Lancia, Alfa Romeo and Fiat all owe Ninni Russo a great debt and he’s still going strong. He talks to John Davenport
To have seven World Rally Manufacturer titles on your CV of which six were in consecutive years is a pretty powerful indication that as a rally manager you know what you’re doing. When you also have a British Touring Car title, then versatility creeps into the equation. Today, after 37 years in the sport that he loves almost as much as it loves him, Ninni Russo is still running things, although now it is the twin championships that flank the WRC: the Junior and Production World Championships.
Back in the mid-1960s, Domenico Russo was studying law in his hometown of Forli when a friend suggested that he might like to co-drive for him on a rally. Ninni – a nickname bestowed on him by his father long before he had anything to do with motorsport and a variation of bambini rather than of his christian name – had done some regularity events where he had impressed with his attention to detail and his ability to concentrate on problems while in a moving car. But this was a bit different: “My friend who lived next door, Alcide Paganelli, was getting a factory car from Lancia for Italian championship rallies and during 1968 he asked me to co-drive for him in a couple of events. It was very different from those regularity rallies, but we did OK and for 1969 he made a deal with me to do all the rallies. This was my first contract, with him you understand, not directly with Lancia.” They spent most of the year doing unfamiliar events, riding shotgun for Harry Kallstrom while he won the European Championship for Lancia.
The Spanish Rally was the key event. “Alcide and I were there to follow Harry and help if he had a problem,” says Russo. “Things did not start so well. The Pirelli factory was on strike and Henry Liddon was sent to Milan to get the tyres for the rally. Henry turned up just as the rally started, coming from the airport with all the tyres in three taxis. Then on the rally we were late somewhere in the night and in fog, and we went off the road. The first thing I remember is a co-driver from another car asking if we are OK. I said, ‘Yes but we must get on to help Harry’ and this man say it can be difficult on only three wheels! Somehow we fixed things and were able to carry on, but for me it was good learning all these unbelievable things that can happen on a rally.”
For 1970, with Lancia hiring top Scandinavians to partner Sandro Munari, Paganelli and Russo were offered a deal to go to Fiat, their reasonably friendly rivals at the other side of Turin. Fiat’s new rally tool was a sportscar, the 124 Sport Spider. Nice machine though it was, it was rather underpowered and only had a 1438cc twin-cam engine with eight valves and twin carburettors. Over the years it was to get bigger engines, four valves per cylinder and fuel injection, but in that first year Paganelli struggled to make an impact in the big events. On their debut, with the Spider in relatively untuned Group Three trim, they finished second in class but 21st overall on the Monte Carlo. They went on to have an excellent year in the Italian championship, overturning Lancia hegemony and winning it outright.
Apart from a brace of second places in Austria and Portugal, the retirement total definitely outweighed the successes on the international scene over the next six years. “Alcide was a naturally talented driver and he always liked to attack,” says Russo, “which means that we often had some difficulty coming to the finish of the rally but no bad accidents!” When Paganelli retired, Ninni did 1976 and ’77 with Maurizio Verini in the new Fiat 131 Abarth. Verini had been the Italian Champion in ’74 and European Champion in ’75, and he and Russo had first competed together on the ’73 RAC Rally when, after a particularly difficult event, they finished 19th overall.
Russo was now 38 years old and his law studies back in Forli were long forgotten. What to do next? At the end of 1977 Fiat had won the VVRC, thus preventing Lancia taking a fourth straight title. The independent Lancia team was closed down and its staff and cars moved to the Abarth factory to integrate with the Fiat squad and become a unified whole known as Attiva Sportiva Abarth. Lancia’s Cesare Fiorio was its president and Daniele Audetto, recently arrived from the Ferrari team-manager role, was its director. The new team would concentrate mainly on running Fiat 131 Abarths, with the Lancia Stratos relegated to a support role.
“In the middle of 1978 Cesare Fiorio said to me, ‘Now you have to change, go to the other side of the barrier’, so I started work for him as a manager and coordinator of the Fiat/Lancia team,” says Russo, who carried on co-driving for a while, using the recces to plan the service and send information back to Turin.
As he progressed into a pure coordination role, Ninni was responsible for a team that included Walter Röhrl, Markku Alén, Bernard Darniche, Timo Salonen, Jean-Claude Andruet and Verini. There were some volatile personalities there, but, for the moment at least, Fiorio or Audetto handled any clashes of temperament while technical matters were the province of Giorgio Pianta. What Russo had to do was to make sure the logistics of the large and complex Fiat team worked like clockwork to deliver what was needed at the right spot: “It was good for me to work on that side. You know, the philosophy of Fiorio was that if he hired all the top drivers, it might give him a problem sometimes as they fought among themselves, but at least they were not driving for another team.”
