The Lancia Stratos brought rallying out of the Dark Ages. John Davenport talks to those who helped make the legend.
What is the sound sweetest to your ears? The call of the first cuckoo, real ale being pumped into a glass, the thud of leather on willow? Well, to rally fans over 30, the aural onslaught of a Lancia Stratos at full chat along a special stage, its Ferrari-based V6 playing a barely silenced symphony equal to anything by Vivaldi, is as good as it gets.
The Stratos was new, it was supersonic, it was downright sexy. Driven by superstars such as Sandro Munari, Jean-Claude Andruet, Björn Waldegård, Walter Röhrl and Bernard Damiche, it transformed the sport. During the 1960s, rallying was enjoyed by few and watched by less. If you saw a rally, it was probably by accident. This began to change as the sport moved into the ’70s, nowhere more so than in Italy. Lancia successes and a phalanx of local drivers — Munari, Raffaele Pinto and Amilcare Ballestieri — meant that Italian rallying had overtaken its European rivals by the middle of the decade.
But what really lured the thousands upon thousands of spectators into the mountains, caused them to sleep in their cars to be assured of the best vantage sport, was the sight — and sound — of the Stratos. It was the kind of car that created fanatics.
But what about the heroes in its cockpit — what did they think? What was it like to be shoehorned into the most macho seat in the world? The car’s history is well known: concept car on a reversed Fulvia chassis at the 1970 Turin Motor Show; first appearance in Corsica three years later; homologated in 1974, the same year as it won the San Remo. But that’s just the bare bones. We need flesh. After all, the switch from three-box saloon to mid-engined supercar was a huge step. Were new techniques required? What was it like approaching a yump when you were so close to the ground? And, come to that, how did it fly? And what was it like to live with? ‘Live’ because the Stratos was strutting its stuff at a time when rally drivers ploughed on through the night rather than snuggling down in a swanky hotel suite.
The man who knows the car best is Munari. He was involved in the project right from the day Lancia’s Reparto Corse borrowed two Ferrari Dinos powered by the same engine that would propel the Stratos to three world titles. It took the two cars to the Col de Turini straight after the 1971 Monte Carlo Rally and Munari tried them against the clock. Once Lancia saw that the times were comparable with those from the event, it knew it was on the right track.
“The first rallies that I did with the Stratos were on Tarmac,” Munari recalls. “We did the Tour of Corsica in 1972. The Stratos was not yet homologated, but that rally allowed prototypes to enter. It was very quick and fantastic on those roads, but we had a problem that we could not understand: there was something wrong with the rear suspension that made it difficult to drive. It took a long time working with Gianpiero Dallara, our engineer at the time, to find the problem. The trouble was that the rear upright was flexing when the suspension was put under load on racing tyres. You didn’t notice it so much on gravel, but it made those early cars a bit of a handfuL Our first win was the Firestone Rally [in Spain] at the beginning of 1973, but that took place partly on gravel.
“I knew we had the car fixed when we won the Tour de France in September. Because the Stratos was quite light at the front it was more nervous on very fast roads, so we fitted a front spoiler and a little wing at the rear to help us at the racetracks. I remember the race at Montjuich in Barcelona, a circuit I had never seen before. The car was good on that tight track and we were second instead of being behind all the proper racing cars. The Tour was a long event, which took place on small roads and went through the night every other day. The Stratos was not built for comfort or relaxation, yet it was really good on rallies like Monte Carlo and Corsica. If you took a modem rally car and tried to do the old Corsica rally -750 miles in 24 hours, almost non-stop – you would be finished. Not with a Stratos – it was a joy to drive. Once we had sorted the rear suspension, you could set it up to handle just the way you wanted. By the time it had the 24-valve engine, it was brilliant. We went from maybe 260-270bhp to 330, with much better torque and much improved response. It was good before, but now it was perfect.”
Munari did 36 international rallies in the Stratos and won 14 of them, including three Monte Carlos. But there are some regrets: the Safari and RAC Rally.
“On the RAC in 1974,I had just come from two unpractised gravel rallies in North America instead of, as normal, from Corsica. I was driving the best l ever did on the RAC, but from the middle of the rally Cesare Fiorio [his team boss] was telling me to be careful because we needed points. Of course, he was right – my engine failed in Corsica 10 days later. We finished third on the RAC, but I would have liked the chance to really go for the win.
“I was the one who pushed so hard for us to go to the Safari in 1975.I knew the car was very strong, and so fast that you could go afford to slowly where necessary. Our problem was with tyres. They would overheat because of the speeds we were doing and, even without touching anything, a sidewall would fail. We had maybe 15 tyres blow on that rally.
“We could still have won, but I had three punctures right near the end. The Lancia plane was on the ground, so there was no chance to fix it. I drove 30km on the rim and then Lofty [Drews, his codriver] had to go in a taxi to get a spare. We were still second at the finish and that result put Lancia into the lead of the championship. But all the Italian press could write about was that we lost the Safari.”
Björn Waldegård spent two years with the Stratos, notching up victories in rallies as diverse as Sweden and San Remo.
“To drive a Stratos is not at all difficult, but to drive it fast, you have to be aggressive,” he explains. “It handled very well in spite of a layout that has so much of the weight biased towards the rear. The first time I drove it, I was a bit afraid because of a previous bad experience with the Porsche 914/6 on the 1971 Monte Carlo. [He didn’t like the car, but still finished joint third]. But it was nothing like that, it was more like the 911.
