They say that the most ferocious animal in all Africa is neither cat nor ape but the friendly-looking little honey badger who will often take on enemies many times its strength and weight and usually come off best. Just as size has no bearing on fighting spirit in the animal world, so the same may be said of motor cars when pitted against each other in competition.
Large overall dimensions are more often disadvantageous than otherwise, and a half-ton car powered by 100 bhp as far more agile than a one-ton car with 200 bhp available even though the power/weight ratios are identical.
A company to make full use of this is Regie Renault, which has not really had a competitive rally car for some years. In the sixties it was really Svenska Renault which carried the flag when people like Damberg drove R8s, whilst much later one could not really call the R17 competitive even though it did win the USA's Press on Regardless Rally in the mid-seventies.
The great victories achieved by Automobiles Alpine with their plastic-bodied A110 seemed almost to embarrass Renault, and when that relatively small manufacturer in Dieppe was swallowed up by Renault little time was wasted before rallying with the A110 was stopped and the name Alpine gradually faded out in favour of Renault.
After the Renault 5 showed potential — taking second place in Monte-Carlo two years ago — they took what was the smallest car in their range, packed into it a powerful, turbocharged engine and redesigned the entire transmission layout by converting from front-engine/front-drive to mid-engine/rear-drive, producing a diminutive but potent rally winner in the Renault 5 Turbo.
The Renault 5 is a common enough sight in High Streets, whether French or otherwise, but the turbocharged version is by no means a vehicle for versatile, everyday transport. It is about as practical a road car as a farm tractor since it can carry two people and very little else. Indeed, its resemblance to the showroom counterparts which its exploits are expected to sell is far less than that of the most powerful works Escort to a modern Popular, for at least Ford kept their engines and driven wheels in their original places.
Whether we like the philosophy behind the marketing technique which sells X in the sarne wrapping as the much more successful Y is neither here nor there. Provided homologation requirements are satisfied, the rules allow it, and one cannot blame Renault one bit for making full use of this. Purpose-built competition winners are by no means new, but at least Renault used a mass-produced body as a base, unlike Lancia which won rally after rally with the Stratos, a car which was hardly seen on the road at all.
The initial outings of the R5 Turbo gave more than just hints that here was something with great potential, and even before January's Monte-Carlo Rally began few people would have laid bets against its chances of winning. Those bets would have been lost, for Jean Ragnotti and Jean-Marc Andrie were outright winners of the rally in one of two such cars entered by Renault Sport, nearly three minutes ahead of the factory Talbot Sunbeam Lotus of Guy Frequelin and Jean Todt.
But it was certainly no easy, straightforward win, for others had led earlier in the event, and it was by default that the Renault got in front. However, we would be the last to belittle Ragnotti's performance. He is a fine driver indeed, a film stunt driver by profession and a man of unquestionable tenacity and skill. And after all, to win you must stay on the road.
First leader of the rally was Hannu Mikkola, and he was in a car even younger than the R5 Turbo, the Audi Quattro.
Since it was unveiled to the public at Geneva last year everyone had been waiting for its first rally appearance. Four-wheel-drive had been tried before in competition but without success save for wins by homologated Jeep Wagoneers in the USA. This, however, with lockable differentials in the rear axle and between the axles, was supposed to be something quite different, particularly as it was a relatively small car with turbocharged, 2.14 litre, five-cylinder engine.
There had been many test sessions with the car, of course, and an occasional appearance such as that late last year when Mikkola drove one as a course car ahead of Portugal's Algarve Rally. What is more, Franz Wittman drove one in Austria's Janner Rally just before Monte-Carlo and won comfortably.
It should be explained that although the Quattro is not merely a variant of another model but a new car designed as a complete entity, it owes its origin to the German Army. Volkswagen was asked by the government to produce a four-wheel-drive military vehicle which was light, fast and could go anywhere, and since by that time — in the mid-seventies — Volkswagen had already joined in the big merger of 1969 which gave rise to Audi NSU Auto Union AG, the brief to design and build the vehicle was given to Audi at Ingolstadt.
What emerged was not only the Volkswagen Iltis, now in service with the German Army, but more important, the germ of an idea in the head of Walter Treser, a senior engineer on the project and now the company's competitions manager. He put the Iltis transmission into an Audi 80 and, without telling him what it was, inveigled the company chairman into driving up a wet, grassy slope. The chairman was so impressed that the go-ahead was given to build the car, although with the new body design of course.
Thus the Quattro was born, and when Mikkola built up a lead of nearly six minutes in as many special stages in the opening leg of the Monte-Carlo Rally, observers could talk of nothing else. The traction and stability of the Quattro, on snow, slush and ice were quite amazing, although people had doubts as to its performance on dry tarmac. Many of the stages on which Mikkola made best time had mixed surfaces, but one can't really tell whether the gain on the snow was enough to compensate for loss on tarmac, or whether there was gain on both surfaces.
Unfortunately, Mikkola hit a bridge parapet very early in the second leg of the rally and caused all manner of damage which took a long time to repair in short sessions as the car progressed through the event. Its times then were much greater of course, and comparisons were possible. In the final leg, complete brake failure caused another crash which this time put the car out altogether.
There had been a second Quattro in the rally, driven by French girl Michele Mouton, but very soon after the Paris start the engine succumbed to contaminated petrol and needed a tow to get it to a place where the fuel system could be flushed out. Much time was lost, but it was the tow which prevented it continuing. The car had been made fit again, but Audi's team manager felt rightly that it would be pointless going on only to be disqualified on arrival at Monaco.
When Mikkola dropped back, it was Jean-Luc Therier in a privately entered Porsche 911SC who went into the lead, and he kept this right through the main leg of the rally to start the final leg with a lead of more than three minutes over Ragnotti's Renault.
Alas, one of the unsporting failings of the Monte-Carlo-Rally, though by no means the fault of the organisers, caused him to spin into rocks and barriers, bouncing from one to the other on the descent of the Col du Turini. Spectators had shovelled snow on to the otherwise snow-free road, and spread it around all over the braking area between two corners. Having advance knowledge from "ice-note crews" running ahead of the rally — now a vital part of any team's operation — that the road was practically dry, Therier was not expecting the snow and when he hit it he slithered straight off into the rocks and narrowly missed going over a sheer drop into a river.
Although the summit of the Turini, and many other crowd-attracting spots are always well policed, the gendarmes can't be everywhere and it is a sad fact that stupidly dangerous acts like this frequently crop up to mar the event. Behind Ragnotti, Frequelin made a desperate effort to catch up but the advantage of the Renault over the Talbot was just too much and he had to be content with second place, ahead of the two very reliable Opel Ascona 400s driven by Jochi Kleint and Anders Kullang.
It's obviously much too early to consider positions in the World Championship, especially as Renault Sport has no intention to tackle the series as a whole. However, Talbot plans to enter cars in the European rounds of the series, whilst Opel intends going further afield, so perhaps these two makes, with Frequelin and Kleint, should be considered as having the greatest advantage. There is also Audi, of course, and the Quattro could well become the cat among the pigeons. — G.P.