Munich or bust

It was quick, powerful, reliable and adaptable. With more finance – and imagination – BMW's rally contender could have been a serious rival to Escort and Stratos, writes John Davenport

During the 1970s the Stratos was writing rally history. Following its first appearance in October 1974, it scored three straight world championship titles and won the inaugural FIA Cup for Drivers for Sandro Munari in 77. However, it achieved this by being enormously successful on events like Monte Carlo, San Remo and Corsica. Looking at the other eight WRC events one can conclude that, with luck and tactics on its side, the Ford Escort could have taken at least two of those titles. In fact, when Ford did eventually win the WRC in 79, the Stratos still won the Monte, San Remo and Corsica.

What the Escort initially lacked was Tarmac prowess. Had it possessed that there might not have been 037, S4 and a succession of Deltas and Integrales to succeed the Stratos. But there was one car that was good on Tarmac and gravel and, in 1974, was ready to take on both Lancia and Ford. Sadly, the BMW 2002Ti was never let off its leash.

When it arrived in 1968 it was an immediate star of racing and hill-climbing, and it wasn't long before it went rallying. Rob Slotemaker took a private car to fifth on the Tulip Rally, and thus encouraged, the factory arranged one-off drives for BMC refugees Timo Mäkinen and Rauno Aaltonen in the 1969 Monte Carlo and Corsica events. On the former, Timo and team-mate Ake Andersson set up their cars with too much rear bias and retired with cooked brakes; Slotemaker, though, finished seventh , a result Aaltonen repeated in Corsica.

Joachim Springer, BMW's motorsport director, was now joined by Helmut Bein, the German rally champion in 1969 and '70 with a 2002 Ti, who took over responsibility for rally matters.

The pace of the programme stepped up in 1971 with Tony Fall joining Aaltonen on various European events. Bein also loaned a car to Sobieslaw Zasada who, with his wife Ewa, won the Polish and European rally championships.

Achim Warmbold signed alongside Aaltonen and Fall for 1972 for a programme of events that included the Costa Brava, Acropolis, Austrian Alpine, Olympia and TAP rallies. The car was not particularly high-tech at this stage. It had an excellent 190bhp eight-valve engine driving through a Getrag 235 gearbox to a limited-slip ZF differential. This was pretty reliable but, as the team found out on the Acropolis, it was not a good idea to run on steel wheels. These had the advantage that small dents could be bashed out, but more than a couple of minutes running on a flat tyre had the effect of wrapping the inner rim around the disc, or drum, making it impossible to remove without an oxy-acetylene cutter. Suspension was a problem, too. The independent rear, with its two semi-trailing arms, gave the car excellent road-holding. But, as Aaltonen commented at the time, "If you raise the front to give good ground clearance on rough rallies, it is hard to get the rear to follow suit without having a lot of positive camber and destroying the handling."

It was clear that the 2002Ti needed more horsepower, more testing and more technology. During that 1972 season it frequently led but seldom won. Warmbold took third on the Acropolis, two places ahead of Fall, and he was leading the Olympia Rally until a head-gasket failed. But then things came right on the TAP Rally, Achim winning ahead of the works Fiats, Alpines, Citroëns, Datsuns and Opels. This was exactly the sort of rally, with its mix of Tarmac and gravel stages, that the Escort and Stratos later struggled to win.

Now things started to happen. Bob Lutz, sales director of BMW, decided to form an independent company, BMW Motorsport, to run its racing and rallying activities. They headhunted Jochen Neerpasch and Martin Braungart from Ford Cologne to be its managing and technical directors respectively. "Jochen asked me to go with him over to BMW," explains Braungart. "But at the same time the Ford guys asked me to be director in Cologne. But I am an engineer and I wanted to work on the technical side, so I went with him to Munich."

They instituted a programme to homologate performance parts for the 2002Ti. The main items on the list were a brace of 16-valve cylinder heads. One was developed by Josef Schnitzer, himself a German touring car champion at the wheel of a BMW 2000Ti in 1966; with his brother he ran a motorsport engineering firm close to the Austrian border. His was the head initially earmarked for rallying as it had the exhaust on the conventional – co-driver's – side of the car and thus did not require the manifold to miss the steering box. The other head was destined for Formula Two and was designed and developed in-house at BMW under the supervision of Paul Rosche.

So it was that Warmbold departed for the 1973 TAP Rally, now in March, to drive the first 230bhp 2002Ti rally car. It would have been too much to hope that Achim would repeat his win of '72. In fact, he ran in the middle of a pack of all-conquering Alpines and was lying second when the steering arm broke on the last night. But it was a very promising start, and all the new systems on the car had performed well.

The rest of that year the works team, now comprising just Warmbold/Jean Todt and Bjorn Waldegård and Hans Thorszelius, contested only four WRC events. They had a fraught debut on the Acropolis: Warmbold retired after an accident; Waldegård suffered a blown head-gasket But then, on the Austrian Alpine (if we forget the turmoil triggered by the Alpine team manager Jacques Cheinisse when he took it upon himself to block a short cut), both the BMWs performed faultlessly against strong opposition. Warmbold won – after a tribunal – with Waldegård fourth. This was a smooth gravel rally on which handling and power really counted. And the 2002Ti was quicker than both the Alpine A110 1800 and the Fiat 124 Abarth.

