No driver has truly conquered Formula One, sports cars and rallying, but one extraordinary manager made it look easy. John Davenport talks to Cesare Fiorio.
When a rally driver does well racing, like Walter Rohrl in the DTM, or a racing driver does well at rallying, like Jim Clark on the RAC Rally, it is a source of wonder to all. A much more rare thing is to find a team manager who is fully capable of understanding both disciplines. Such a man is Cesare Fiorio, who guided Lancia teams to a total of 18 World Championship titles in rallying and racing.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Fiorio quite literally hand-built Lancia’s phenomenal presence in motor sport and, in doing so, taught himself every aspect of it. He created teams and cars that were a by-word for modern technology and innovation. He understood the technical rules and what could be done with them probably better than anyone, and his relentless energy on events, whether at a service point or in a pit lane, showed his drivers the way to give one’s all in the effort to win. Nothing was overlooked on the road to victory. He was at the same time both a forward planner and a true hands-on operator; a Machiavelli and a Garibaldi rolled into one.
The first time I saw Cesare Florio was at Brands Hatch. Of course, I didn’t know it was him at the time. He was just a goodlooking Italian driving this enormous Lancia Flaminia which, with its 2.5 litre V6 and rear transaxle gearbox, was rather different from the Minis and Ford Anglias that I was used to seeing. The race was the Brands Hatch Six Hours and Fiorio was driving with Piero Frescobaldi.
The next time our paths crossed, it was on opposite sides of the Stewards table at the 1966 San Remo Rally. Vic Elford and I had just ‘won’ but at scrutineering it was discovered that there were problems with our works Lotus Cortina which did not match its official homologation form. This document possessed more errors than a sieve has holes. It stated each connecting rod should weigh a minimum of 960kg – a fraction under the total weight of the car. There was evidently a decimal point missing, but in the gearbox, the teeth numbers were mostly right but the ratios were wrong.
Leo Cella in a Lancia Fulvia was our nearest rival and it was Fiorio who was eloquently pressing for us to be excluded. He was successful and said some rude things about Italian justice before we all parted. Our next meeting was in a cafe in Munich six months later. I was competing on the Three Cities Rally – Munich, Vienna and Budapest – in a private Cortina GT driven by Denis Thorne. We’d just finished scrutineering and were slaking our thirst when Fiorio came to talk to me. At that time he was in charge of HF Squadra Corse. This was a racing and rally team based on the Lancia Owners Club. It was mainly successful private owners with just a little support from the factory, but gradually Cesare was turning this round so that it would be mainly successful drivers with a great deal of help from the factory.
As usual, Fiorio was well informed. My contract with Ford had ended and he wanted to know if I was free for the RAC Rally in six week’s time. Of course, I said “yes” and thus it was that, apart from a year’s recidivism with Ford in 1968, I spent the next five and a half years working with Cesare Florio.
In those early days, the Reparto Corse was in a very modest part of the factory and the whole business of going rallying was conducted on a pragmatic basis. The recce cars were old rally cars and behaved like them. The mechanics were just normal guys taken from the factory but, under the guidance of Florio and chief mechanics, Luigi Podda and Luigi Gotta, the rally cars got better and so did the results.
My impression was that Fiorio always knew what he wanted to do, having analysed the situation, and then he was prepared to fight and push to get it done. His efforts to create a full-blown works rally team out of a PR scheme for Lancia owners had to withstand all kinds of problems. Lancia was not financially healthy and by 1969 Fiat had taken it over. Though this meant an end to scraping for funds, it also brought a lot more politics into the situation. While the rally team prospered and wrung the most amazing results from the little Fulvia, Florio was appointed Marketing Manager for Lancia. Finally, he was given a chance to influence his rally team’s future by being involved in the selection and development of new models.
In January 1972, Sandro Munari pulled off what Lancia had been striving to do for years and won the Monte Carlo Rally with a Fulvia Coupe. Just months before at the Turin Show, Florio had provided the world with a look at the first Stratos with its Fulvia engine. But the Monte win gave him the opportunity he needed. Florio remembers that “I managed to convince Enzo Ferrari to give me his engine. It was the first big victory of my life. It was not at all easy to convince him to give an engine to anyone, let alone for a rally car.”
