Lancia: A sporting full circle?

The debut of Lancia’s Group 5 Beta Montecarlo at Silverstone for the qualifying six-hour round of the World Championship of Makes, marked an historic return for the Torinese concern and a change in emphasis within the Fiat-Lancia-Ferrari sporting group’s policy.

When what we shall call the World Sports Car Championship began in 1953. Lancia were not there for the first Sebring race, but they did appear for the second round. That was the Mille Miglia and Felice Bonetto took a factory 2.9-litre D23 coupe to third overall in a race that occupied over 10 1/2 hours, even for the winner.

Of course Lancia went on to field full-blooded 3.3-litre sports cars that won the 1953 Carters PanAmericana as well as the 1954 edition of the Mille Miglia, both then World Championship rounds. Fangio led the team to a 1-2-3 result in South America, but it was a victory soured by Bonetto’s death: Ascari was the Mille Miglia winner.

Lancia then went GP racing, having finished second in the 1954 Sports Car Championship to Ferrari, and sports car racing was largely forgotten. Endurance racing was not, for when the younger Florio became interested factory Lancias were seen in European Touring Car Championship events of the 1960s.

Rallying became the major pre-occupation both before and after the Fiat takeover, but Cesare Fiorio and others in Turin were behind the FM chopped-down Lancia HFs that appeared on events like the Targa Florio and Mugello, or even the Nurburgring 1,000 km. Franco Lini and the Lancia team at Silverstone felt that the last major outing for the FM was not sports car racing but the Tour de Corse 1971. For the record, Lancia won the Rally Manufacturers title four times (it was not an official World title the first time) with the FWD HF (1972) and three times with the Stratos 1974-76; the Stratos officially retired after last year’s RAC Rally so far as the factory was concerned.

The management of Fiat’s sporting group decided that it was time for a fresh image for Lancia. Fiat would stick to rallying with a reduced World Championship schedule for the Abarth version of the Mirafiori 131 saloon and Ferrari would continue in Formula One, the official Prancing Horse entries for a World Championship season of sports car racing missing since 1973, when Matra administered a thrashing to all comers.

At first Daniele Audetto and others were talking of the possibility of Lancia going for outright wins in Group 5 events. A probe into Group 5 with a Mike Parkes-managed Stratos-turbo had been disastrous, though the car was encouragingly swift in the few events it tackled in 1976.

The Beta Montecarlo was chosen as being a more recent design for Lancia’s return to racing and the racer was presented to the public on December 18th, 1978. the decision to go ahead with such a programme having been taken in September last year. It was and is somewhat unusual in that the Beta Montecarlo is not a current production vehicle, though Lancia sincerely hope it will be re-introduced after meeting a disappointing reception in America with an ernissions-strangled engine.

The special Montecarlo was testing in March of this year powered by a 2-litre version of the Fiat/Abarth/Lancia DOHC 16-valve engine. The KKK turbocharged version was testing by April and came to Silverstone on May 6th.

The 1.4-litre Montecarlo-turbo was driven by Riccardo Patrese and German rally star Walter Rohrl (who had experience of a similar capacity BMW turbo saloon in German Championship racing) and practised seventh fastest. The time of 1 min. 30.28 sec. was just over five seconds slower than the quickest Group 5 Porsche 935 which packs 3-litres and two turbos, though this is slightly irrelevant to Lancia, who have only to concentrate on the 2-litre class to rack up points.

In the race itself a water radiator cap came unscrewed and the Montecarlo crawled out of contention on the second lap. At Nurburgring’s 6 hours the Lancia had become black and red instead of black and white, and sported a small chain to retain the radiator cap. In both practice sessions it was slightly slower than Heyer’s 1.4 Zakspeed Capri-turbo, but it held the class lead during the race before expiring with low oil pressure some two hours from the finish. By that stage Patrese was too hot and tired to care!

Beneath the stripey bodywork at Silverstone the first car (it will be joined by another during the summer) followed straightforward Group 5 or early British special saloon car practice. Glassfibre bodywork front and rear – the lines for a “bonnet” are even moulded in – lifts off locating pins and Dzus fasteners to reveal tubular and sheet metal simple extensions holding the twin-filler front fuel tank and the transverse mid-engine and gearbox. The central cockpit in sheet steel is considerably lightened, but substantially the same. Total vehicle weight is down from the road car’s 1,040 kg. to the weight limit of 750 kg. according to Lancia.

Large Lockheed ventilated disc brakes have to be used sparingly according to the drivers. As soon as you decelerate with 1.4-litres it takes a very long time to catch up, turbo, or no turbo! The suspension depends still on long strut dampers with coil springs attaching onto a lower transverse arm and radius rod at the rear and a wide-based lower wishbone at the front. Naturally there is provision for anti-roll bars, with a particularly long linkage down to the lower suspension arm at the rear.

Instead of the long-stroke 2-litre engine there is the screaming 82 mm. by 67.5 mm. stroke layout for 1,425 c.c., the turbo addition taking this into the 2-litre class for international competition purposes. Boost from the aft-mounted turbo (surrounded by plenty of air after their fiery experiences with the Stratos!) is kept between 1.0 and 1.2 atmospheres. Unlike the Porsches the driver cannot adjust boost from the cockpit. The 16-valve Abarth-developed four-cylinder version of the Fiat twin cam is equipped with Bosch indirect fuel injection and dry sump lubrication. The little engine is credited with much the same output as found in racing BMW 1.4 turbo versions of production engines: 370 b.h.p. This is at the maximum of 8,800 r.p.m., Rohrl commenting that the effective power/r.p.m. range stretches over little more than 1,000 r.p.m., so the five Abarth gears and twin-plate Borg and Beck clutch work for a living.

An intercooler is fitted and feeds on cold air from the right-hand rear wheel intake (looking from the front) while the left-hand intake is supplying the side-mounted water and oil radiators.

The car looks very purposeful with its complement of aerodynamic aids, including “running boards”. The Lancia sits on 14 in. wide rear Pirellis and 10 in. wide fronts, both ends carrying Campagnolo wheels of 16 in. diameter, the tyres of incredibly low profile.

The whole project was under the engineering care of Gianni Tonti. who has been working on the competition development of Lancias since 1965 and was thus one of those most affected by Michael Parkes’ untimely death.— J.W.