Sweden’s rally folk-hero
When Saab quit rallying at the end of 1980 it seemed as if Stig Blomqvist’s rallying career was about to hit a lean patch. Having rallied Saabs for 16 years — ten of which were in the factory team — Blomqvist was dismissed by many team managers as nothing more than a front-wheel drive exponent. He would be totally out of his depth in anything else but a Saab, it was said. However, there was one man at least who didn’t ascribe to this theory — Talbot’s Des O’Dell.
Never a person to swim with the tide, O’Dell decided to loan Stig a Talbot for the Swedish Championship and included him in the factory team on other selected World Championship qualifiers. Unfortunately, Blomqvist’s Talbot debut brought retirement on the very first stage when the oil pump failed. From then on fortunes got better. On the 1000 Lakes he was eighth in a Group 2 Sunbeam Lotus, then a storming drive on the 1981 RAC saw him finish third. It was that performance which made people sit up and take notice, particularly Audi who immediately approached the quiet man from Orebro with an offer to drive a Quattro on selected European rounds of the World Championship.
It was that approach which brought Blomqvist his best season since 1971. That year he had won the 1000 Lakes, Swedish and RAC rallies for the first time. Last year he won the Swedish for the sixth time and came first on the Sanremo rally at his very first attempt. Blomqvist would also have undoubtedly won the 1000 Lakes if he hadn’t been told to finish behind Audi team-mate Hannu Mikkola.
Blomqvist’s career had taken off again. Now he is fully involved with Audi, and although not included in the team outside Europe, Blomqvist has carved himself a firm niche within the Ingolstadt organisation. He proved last year that he has complete mastery of four-wheel drive rallying, and there are few who would dispute that he is the fastest Quattro driver.
There can be little doubt that Audi Sport has big plans for this 37-year-old, but suddenly Blomqvist has become a very desirable commodity — particularly when you are trying to develop a new 4WD rally car, as O’Dell is doing for PSA.
One thing is for certain though, Blomqvist will not be doing the rounds of team managers towards the latter part of the season. It’s not his style. Although his years with Saab have shielded him from such annual negotiations, Blomqvist is naturally reticent. He prefers to let his results speak on his behalf. “It’s not my personality,” he says. “Maybe it’s wrong, but for me it’s difficult to do.”
With some justification, Blomqvist has a reputation for being a man of few words. It’s difficult to break down the barriers, but once he feels he can trust you it’s almost impossible to stop him talking in that curious sing-song accent which raises itself to a soprano pitch when he is enthusing about a subject close to his heart — NASCAR racing, driving standard saloons in celebrity races, speedway or just rallying. Never offhand, but apparently occasionally only able to simply utter “Yes” or “No” to interrogators, Blomqvist feels many times it is better to say nothing. “If you say too much you always get many more problems. His co-driver and friend Bjorn Cederberg describes it as “Swedish mentality”.
Despite all these years of almost constant rallying — he’s also tried his hand at Formula 3 racing, and it’s not unknown for him to fly straight from the finish of a rally to take part in an obscure hillclimb or rallycross — Blomqvist is as enthusiastic today about his chosen profession as he was in 1964.
“Yes, I still enjoy it. That I think you must do because when it is like work it is not fun,” he says. It’s a philosophy which he pursues with an at times seemingly insatiable appetite. Mr. Blomqvist knows how to enjoy himself, and once a rally is over abstinence in a couple of key areas does not feature highly in his list of priorities. In this respect Blomqvist still belongs to the old “devil may care” school, a dying breed in rallying, and it comes as no surprise to learn that one of his heroes is Harry Kallstrom. The former Mini and Lancia driver was, in Stig’s opinion, the greatest natural talent ever to take the wheel of a rally car. He was also a noted hell-raiser, a fact which finally attributed to him never ultimately fulfilling all his promise. Blomqvist is well aware of this, knowing when to let his hair down and when to get down to the business in hand— testing and driving rally cars.
