Is that a finger in the air intake?

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You can’t touch rallying in the 1980s for pure adrenaline, excitement and big-spending teams

Audi Quattro 1980s rally

Group B was so synonymous with rallying in the 1980s that if you squint carefully you’ll find the front spoiler on an Audi Quattro actually resembles the sort of shoulder pads Joan Collins wore regularly on Dynasty. Like pixie boots, the rally cars of the time were all severe angles, unfathomable appendages and a very specific sense of ostentation. They looked like they were flying when standing still: otherworldly modern at the time, yet behind all that cutting-edge modernity was a fundamental fragility. In the case of Group B, this occasionally cost people their lives. That’s certainly one over-riding memory of the era.

Sport is only a mirror of the popular culture of the moment. And it’s no coincidence that ‘greed is good’, a thrusting mantra of the 1980s, also sought its outlets in motor sport. And rallying yearned to be part of the ‘faster, higher, bigger, better’ ethos that was gripping the world at the time.

Yes, there might be danger attached: that much was clear from the outset. But, back then, the prevalent feeling was that humans were invincible. Not quite immortal perhaps, but certainly masters of their own destiny – in an era that was blissfully free of the twin evils of health and safety. The threshold of acceptable risk was much higher, the threat of crippling litigation far lower: this is key to understanding how motor sport operated in the 1980s, and why it could not continue in the same vein.

ALONG WITH POWER, budgets spiralled out of control. But nobody really cared, because the car companies were suddenly making more money than they had ever done. There is no record of Gordon Gekko – the slickly obnoxious hero of Wall Street – being in charge of motor sport at that time (although some may see resemblances between him and Bernie Ecclestone), but he might as well have been. The teams tore through money like bankers on a stag night.

Lunch, as Gekko said, was for wimps, while money never sleeps. And to the backdrop of Dire Straits (or, more likely, Zucchero) at the height of the Group B spending war, Lancia used to load up pretty much an entire Boeing 747 to move its stuff (which included a small fleet of helicopters) around the world. Toyota would spend three months at a time practising for the Safari Rally (which was entirely allowed back then). Lancia team principal Cesare Fiorio once admitted that between rallying and endurance racing, they were spending 10 billion lire per year. That’s hard to put into modern money, but it equates to tens of millions of pounds – a staggering sum at the time. And they were far from the only ones.

The Safari, unsurprisingly, was one of the deepest money pits for rally teams, requiring specialist cars, equipment and service trucks. Once the rally was over, the top teams would just leave all their stuff there for the following year, when hopefully they would find it again.

If not (and this was also very much an era when things ‘disappeared’ on a regular basis, sometimes entire cars) they would just buy some more. One of the joys of the 1980s Safari was that it was strictly a cash economy, where a creative solution could be purchased to more or less any problem. One team manager recounts how he always carried a briefcase containing $100,000 in cash. The briefcase always came back considerably lighter. If all this paints a picture of limitless funds and accompanying sleaze and corruption, it’s not meant to. Above all, the 1980s were a glorious, untrammeled and optimistic period: to the extent that the latest WRC regulations, introduced last year, seem to be doing their very best to recreate it. Those splitters, diffusers and large wings sported by the latest World Rally Cars have been seen somewhere before. Could it have been on the shoulders of Victoria Principal?

THIS WAS ALSO a period when manufacturers tasted unprecedented success through motor sport, and realised its effectiveness as a global marketing tool. The Peugeot 205, for example, which was mainly promoted through the World Rally Championship with the mighty T16, was unquestionably the car that saved Peugeot as a company. Lancia already had an illustrious sporting history, but had never tasted the sort of high-profile dominance it enjoyed in the World Rally Championship. And that economic benefit endures: a glance through the classified adverts in this magazine will swiftly demonstrate how the Delta Integrale road car has continued to accumulate value.

And what did anyone in Europe really know of Japanese road cars before they got into rallying? Yes, there were some Honda projects from the 1960s in Formula 1, followed a few years later by cheap Datsuns and their ilk, frequently offered in questionable shades of blue and brown, but it took rallying to convince the mass market that these cars were actually any good, rather than just affordable.

That transformation really happened in the 1980s – and a lot of it was down to Toyota, which would dominate the Safari in the mid-1980s before going on to become the first Japanese manufacturer to win WRC titles in the 1990s.

But there was also Mazda, with a much smaller budget, which managed to lead the RAC Rally with the legendary Hannu Mikkola (before the Finn was blinded by the low sun and crashed). Shortly afterwards, in 1989, Pentti Airikkala won the RAC in a Mitsubishi Galant. Although Audi, Lancia and Peugeot will always be the first names to spring to mind when reminiscing about the ’80s, the era went way beyond Europe: it marked the true emergence of Japan.