This was an era when technology was not only appearing on the rally cars but also in the service network. Radios had been used for many years on events like the Safari, and Lancia had even pressed amateur radio enthusiasts into service on the Monte Carlo and San Remo to provide some exchange of information within the team. But now mobile phones and better radio links were making it possible to have more control, although it was still not perfect: “In Portugal 1980, Markku had a problem on a stage and we had to send a service van up a small road to him. We told the mechanics to look out for Walter and we tried to tell Walter. But you know, in the mountains without a repeater the radio is not that good. So when Walter hit the van he was, how you say, a wild man! But I told him, ‘Look Walter, we tried our best and Jam sorry.’ Then he did that unbelievable time in Arganil and it didn’t matter any more.” Also on that long Arganil stage, rallying saw an innovation when Fiat drivers were given intermediate times by pit board.
Fiat and Rohrl were WRC champions in 1980 but in ’81 another technical advance arrived that left the team struggling to maintain supremacy: Audi introduced four-wheel drive and turbochargers to the rally world. Nothing would be the same again. Fiat dropped to sixth in the VVRC and Alén could only manage fourth in the drivers’ points, but behind the scenes the Fiat/Lancia team had anew rally weapon under development. This was the Lancia 037 Rallye, an out-and-out homologation special with a supercharged engine amidships behind the driver. It made its debut in Corsica 1982 and, though fast — it was some 250kg lighter than the Quattro — it was also fragile. “On the debut in Costa Smeralda we broke both gearboxes and then in Corsica Attilio [Bettega] had a big accident,” says Russo. “On the rough rallies we struggled and we needed all the good service to keep the cars in the rally. By the end of the season Markku was fourth on the RAC, so we knew we had most problems fixed.”
And so it proved to be. Lancia was champion in 1983 with the 037, as Röhrl and Men won five of the 10 events and finished 1-2 on four of them. On the Monte Carlo, Ninni organised for the Lancias to change tyres in the middle of the Chamrousse stage: “It may not have won the cars much time on the stage, but it showed our rivals how good we were and how well we could organise in order to win.” It was not so easy in ’84, as Audi developed its car and Peugeot came on the scene with the 205 T16: “We had lost Walter to Audi so now we had Markku, Henri [Toivonen], Attilio and Mild [Biasion]. I have never worked so hard as that year and we only lost the title to Audi by 12 points. The high was Corsica, where Markku won outright. It was interesting in Corsica as Peugeot were running for the first time. Vatanen led and then retired but we were keen to see Jean-Pierre Nicolas keep Audi from points so we let Peugeot see some of our information about road conditions.” Nicolas finished fourth and Blomqvist’s Quattro was fifth: QED.
Lancia’s 4WD response to the Audi and Peugeot challenge was announced in December. The S4 was going to have a turbocharger and a supercharger, but it was not going to be ready until the end of 1985: “Our hope lay in being selective with events and drivers. We had a big strength with our drivers. But then came Corsica and the worst time of my whole career when my friend Attilio was killed. It was the same terrible thing a year later with Henri and Sergio [Cresto]. You know, the job to bring their bodies back home, two to Italy and one to Finland, I did this myself. I went in the Fiat aeroplane. I did not want anyone else involved. They were my drivers and I wanted to be with them to the end. It was especially hard with Attilio as our wives and families were very close.”
The 1985 season finished on a much cheerier note, with the S4 taking a debut win on the RAC Rally in the hands of Toivonen and then starting ’86 with him winning again in Monte Carlo. After that it became a bit of an annus horribilis, starting with the drivers’ revolt in Portugal. Fiorio was at a race meeting, so Russo was in complete charge of the team on this event: “Of course you could have some sympathy with the situation [after the death of many spectators], but these were professional drivers who should overlook such things. Anyway, my advice to our drivers was that we as a factory invite you to drive. In fact, I sent up to each of their rooms a letter with the starting time for their car. But in the end all the drivers acted together. I did all I could psychologically to persuade them. Afterwards, Fiorio said to me that I should have taken them by force and put them in the car. His actual expression was to ‘kick arse’. But I am no Schwarzenegger… and if after that one of my drivers had an accident I would have felt terrible.”
Soon after came the fatalities in Corsica and then the acrimonious affair with Peugeot in San Remo. “I tried not to get drawn in on technical matters, but where our cars were concerned I was involved as I had to go with them to scrutineering,” says Russo. “Nearly always these things are matters of interpretation where the engineers can see something is permitted in the words that others haven’t seen yet.” The legality or otherwise of the Peugeots led, after the season had finished, to the results of the San Remo being annulled, so that Alen was WRC Champion for just 11 days before having the title removed.