In San Remo it was the Acropolis story all over again, except that this time both retirements were attributable to the fact that the cars were still running steel road wheels: Waldegård had the differential fail when he attempted to drive out of a stage with a flat tyre; Warmbold had a sudden deflation and crashed as a result.

It was the RAC Rally that showed the true potential of the 2002Ti. For Warmbold, a pace-note driver if ever there was one, this blind rally was not his forté, but finishing 15th on his first visit to Britain was not too bad. But it was Waldegård, on his 10th attempt at the RAC, who was the revelation. Out in front was Mäkinen, confidently steering his works Escort to the second win of his eventual hat-trick. But behind him at halfway, after all the Welsh stages, was Waldegård. And behind him were Roger Clark, Simo Lampinen, Markku Alén, Per Eklund, Walter Röhrl, Jean-Pierre Nicolas, Ove Andersson et al.

It continued like this for most of the rally and the cars entered the Yorkshire stages with Mäkinen still leading Waldegård, Clark, Lampinen and Alén. On the penultimate stage in Pickering Forest, Lampinen's Saab engine seized but Alén was unaware of this and, trying hard, went off. As the spectators were lifting his car back on, he noticed that one of them was Waldegård. His BMW lay even further off the road; it needed the use of a chainsaw to release it from the trees. The time loss was enough to drop the BMW to seventh. If the 2002Ti could get that close in its first proper year of development, there was considerable hope for the future.

Within BMW Motorsport there had been some personnel changes; Bein had left to join Opel's burgeoning rally operation. He was replaced by a Dutchman, Anton Keizer, whose background was preparing racing cars for compatriot Toine Hezemans. One of his ideas was to save money by spinning off the rally department to a location in France – Strasbourg to be exact – where BMW France had identified a suitable workshop. But after only a couple of months Keizer departed, and with him went the idea of going to France. In his place came a young engineer called Rainer Bratenstein, who joined from Porsche and took over responsibility for the rally cars.

At the end of 1973 the fuel crisis arrived. Events were cancelled throughout Europe and rallying was hit hardest of all. With the situation uncertain BMW released Waldegård – who promptly got a job driving a Lancia Stratos – but retained Warmbold, despite him being wooed by Fiat.

BMWs biggest problem was money. To keep its Motorsport GmbH alive, it even used its small workforce to fit sports parts to private cars to generate income. With no major rallies being held, Bratenstein carried on developing the 2002 rally car in the background.

The first item on the agenda was to use Rosche's more powerful Formula Two engine. This unit had to be vertically mounted with the exhaust on the left-hand side and utilised Kugelfischer fuel injection (hence CTii). The car was fitted with rack-and-pinion steering to provide room for the exhaust and allow the engine to be mounted lower. Famous tuner Dr Schrick replaced the slide throttle with butterflies and came up with a camshaft design more attuned to rallying. The brake discs were increased in size, but fully floating calipers meant that either 13in or 15in alloy road wheels could be used.

Everything was done under the liberal Group 2 regulations to reduce weight. Bratenstein recalls that, "The heater was very heavy so I decided to fit one from a Mini Cooper. The BMC dealer in Munich was a bit surprised when someone from BMW wanted to buy Mini parts." The dashboard was made from fibreglass and the whole car got the attention to detail that is common practice today. As a result it weighed in at 1060kg and produced 263bhp at 7800 rpm.

Says Bratenstein: "That engine needed more development to improve driveability. And there was still much to do in matching it to the right gearbox and axle ratios."

With several of the early WRC events cancelled in 1974, the first opportunity came with the 1000 Lakes in August. Warmbold: "This was not the rally we should have gone to. Jean [Todt] and I had just a week to recce in a normal hire car. You need years to learn how to drive on those funny Finnish roads. The car was good, but we could never hope to show its potential there." And so it proved. The pair fought bravely and finished 13th. Had they gone to San Remo two months later, the BMW might just have spoiled Lancia's WRC debut with the Stratos.

The lack of money meant that this was the end of BMW's official rally programme. The 1974 car was sold to Brian Nelson in Ireland. Warmbold acquired his '73 RAC mount, which was fitted with a lot of new parts from the '74 car but retained the Schnitzer engine. He won the '75 Sachs Winter and Donegal rallies with it, but retired once more on the TAP Rally while holding third place.

Would the BMW 2002Tii have made the grade in the WRC?

Bratenstein: "I'm pretty sure it would. Already in 1974 we were near the performance level of the Escort RS in '79 – and at least as good as the Fiat 131 that came in '76."

Warmbold: "It would have won. It was a big, big mistake of BMW not to do that car."

Certainly, during the period 1975-77, before the Group 2 freedom to run 16-valve heads was curtailed, the BMW 2002Tii would have given its competitors a serious run for their money.