THE OTHER THING 1980s rallying GAVE us, of course, was personalities. Every country had its heroes; some more unlikely than others. And it was arguably only thanks to the risk-taking mentality of the 1980s that somebody like Michèle Mouton was able to come to the forefront. In many ways, she is the driver who best represents the decade – and for reasons that went far beyond her modish penchant for big hair and jumpsuits. It was a period when everything was pushed to the extremes and perceptions were challenged. So, it was almost logical that Audi would put a petite Frenchwoman into the most fearsome car the sport has ever known. What started out as an experiment turned into a resounding success: not only was Mouton by far the most successful female rally driver, but you could argue a strong case for her being the most success female driver in motor sport full stop.

In 1982, the year in which she won three rallies, only 12 points separated her from taking what would have been the most remarkable title in the sport’s history.

Britain also had its heroes of the Group B era, with drivers such as Tony Pond and Dai Llewellin, but perhaps the most unlikely folk hero – who brought the sport to millions – was William Woollard.

The TV presenter never drove a car but was a prophet to the masses. During the RAC Rally, there used to be a nightly Top Gear TV report, which normally featured a sodden Woollard standing in Harrogate or Chester in the dark, trying to make sense of what was going on. “What I think captured the imagination was the immediacy of it all,” says Wollard. “We put out everything live, using whatever information we had available. Sometimes the producer would hand me a slip of paper while I was talking, telling me that the situation had just changed. There was a real feeling of the action unfolding in front of you.”

Top Gear’s rally report had a time slot just before the BBC 10 o’clock news, which helped it to pull in about three million TV viewers. To those you can add the two million or so who lined the route to watch it live, making the RAC Rally the biggest sporting event in Britain at the time, comfortably outstripping monuments such as Wimbledon and the FA Cup. And in many other countries rallying was even more popular: everyone has seen the photographs of Rally Portugal in its heyday, where spectators used to try and touch the cars as they drove past. There’s an urban legend about a Lancia mechanic apparently finding a finger in the air intake of an 037. It might just be true.

The late Rob Arthur, co-driver to Tony Pond in the MG Metro 6R4, commented several years back: “It was easier for me as I always had my head down in the notes. It must have been terrifying for Tony. On the occasions when I did look up, all I remember seeing is this wall of people that parted at the last minute, a bit like Moses parting the Red Sea…”

Watching stages was free back then, which helped the cause, but Arthur’s words vividly bring to life the almost unbelievable popularity of rallying at the time: an ’80s zeitgeist that, like coloured braces, has never been entirely recaptured.

The sport has since changed beyond recognition – and not always for the worse, despite the assertions of those who like to wallow in nostalgia. Modern rallying is constantly urged to become easier for fans to understand, yet in the prime of its popularity it was fiendishly complex. Servicing took place more or less anywhere, there were time charts and movement schedules that looked like navigation charts of the North Atlantic and the paperwork would have kept even the Politburo busy for decades.

Yet that didn’t seem to put anybody off, despite the fact that most spectators had little clue as to what was going on where, or why. Part of the charm of spectating on rallies used to be the game of Chinese whispers that passed through the forest from spectator to spectator; to the extent that ‘Vatanen’s gone off’ might reach you in the form of ‘Kankkunen’s got a cough’.

The point is, it didn’t matter. Because rallying at the time had the ability to fix people in the moment, with the only important reality being the snarling spectacle played out right in front of you. When you look at a battlefield, you don’t immediately wonder who’s winning the war: instead you’re speechless at the sheer savagery of what’s going on. It was a bit like that with Group B.

PERHAPS THAT TREND was symptomatic of the 1980s as a whole: it was pre-digital, so there was none of the information overload we suffer now, and attention spans were longer. Woollard probably shouldn’t be entirely surprised that his rally reports were so popular, because back then people only had two other channels to watch as an alternative.

What might help is a bit of objectivity. By modern standards, Group B cars weren’t fast: under most circumstances, a current R5-spec rally car would wipe the floor with one. But the 1980s were unquestionably competitive.

There were six different champion drivers throughout the decade, and five winning manufacturers. In the 1990s there were five and four. In the 2000s there were four and three. And so far, in the 2010s, there have only been two champion drivers, both of whom happen to be French and called Sébastien.

It’s become fashionable, especially among politicians and others who like to ostentatiously wear a social conscience, to blame the 1980s for pretty much everything from devil worship to Donald Trump.

But in the case of rallying, we should celebrate them. It was a crazy, unrepeatable time when greed was indeed good.