“I learned that you had to go into the corners hard to get the performance out of it. At first you felt that you would lose it completely, but it seemed to slide to a limit and then it was okay. It was a little bit like a modem 4WD car, which will put you off the road if you lift off mid-corner. It did not pay to be frightened with the Lancia Stratos, especially on gravel or snow.
“The traction was fantastic for its day. It is difficult to compare it with the Porsches I drove, because they had a maximum of 200bhp while the Stratos was 260, maybe 280. And the Stratos used so much wider wheels and tyres, so there was better grip. From the rear, the car looked all tyre.
“The first time in Sweden, when we won, the car was fantastic, but the second year  it came with the big brakes,which meant that the track was much wider. So I had a real problem in the fresh snow trying to follow in the tracks of the other cars.
“One of my strongest Stratos memories is of working with Mike Parkes [chief development engineer]. I had a wonderful relationship with him and he was great to work with on set-up. It was the first time that I had a rally car that could be adjusted properly. We could even change things — the ride height, rollbar settings and all that — during a rally. That was new to me.! felt straight away that it was very sensitive to adjustment. You could feel the effect of a change, which was largely due to the rigidity of the chassis. It was was very strong, as you could see on the Safari Rally.
“The Stratos was a bit of a nightmare to live in. I was too tall and I had to sit leaning forward with my back not properly in the seat. It was uncomfortable, but when you have a car that good, you don’t notice such things.
“The Safari Rally in a Stratos was bad for another reason. These were the years before team physiotherapists and isotonic drinks. There was no thought for the crew, and we were so hot and hungry that we were begging drinks and things off the spectators at all the service points. I had gearbox problems towards the end of the ’75 Safari, but either Munari or I could have won that rally.” Instead, they were second and third respectively.
“Everyone thought that Sandro got the best in the team but that was not the case.! have the greatest respect for Fiorio and, when we had team orders, it was always in the best interests of Lancia. And he also shared the prize money and things in a proper fashion. It was a really great experience to do those events with a car built specifically for rallying and a great team working for you.”
Walter Röhrl came to the Stratos in its final season as a works car and drove one on the 1979 German Championship while he plied his trade in the WRC with a Fiat 131 Abarth.
“The Stratos was made for the roads in Monte Carlo and San Remo,” he recalls. “As soon as it was on a fast road, it was difficult because a short wheelbase and high speed is not a good combination. My first event in it was a German winter rally, where we did stages through forests on snow, with no spikes, at 120mph. I think it was the only time perhaps that Christian [Geistdörfer, his co-driver] was really frightened. I was going from maximum left lock to maximum right at high speed.
“But on twisty asphalt roads, it was just so fast, unbelievable. On the San Remo, I led for a long time in the Fiat before I had a silly accident and retired. Then going back to Turin with my wife Monica, I drove Markku’s practice car. Of course, we went past one of the stages, so I said I would show her — carefully — how it went. We started a stopwatch and, even going steady on an open road, I was quicker in that 24-valve Stratos than I had been on the rally with the Fiat 131 Abarth. The difference in performance was so big that it was like the gap between two and four-wheel-drive.
“Because of my height, I always had trouble with my helmet touching the roof and I thought to myself that it would not be a good idea to roll since my head would take most of the impact Then I rolled one! I took my recce car on a small event; I had done no practice and borrowed some pace notes. The first day was good and we were leading. The first stage on the second day, 200 metres from start, was written left — full — over brow’. That might have been okay in a Toyota but not in a Stratos. I made a big jump, came down on a bank and the car went on its roof.
“But my biggest mistake with the Stratos came after the season was over. They proposed to leave the rally car in Germany and said that I could buy it for £6,000. I thought, ‘I don’t want some old rally car for that money’, and I told them to take it away. Just five years later the car was worth £100,000!”
The final verdict on the Stratos comes from Simo Lampinen. He only drove two rallies in a works car, but they could not have been more different: the Swedish and the Safari. “I had the chance to drive the Stratos before Sweden 1976, but I discussed it with Fiorio and I thought that it would be too difficult for me and that I should stick to front-wheel drive and left-foot braking,” remembers the Finn. “So I drove the Beta Coupé which, when I went to Sweden with the Stratos, I discovered was a big mistake. The Stratos was very nice to drive. It was bit understeery because the front end was light We were able to use narrow wheels and special Helenius snow tyres that made it better. In fact, if we had not spent 4 minutes getting out of a snow bank, we would have been fighting for the lead and could have won instead of only taking fourth place.
“We did a test in San Remo on wet Tarmac. All the drivers were there: Sandro, Bjorn and Tele’ [Pinto]. And even there I felt that its first tendency was to understeer, but it was so well suited to those twisty roads that the balance seemed to improve the faster you went.
“On the Safari, there were no such problems because you were not trying so hard in the corners, while it was very strong on the rough. We tried it out on the Pipeline Road where there was a really bad washboard effect At 100mph you had to take your hands off the wheel because everything was shaking so much but, beyond that, the Stratos rode it really well. If you had to slow up for something really bad, you were so quickly back up to top speed that the others could not compete.
“The visibility was not bad, even in falling snow on the first night of the Swedish Rally. The pedals were well separated but offset quite a bit to the right, which presented no problem to someone like me who had driven Saabs for 15 years. There was not much space to put things, but it is amazing how quickly you get everything that you need stowed away. For sure, you travelled with light luggage in that car.” Uncomfortable, nowhere to put things, impossible to sleep in — not an ideal car for the rallies of the 1970s, one would think. But there is no doubt that any driver who has driven one would happily get back in and drive it again. And there would be queues to see them do it.