the winning combo together. He had made one noble gesture already.

Munari: “In the Italian championship, both crew score equal points, and on Monte, when he was still with Cella, they were fourth and I was fifth, so he had one point more than me. But he wrote to the governing body to tell them that he was withdrawing so I could be the champion instead.” It was a gesture typical of Luciano and thus made what happened on the Monte Carlo even more poignant. On a snowy road section in Yugoslavia a Mercedes coming the other way went out of control and Lombardini was killed. Munari was badly injured and had to be flown to Italy, where he had an operation to remove his spleen. The recovery, both physical and mental, was not immediate: “It took a long time. This was the worst thing in my life. I had done six rallies with Luciano and won all six. And it was I who had pressed him to continue. Even now it bothers me.”

Munari’s first time back behind the wheel of a rally car was in April when the dealer in Beirut invited him to the Lebanon Rally: “It was not a big deal, and when we got there I found out that it was not a proper rally, it was a regularity rally; but I was driving again.” Fiorio let him find his feet by doing races like the Targa Florio, where he was ninth with Raffäele Pinto, and the 84 Hours of the Nürburgring, which he won with Pinto. He also won a couple of Italian rallies and contested Corsica and the RAC at the end of the year, but he was not yet back on top form. He was Italian champ in ’69 (with the author alongside him), and for ’70 he linked up with Mario Mannucci. At last Il Drago was back in business.

He did his first Safari in 1970, teaming up with local expert Lofty Drews. This was a special relationship that fired an enthusiasm in Munari for the event which never died; he tried for 10 years to nail that particular win, finishing third twice (in Fulvia and Stratos) and second once (Stratos). But it was back in Europe that his career was about to really take off.

Lancia had attempted to win the Monte for nine years and failed. In 1972 the Fulvia HF was past its best. The most one could say was that it was very reliable and well-proven; the all-conquering Alpine A110’s of the previous year had upgraded engines but not gearboxes… When all the powder snow had settled, Munari had taken the win and both he and Lancia had taken another leap towards glory.

Waiting in the wings to replace the ageing Fulvia was the radical Stratos. But Fiorio was still haggling with Ferrari about a supply of engines; Munari’s Monte win was the spur needed to conclude the business. As a result he found that his annual trip to the Targa Florio was not in a Fulvia but in a full-shot Ferrari 312PB Prototype. He shared it with Arturo Merzario. And won.

Munari did not have long to wait for the debut of the Stratos: Corsica in November. Early weaknesses with the rear suspension saw it retire, but by the spring of 1973 it took Munari to victory on the Firestone Rally in Spain, second on the Targa Florio and victory on the Tour de France. Together with good results in a Fulvia, this was enough to make him European champion.

In all these events the Stratos was entered as a Prototype; until its homologation went through late in 1974, it was not eligible for WRC events. The day after that occurred, Munari started the San Remo Rally — and won. He also won the Rideau Lakes in Canada and was third on the RAC which, in a season shortened by the fuel crisis, was sufficient to give Lancia its first WRC manufacturer’s title. In the next few years Munari and the Stratos rewrote the record books, including a hat-trick on the Monte and winning the first FIA Cup for rally drivers in ’77.

Munari had shown his speed and versatility, winning the Total Rally in South Africa in 1977. He was as convincing as he had been on ice, snow, tarmac and gravel in Europe. But for 1978 there was a change to the hitherto stable environment of Lancia in which he had flourished. Fiat, long-time sporting rival of its neighbour in Turin, had ‘liked the company so much it had bought it’.

The Stratos would now have to take a back seat to the 131 Abarth and Munari would join a unified squad of Walter Röhrl, Markku Alén, Maurizio Verini and Jean-Claude Andruet. The problem was that the unification was far from perfect.

“I was happy to drive the 131; it was a good car. But I was unhappy about the team,” reveals Munari. “They did a lot of things to make life difficult for me; it was the Fiat guys who had been racing against me for years. Of course I was a little slow on the first rally, in Portugal, where we were still using Stratos notes. These were all wrong for that car — you had to be much faster into the corners with a 131. But I was leading my second rally in the car, the Acropolis, when the rear suspension broke — and they would not repair it! In San Remo I led until, like Walter, I had brake problems; we both went off. And in Corsica I was leading when I had a puncture. I knew that the alignment was out, but they wouldn’t adjust it. I did a 100km stage like that, had another puncture and no tyres left.”

Munari had considered giving up at the end of the previous season. Now he was sure. He did one more RAC, as team-mate to Alén, then confined himself to trying to win the Safari. He tried five times.

He now runs a driving school supported by Mercedes-Benz at the Adria International Raceway in his beloved Po Valley. II Drago may find himself clothed in silver these days, but it was in the green, red and white Alitalia Stratos that he set the world’s special stages alight. — JD

***

Fact File — Munari’s major victories

1967: Tour of Corsica — Fulvia

1969: Sestrière Rally — Fulvia

1972: Monte Carlo Rally — Fulvia; Targo Florio — Ferrari 312PB

1973: Costa Brava Rally — Fulvia; Firestone Rally — Stratos; Tour of France — Stratos

1974: San Remo Rally — Stratos; Rideau Lakes Rally — Stratos

1975: Monte Carlo Rally — Stratos

1976: Monte Carlo Rally — Stratos; Rally of Portugal — Stratos; Tour of Corsica — Stratos

1977: Monte Carlo Rally — Stratos