The engine was the V6 from the Dino 246GT, and with that firmly in his pocket, convincing Ing Gobbato that Lancia should build 400 Stratoses was, by comparison, quite easy. This was a defining moment of modem rallying. A watershed between low-technology production-based cars and high-technology cars built for the purpose. Cesare Fiorio was the ideal man at the right place and at the right time. His knowledge of the homologation process had been tried and tested many times since that afternoon in San Remo when he had dissected our Lotus Cortina’s form. Fiorio knew the ins-and-outs of the system and was determined to get his rally super car. The Lancia Stratos first appeared on a rally in March 1973 arnd won its first event as a prototype in April.
It is easy with the benefit of hindsight to say that, at this point, Florio got lucky. As so often happens in motor sport, you make your own luck. He had had the foresight to see that the Fulvia could pick up early season points for the team and he had plans in place to do that on events where conditions would give it a chance. He also saw that the 1974 championship had its events bunched towards the end. If he could get the Stratos homologated in time, he could still pull off the championship.
The luck came when the ‘petrol crisis’ caused four rallies to be cancelled while, finally, after five years of trying, a Fulvia came up with the goods on the Safari Rally with Munari taking third place and useful points. It turned out to be as Fiorio wanted. The Stratos won San Remo, the Press On Regardless and Corsica, picked up a third place on the RAC Rally and with some further points from the Beta-Coupe in Canada, Fiat were left behind some 25 points in Lancia’s wake.
It was a similar story in the two following years and, perhaps the finest accolade of all for the Stratos, Munari won a hat trick at Monte Carlo in 1975, 1976 and 1977. By now, Fiat management was beginning to wonder what kind of lame duck they had taken into their home. It had turned out to be something of a dragon consuming their riches and beating-up their rally team. Consequently, its Abarth division decided to do their own Group 4 car. This was the Abarth 131 that won the championship for Fiat in 1977 and 1978 and again in 1980.
Florio now began to concentrate on racing. He had tried several turbo versions of the Stratos in racing-type events but they were unreliable. In any case, Fiat was keen that any Lancia motor sport should be undertaken with a view to promoting actual production models. They told Fiorio that he needed to use a car from the Beta range. Most of us looking at the Monte Carlo might not instantly have seen a successful GT racer, but Florio had his senior engineer, Gianni Tonti, sit down with Gianpaolo Dallara and find out what could be done within the Group 5 rules.
It turned out to be quite a lot, and again Fiorio’s involvement in guiding the project and forcing the pace meant that by the end of 1978 a turbocharged 1.4-litre GT car that bore a passing resemblance to a Beta Monte Carlo was ready to race. In 1979 it was driven by Riccardo Patrese and Walter Rohrl with Markku Alen sharing the testing with Claudio Maglioli. The choice of drivers was typical of Florio – pragmatism allied to a canny foresight.
Rohrl and Alen were on the Fiat books for rallying but, as there was not too much of that in 1979, why not use them for the racing programme? In any case, he liked working with drivers that he respected and who thus gave their best for him. And perhaps there was even the intimation that this could be a future rally car and thus experience in driving it would be useful for his rally stars. The Beta won the 2-litre category of the World Sports Car Championship for Makes in 1979, 1980 and 1981. On the two latter occasions they tied for points with Porsche, collecting the overall championship in 1981 when the tiebreak went their way. As the representative of Fiat/Lancia, Fiorio sat beside the other competition directors in a wonderfully bizarre organisation known as BPICA (Bureau Permanent Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles) which had become the voice of the ordinary car manufacturers in FISA (which had become the successor to the CSI).
I know it was bizarre since I too sat with Florio and the other 26 good men and true. It is true to say that Florio was a major influence on the creation of Group B. He could see that, thanks to the introduction of turbos and 4WD to rallying by the Audi Quattro, the only way for more factories to compete would be if the minimum production run for homologation was small. The German factories wanted 2000 cars but finally the latins had their way and the required number was set at 200. In the meantime, still working with Tonti and Dallara, Fiorio had come up with a Group 6 sportscar version of the Beta Monte Carlo for 1982. This enabled the 1.4-litre engine to remain competitive against the Porsche 956 since the Group 6 weight minimum was 600kg, and the much more powerful but heavier Porsches had to conserve fuel. It was a typical Fiorio judgement and it very nearly came off.