The events of 1986 caused Group B to be dropped in favour of Group A. Evidently, 4WD and turbocharging were necessities if one wished to win and it was really a race to see who could first build 5000 cars — the requirement for homologation in Group A — with these desirable features. The answer was Lancia. Even more importantly, the marque had the wherewithal to develop the car, and a fully operational and battle-hardened team to run it. At its peak the Abarth factory had some 500 people working on motorsport, with over 80 of those being experienced rally mechanics and technicians. “The Group B business was both the worst and the best thing for Lancia,” recalls Russo. “Thanks to the S4 and all the work that Sergio Limone and Giorgio Pianta had done, we knew a lot about 4WD and turbos. That’s why the Delta HF could be such a success straight away.”
And a success it was. Six straight ‘VVRC manufacturer titles and four drivers’ championships, shared between Juha Kankkunen and Miki Biasion: “We were a family again. We had all the right elements in the right mix. Even when Fiorio left in March 1989 to go to Ferrari and Claudio Lombardi took over the direction, our team and our way of working were so good that the winning didn’t stop.” Eventually the run of success came to an end by the hand of Fiat itself. “These victories had been very important for Fiat and people ask, ‘Why do you stop?’. It was very simple. We had realised that a Lancia winning was not news — we only got headlines if we lost.” The announcement was made at the end of 1991, thus terminating a 26-year association between the marque and the sport of rallying. Actually, the link was not severed at once as the team shared the 1992 WRC effort with the Jolly Club.
The sporting emphasis within the Fiat Group now passed to Alfa Romeo and circuit racing. While Pianta took Nicola Larini and Christian Danner off to win the DTM, Ninni was given charge of Gabriele Tarquini and a clutch of ex-rally mechanics and sent to contest the Italian Super Touring Championship with a 155: “We were a bit unfamiliar with racing. When we went to the first race at Monza I had a telephone call from Pianta, who had seen qualifying on the Italian TV He was very annoyed and told me that we had the cars pointing the wrong way in the pit garages. So we were the team, as we say in Italy, with ‘dust in the pocket’.” Tarquini finished third in the series. They were now sent to do the hottest Super Touring championship, the 1994 British series. A deal was done whereby their English home was the Prodrive workshop in Banbury, but all the main work was done back at an old Lancia facility in Chivasso. Running this team with its two cars — Tarquini was joined by Giampiero Simoni — and 40 mechanics tested to the full the logistics skills that had been acquired in the rally team.
The team was an instant success, with Tarquini winning the first five races, but the Alfa also became the target for a certain amount of politics. The 155 Silverstone had a homologated front spoiler with an adjustable splitter. A typical bit of Italian ingenuity had this supplied in the boot of the standard car as ‘optional equipment’. At Oulton Park the Alfas were instructed to run with the splitters retracted and their points from earlier races were annulled: “Of course we could not allow this, so I made the decision to pack up and leave the circuit with our cars and people. We immediately made an appeal, went to the court in London where the letter came from FISA and that stopped everything.” The points were reinstated, a compromise reached on splitter position and Tarquini went on to win the championship by a country mile. It was an amazing achievement, and one of which Ninni was rightly proud. To have taken on and beaten much more experienced racing teams operating for Renault, Volvo, Nissan, Ford, Vauxhall, BMW, Toyota and Peugeot was very satisfying.
The following year, ‘his’ team returned to dispute the Italian championship again but, despite getting the cars the right way round in the garages, they were not on the pace. So for 1996 Russo found himself with a new challenge, this time running Alfa 155 V6 TI cars in the ITC series. The drivers were Danner and Giancarlo Fisichella, the sponsor TV Spielfilm. Podium places were infrequent in this highly fuelled combat between Alfa Romeo, Mercedes and Opel, but the idea was to run as support to the two leading Alfa drivers in the Martini cars, Larini and Alessandro Nannini. Even before the end of the season Opel and Fiat bosses had joined together to break the contract with Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA; the glory days of the ITC were over almost before they had begun.
A new family
For Ninni it was back to Turin, to a future of looking after Fiat’s rally and race customers, especially in the Italian one-make championships: “It was OK but it was not mainstream. In 2001 I had an offer to look after the Junior and Production World Rally Championships. Fiat offered me a sabbatical of three years, which was very generous of them, but I am very happy coordinating these championships and having the opportunity to see a lot of my old friends. It’s like the old Lancia team — Jam in a family again!” And that’s just the way Russo likes it.