Those team managers who have used Blomqvist confirm that he is superb as a test driver and technician. Despite the image of being unable to communicate, once behind the wheel he is able to get over very quickly exactly what the problem is, and how it can be best solved. However, there are those who have learnt to their cost if Blomqvist don’t think he is being taken seriously then information is very difficult to extract.
He is fascinating when on the subject of the Quattro, the car which he has taken to like a duck to water, and a vehicle which he admits has “started off my career again”.
Discussing the problems of driving the Audi on asphalt, he has this to say: “The weight of the car has been the problem. Now it’s getting better and better. The turbo is a little bit difficult. On gravel you can have a little wheelspin and play with it. But on tarmac you lift off and on again you have no wheelspin. You have to wait for the power from the turbocharger. It’s not a handling problem, it’s a engine heating problem.”
Reading between the lines he doesn’t feel that the quest for more power with the latest evolution Quattro engine is ultimately the answer to staving off the increasing threat in the World Championship from Lancia. On the final night of the Acropolis Rally he had around 420 b.h.p. available from the 2-litre unit! To make his point he remembers the Saab days when they started to develop the 99 Turbo. In the early stages, a development Turbo, a slightly modified standard car, was quicker than a 16-valve normally aspirated EMS. Then the team changed inlet and exhaust manifolds, included inter-coolers and enlarged the turbocharger unit. “Much more difficult to drive,” he recalls. “Getting worse and worse. I don’t think it was much faster . . . then you start going round in circles.”
Blomqvist admits he likes a car which is easy to drive — “you can play with it, do anything you like on gravel” — but it is doubtful if either a Saab or Quattro would be considered as such by many other drivers. The transition from front to four-wheel drive presented him with no problems. In fact he drives the Audi like a Saab: “I drive it exactly the same way. When you have that traction in that car it is so nice. I like the feeling when I get into the Quattro You feel everything is so easy.”
But why does he sit so low down? “Mmm .. . . Yes . . . I think about the roof because in the Saab I roll over so often I want to get away from it!”
Obviously he enjoys the challenge of driving the Quattro, but his early associations with Audi became somewhat strained. It happpened on the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland. Blomqvist was ordered by the team management to keep station behind Hannu Mikkola. There was little doubt that the Swede would have overtaken the Finn, but as the “new boy” and not a fully fledged member of the Audi Sport effort, the situation was perhaps understandable. However, a lot was made out of the situation, particularly in the partisan Swedish press.
Almost a year later he is philosophical about a decision which robbed him of the rare chance of becoming for the second time a Swede who has won Finland’s premier event. At the time he was obviously upset, perhaps embarrassed. It still hurts a little, he says, adding that the situation didn’t affect his relationship with Mikkola. They respect each other’s talents, but once or twice there have been instances where they haven’t necessarily seen eye to eye.
Perhaps surprisingly for someone who has a reputation for keeping the Press at arm’s length, Blomqvist’s main concern over the Audi decision was that the team didn’t tell the Press what was going on. Then there wouldn’t have been unnecessary bad feeling, he says.
Stig Blomqvist is a very complex character; not easily understood by even his own countrymen, although at the beginning of May he did receive the ultimate accolade — the Motorprinsens Medal — from Prince Bertil of Sweden, an honour only previously awarded to his old friend Ronnie Peterson and Bjorn Waldegard for their motoring achievements. Many people have made the mistake of assuming that Blomqvist’s introspection indicates a lack of intelligence. They’ve only made that mistake once. MRG.
Swedish Rally Champion: 1971, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1982.
1971: 1st Swedish, 1st RAC, 1st 1000 Lakes (Saab 96 V4).
1972: 1st Swedish (Saab 96 V4).
1973: 1st Swedish, 1stt Cyprus (Saab 96 V4).
1977: 1st Swedish (Saab 99EMS)
1979: 1st Swedish (Saab 99 Turbo)
1982: 1st Swedish, 1st Sanremo (Audi Quattro)
1983: 1st Mintex, 1st Welsh (Audi Quattro).