Four on the floor
The one that got away
Daniele Audetto: 1978 Monte Carlo Rally
To have one team car stuck is unfortunate... to have four looks like very bad publicity. Fiat's team director tells John Davenport about it
Fiat had been World Rally Champions in 1977. After a year as Ferrari team manager, Daniele Audetto had returned to Fiat for the 1977 season to run the Italian manufacturer's onslaught with the Fiat Abarth 131. With drivers such as Markku Alen, Timo Salonen, Fulvio Bacchelli, Jean-Claude Andruet and Bernard Darniche, they had steamrollered their way to the title with five wins in 11 rallies. For the 1978 season, their formidable line-up was joined by none other than Walter Röhrl.
Audetto recalls: "Walter drove a couple of events for us in 1977 on loan from Opel. I was impressed beforehand, but after the first event in Quebec where he led for more than half the rally until a piston failed, I knew I had to have him in our team."
This Audetto succeeded in doing by offering Röhrl a six-event world championship programme with the Fiat 131 and a German championship programme with a Lancia Stratos. If the Stratos was a trifle emasculated for 1978 thanks to losing its four-valve cylinder head, the Fiat 131 was at the very peak of its performance. The slide-throttle injection system had been perfected and the engine now gave at least 240bhp, while Giorgio Pianta's engineers had laboured hard to get the car down towards its minimum weight of 810kg.
"Fiat had never won Monte Carlo Rally, something Lancia had done four times in five years in the 1970s. For us at Fiat, we had to do this thing. We had to win Monte Carlo. And this was to be our first step with our new sponsor, Alitalia, on the way to a second world championship. We knew we had the best cars, the best drivers, the best team. All we had to do was not to make mistakes."
Pirelli had come with some outstanding innovations in winter rally tyres for both the Fiat and the Lancia teams. As well as having an asymmetrical layout for their studs in many of the tyres, they also had multi-compound tyres. These latter had a hard compound round the inner edge to hold a narrow band of studs firmly while the broader outer section was made with a softer racing compound. On the icy bits, the studs got you through but, as soon as the road became drier, the driver could lean the car hard into a corner and generate a lot more grip. At least, this was the theory.
"To be honest, we did not have so much serious opposition. Opel did not have their 16-valve engine so they were only entering the Kadett in Group 1. And Renault had their front-wheel drive R5 Alpines in Group 2. The most serious worry for us were our 'friends' in the three Stratoses: Munari, Bacchelli and Mouton."
That year there was plenty of snow on the Monte and that, probably more than anything, was the undoing of Fiat's ambitions. "After we came to Gap, there were three stages. The first two were good snow and the P7 winter tyres with studs were fantastic. Röhrl led and we were sure this was going to be our rally. But the third test was only 50 per cent snow. We took the asymmetric tyres and they were not so good here as in our tests before the rally. I don't know exactly how it was, but the rubber holding the studs was too weak and they came loose on the first stretches of tarmac. By the time our cars got to the snow, it was all finished. Those two little Renaults were fastest, and Walter had both of them overtake him in the stage."
By the end of the opening session of five stages, Guy Fréquelin led in a Renault 5 Alpine while his team mate, Jean Ragnotti, tied for second with Röhrl.
Further back, Maurizio Verini, Bernard Darniche and Jean-Claude Andruet in the other Alitalia Fiats were already behind the private Porsche Carrera RSR of Jean-Pierre Nicolas entered by Almeras. When the rally got underway again, Röhrl was quickest on the classic St Barthelemy stage — one of 11 fastest times he was to record — but then disaster struck. On St Jean en Royans, Röhrl stopped with a broken ignition lead that cost him five minutes and any hope of ultimate victory. But the tyres were not peforming as they should and Mario Mezzanotte of Pirelli was equally distraught.
So too was Audetto.
"You know, in a situation like that, you have so many tyres but never the right ones. We tried with full snow tyres but at St Jean there is so much clean asphalt before you get up in the snow. We were slow on the asphalt when the studs were new and then, when they were almost finished, we were slow on the snow as well."
The Lancias were in problems of their own with Munari retiring with engine failure and Bacchelli spending time off the road between doing some very respectable times. Within the Fiat team, a sort of madness seemed to have infected the drivers that came to a head on the Col de Perty. It was early on the Wednesday morning after a night struggling in the Alps with difficult tyre choices.
"Verini was first of our team on the hill and he caught a snow bank and spun. The spectators tried to get the car round, but you know it is quite narrow there. Next is Darniche and he cannot get through. Then Andruet and Röhrl are blocked. Our whole team is in one bend on that place. Of course, it was not complete casino because they did get going again, but with all those photographers there, it was a kind of negative publicity for us!"
All four of the works Fiat Abarth 131s finished that snowy Monte Carlo. Ahead of them was the Nicolas Porsche and the two little Renaults. Röhrl was fourth, Darniche fifth, Andruet sixth and the hapless Verini eighth behind Michèle Mouton in a Lancia Stratos. Fiat and Audetto had to wait until 1980 before Walter Röhrl finally delivered a Monte Carlo victory for the Abarth 131. But despite such a traumatic opening to the season, their push for the world championship in 1978 was scarcely knocked off course and they collected the title again at the end of the year, by a margin of 34 points.