For your eyes only

A sportscar? No. It’s a lost Audi rally car once shrouded in secrecy. Espionage by John McIlroy

It sits there, brooding, like some sulking schoolboy not allowed to play with his friends when he knows he could be the best striker on the pitch. Sporting a rear wing that makes the fearsome Pikes Peak Quattro E2 look tame and featuring curves which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Group C sports-prototype, this was to have been Audi’s rallying future. A quiet corner of the company’s museum in Ingolstadt houses this defiant statement from the same engineers who had brought such magic to the Quattro brand in the first place.

This was their answer to the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 and Lancia Delta S4 — or rather it could have been. That is because the Group S Prototype is a car that was created against the wishes of the VW-Audi board, away from the official workshops in Ingolstadt and, if rumours are to be believed, without the knowledge of Ferdinand Piech, then the chairman of Audi. It’s known as the Group S Prototype because it never had an official name. Because the car never officially existed.

Audi’s attempts at mid-engined rally cars were as badly needed as they were secretive. The German manufacturer had stolen a march when it sneaked the four-wheel-drive Quattro in under the rulemakers’ radar in 1980 and changed the sport’s history. But within four years the idea of hanging the five-cylinder, turbocharged engine out over the front axle was looking increasingly old hat. Peugeot had the nimble mid-engined 205 T16 at its disposal, and on its day even the rear-wheel-drive mid-engined Lancia 037 could give the Quattro a bloody nose. The mid-engined Delta S4, with turbo and supercharging, was already in development.

Even as the marque secured the manufacturers’ title in 1982, Audi team manager Roland Gumpert was aware that the Quattro would soon be fighting a losing battle. He knew that the advance of the mid-engined layout could leave the Audis just as exposed as their two-wheel-drive rivals had been two years earlier.

“When all the other competitors were coming with mid-engined cars designed only for rallying it seemed to me, as an engineer, to be unfair,” says Gumpert. “We had created a rally concept that was based on a front-engined road car and it was now being compared to real, pure, mid-engined race cars. From a technical point of view they had to be quicker.

“We had some discussions in 1983 about which way we should go next but Ferdinand Piech wanted us to further develop the concept that was linked to the road car. The biggest problem with the Quattro was not the engine, which was very strong, but the weight distribution and the handling. So the easiest way to correct this was to create a shorter car. That was the Sport Quattro.”

To call the Sport Quattro a quick fix would be inaccurate — because it didn’t fix much. Improved power output mated to a nervous, twitchy chassis made for a real handful, and there was still plenty of understeer in slower corners. In fact it could be argued that the 1984 world champion, wily Swede Stig Blomqvist, did his title prospects no harm at all by sticking with the longer wheelbase of the ‘old’ Quattro A2 and avoiding teething troubles and lively handling as he racked up points.

The engineers in Ingolstadt had always suspected that a more radical solution would be required, however. “If the Sport Quattro was the first answer,” says Gumpert, “the second one was that in the longer term it could only be mid-engined. So we started work almost at the same time, and by late 1984 we had a physical car ready to run.”

Audi’s superstar driver Walter Röhrl was equally keen to have a car that could compete with the sport’s emerging talents. “We’d known for some time that the Sport Quattro was good on fast straights and fast corners,” he says, “but the problem was the tight, slow corners — we had way too much understeer because there was too much weight in front of the axle. We saw from Peugeot that we needed to go mid-engined.”

But by this point Audi Sport was not just under pressure on the stages. Audi had staked its reputation on the Quattro concept and it would mean a major backtrack in marketing terms to admit that front-engined wasn’t good enough for competition. And although Piech gave tacit approval for the project, he didn’t exactly go running to the VW-Audi board with a set of blueprints. Accordingly the car would have to be developed under previously unseen levels of security.

To achieve this Gumpert turned to the Cold War — or communist Czechoslovakia to be precise.

Situated nearly 200 miles south of Prague and conveniently behind the Iron Curtain, the Desna test facility near Zlín had originally been conceived for Porsche, but with Audi ready to bankroll it further it became the unofficial home of the mid-engined Sport Quattro. Cars shipped in crates marked ‘Kenya test’ — to keep even the factory spies and mechanics guessing — began turning up in 1985, often alongside what would become the fully-winged Sport Quattro E2. And in return for the hard currency the locals constructed permanent workshops and obeyed police instructions to keep quiet. “I had a few good friends there,” says Gumpert, “and the moment we went across the border we knew we were safe. We knew there wouldn’t be any photographers or journalists hiding in the bushes.” His confidence was well-placed — the Desna shots printed here (right) were taken by a local and did not surface until last year.

The mid-engined cars that tested looked nothing like the Group S Prototype — they resembled regular Sport Quattros, albeit with a tell-tale duct in the roof for engine cooling. Many of the mechanicals, including the five-cylinder motor, were lifted straight from the regular car. But Gumpert recalls: “It was pretty much quicker straight away. The engine was just as strong, of course, but the handling was much better just because of the weight distribution. We knew we had more work to do, but it did not take too many tests before we felt it was ready to allow Walter Röhrl behind the wheel.”

Röhrl, the 1982 world champion, was by now the centre of Audi’s rallying activities and, even though he had not driven the car at Desna, plans were quickly put in place for him to get a first run on a stretch of gravel road near Salzburg in Austria. Trouble was someone had tipped off the press and the media were crawling over the proposed site by the time the test team arrived. Petrified of blowing its thin veil of secrecy, Audi turned its trucks around and moved back across the border into Germany, where it found a few miles of (open) asphalt road in Bavaria.