The Drivers title was decided at the very last race at Brands Hatch where Patrese and Jacky Ickx slugged it out in a race of tactics. Eventually, the Porsche driver took the race and the title by just 1.7 seconds. In a way, despite losing, it was a triumph for Florio who had personally directed his cars to earlier wins at Silverstone, Mugello and the Nurburgring.
After so much racing, it was inevitable that his next project should be in rallying. Fiorio would have liked to come in with a 4WD car to go directly against the new champion, the Audi Quattro. Early in ’81, he had ordered work to start on the evaluation of a Lancia Delta chassis with 4WD and powered by an Abarth 131 engine. But it rapidly became clear there was insufficient time to develop such a new concept, as the car had to be in use by the 1983 season. The stop-gap solution was the Lancia Rally 037, a supercharged, mid-engined, two-wheel drive car based on the Beta Monte Carlo monocoque.
The philosophy was to have a simple reliable car even if it had only two-wheel drive. Audi had won the Championship the year before and everybody thought that they would dominate the season. But in fact Lancia won the Championship. However, the 037 only won one event Corsica the following year. The rallies were now being won by the new all-wheel drive cars with Audi taking the 1984 championship and Peugeot the title in 1985. The pressure was on Lancia. The 4WD technology became so extreme we had to move to that ourselves. The response was the fabulous S4 with its turbo and supercharged 1759cc engine and reputed 500bhp. This was the ultimate rally car. It won the last rally of 1985 and four events in 1986, but the year was marred with tragedy and eventually it was Peugeot who won the title.
Sadly, the 037 and the S4 had both suffered accidents in Corsica – in 1985 and 1986 respectively – that took the lives of drivers for whom Fiorio had great personal affection – Attilio Bettega and Henri Toivonen. But it was the loss of the latter which turned the rally world upside down. Within a month, Group B was in the condemned cell and the Lancia team was deprived of both its rally cars, the 037 and the S4.
Now came the most amazing recovery. Within six months, Florio had motivated his engineers to get stuck in and develop a Group A rally car from the old Delta 4WD prototype. There was no carry-over from the S4. At the same time, he had to oversee the continuing rally programme with the S4 and he had to persuade Fiat that there was a market for 5000 4WD cars. Today he recalls “This was the biggest battle., But in fact what happened was that, with the wins that car achieved, they were able to go on manufacturing the Delta for another five years beyond the date that it was meant to finish production!”
With Fiorio behind it, everything was ready for the first event of the 1987 season. The Delta HF promptly went out and won the Monte Carlo Rally. And it went on to win six straight Manufacturer’s titles and four Drivers’. The last was in 1992, by which time Fiorio was no longer with Lancia.
In March 1989, he had received a call to a higher place. “Mr Romiti called me. He asked where I was and I said in Povoa de Varzim. He asked me what I was doing there and I told him we were in the first three places of the World Championship Portuguese Rally. He then said that I must move to Ferrari. I told him that the rally did not finish until Saturday so he said OK, then I will see you in my office on Sunday.”
At Ferrari, Fiorio discovered that building and running the Lancia rally and race teams was good experience for being in charge of an F1 operation. The major difference was that everything was bathed in the spotlight of publicity. There were times when he almost felt that there were media people inhabiting his desk.
In the two and a half seasons of his management, Ferrari wildly improved their performance, winning nine Grand Prix and having 27 podiums. In fact, it was not until 1998 that Ferrari equalled their 1990 score of six GP wins. Eventually, a conflict with one particular member of senior management caused an irreparable breach and Florio left the company. With the Lancia competition department that he had laboured so hard to create closed at the end of 1992, he turned to off-shore power boats. These had been a hobby for much of the 1970s and ’80s, but now he was to be involved in something much bigger an attempt to win the Blue Riband for the fastest Trans-Atlantic crossing. Suffice it to say that he still holds the Riband, though the story of how he got it is worth a book in itself.
He was then offered the post of team manager at Ligier which Flavio Briatore had just bought “and didn’t know what to do with it so he called me”. He stayed when Prost bought the company and at the end of last year moved to Minardi ready for this season’s racing. In Formula One there is not perhaps the opportunity for a team manager to influence the outcome of events in the same way as in rallying or endurance racing, but I am sure that Minardi strategy will be worth watching in ’99. We could expect no less from the man who brought us tyre changes and pit signals in the middle of stages, professional ice-note crews, and much of the logistical support now taken for granted in motorsport.