There Röhrl would get his only taste of mid-engined Audi power. “I could tell straight away how much better it was,” he recalls, smiling. “The road was just old asphalt — normal second-category roads, with a bit of twisty stuff and some fast sections. The impression I got was really good — as good as the Quattro Sport E2 straight away, in fact. Many times I’ve had cars which you have tested for 40 days to get to the same level as the old one. But this one was really impressive. The engine felt the same because it was just out of the Sport Quattro E2, but the handling made all the difference for me. It was so much better in the twisty stuff and it didn’t get twitchy when the corners got faster.

“I remember the road wasn’t too far back over the German border. They were so keen for me to try the car that they found the bit of open road, took out the car and we went for it. Nobody was expecting that, of course. But then after 40 or 50 kilometres I came over a brow and saw the police. I stopped and asked them, ‘Why are you here? Did you know I was coming along this road?’ and they said, ‘No, we didn’t know in advance. But we’ve heard you coming for the last 10 minutes!’

“They wanted to take a photo but I pleaded with them not to. So they said, ‘Okay, Mr Röhrl, you can go and we won’t take any pictures. But first we want to see you do a proper race start!’ It was a good day.”

But it wouldn’t take long for the team’s enthusiasm to be shattered. Unknown to Röhrl, a sole photographer had been tipped off on the revised test venue and a picture appeared in an Austrian magazine. The story put Piech in an extremely difficult position and instantly the entire project was in jeopardy. “We’d been teasing VW all the time with our rally successes and if we wanted to build and design a new concept then Dr Piech had to ask before the beginning of the work,” says Gumpert. “And by this time Dr (Carl) Hahn at VW was already telling Piech that Audi should finish its sporting activities soon. Then in the newspaper he found out that instead of that we’d started with a new project. Directly against orders, basically…”

It didn’t take long for the shockwaves to reach Audi Sport. Less than 48 hours after the photographs of the car appeared, all mid-engined rally machinery was dismantled right in front of Piech’s eyes in the Ingolstadt workshops.

“I was so disappointed,” said Röhrl, who stayed on with Audi to set new records at Pikes Peak and race in IMSA before jumping ship to Porsche’s development team, with which he still works. “I only had one test with the car and did maybe 180 kilometres in total, but I knew even with that distance that it would have made Audi more competitive.”

Work continued at Audi on the Quattro Sport E2 into early 1986, but the mid-engined concept had died as soon as the Austrian magazine had hit the newsstands. Or so it seemed. Several years after the death of Group B and the Group S category which was to have succeeded it, there emerged another mid-engined Audi rally car. Even now Gumpert is reluctant to divulge details beyond the fact that “more than one” was built, at least one was subsequently destroyed and that a surviving car — the Group S Prototype — is now in the museum. But unofficial sources say three examples existed — which leaves one car unaccounted for.

How on earth did any survive? “Let’s say this — all of the cars that were officially built were destroyed. Dr Piech oversaw that personally,” says Gumpert, who has recently moved into the sportscar business with his own Apollo concept. “But there was another car that was at an advanced stage that maybe wasn’t official. Nobody even knew it existed. I think it was worked on somewhere else, maybe Neckarsulm (Audi’s other production centre). Perhaps we didn’t even tell Dr Piech that it existed…”

A look around the car sitting in Ingolstadt’s museum: the door is featherlight. A blend of glassfibre and other composites, it flexes through your fingers. Inside it’s hard to see how Röhrl’s gangly frame would have fitted under the low roofline. The switchgear is a mixture of bastardised Sport Quattro E2 material and one-off creations. And all the time you get the same chill through the spine that appears whenever you examine any Group B car and think of safety — the seat looks thin enough to spit through, those flexing doors allow lamentable side protection and a head-on collision doesn’t bear thinking about.

The five-cylinder engine sits amidships, whopping turbo clearly visible, and when you consider that engineers had produced nigh on 1000bhp from these units the potential becomes evident. Sitting on asphalt springs, the prototype resembles a Le Mans racer rather than a rally car, but underneath there are extra pick-up points that would have allowed gravel suspension. There is no sign, however, of the PDK twin-clutch transmission that made occasional appearances on the Quattro Sport E2. One presumes that only so many parts could make it from Ingolstadt to the ‘other workshop’ without too many eyebrows being raised, and the PDK kit was rare enough to make it impossible to source for the secret project.

All the same, the thought of this little weight and this much power rocketing through 1980s roadside crowds is a terrifying prospect.

Röhrl is convinced that the Group S Prototype was never tested and the odometer, sitting pretty at just 12 kilometres, would indicate that he is correct. But as one old Audi engineer put it: “There was real excitement about this car because it was going to allow us to prove that we could have had the best car all along. We would have been better than the Peugeot, for sure — our engine was already the best and with a mid-engined design it would have been hard for them to have beaten us.”

For now, though, it is a static exhibit in Ingolstadt, revolving gently as part of a display that hovers over new Quattro buyers who come to collect S4s and A3 s direct from the factory. There are rumours, perhaps spurred on by this year being the 25th anniversary of the Quattro, that Audi is considering a restoration project that would allow the car to fire up its five cylinders once again, to perhaps take its mileage into treble figures and allow enthusiasts to see it move. Over 20 years after its creation, that seems to be the least that the Group S Prototype deserves. After all, showing it off in a museum is only telling half the story.