Stigs of dynamite

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This quiet Swede with a love of the loud pedal played a pivotal role in rallying’s wildest period: Group B. Twenty years on he floors it again. John Davenport reports

A typical summer’s day in England: rain. And talk was of the Northants floods just forded. Then two things happened, almost simultaneously: a transporter carrying three Audis, two Lancias, a Ford and a Peugeot lumbered into sight — and the rain stopped. Within minutes the sun was climbing, as was the anticipation: Stig Blomqvist was pulling on his overalls. The 1984 world rally champion was about to reacquaint himself with Group B.

It took the quiet Swede 20 years to reach the pinnacle of his sport, having spent the bulk of that time flat chat aboard two-stroke and V4 Saabs. It was a one-off, eye-opening run in a Lancia Stratos on the 1978 Swedish Rally that hinted at the sport’s, and Stig’s, new direction.

“It was fantastic to come to such a responsive car,” says Stig. “The power meant you could attack. I had a proper training car [for the recce] but it took some stages on the rally to feel in control. I had a spin in soft snow in the beginning, but then it was okay and I started setting some good times.” Swedish understatement: he was fastest on 16 of the 38 stages; winner Björn Waldegård was fastest on seven. Had Blomqvist not suffered a broken throttle linkage on one of the longest tests, he could well have won.

Yet he stayed with Saab, driving its bulky, overpowered, front-wheeldrive 99 Turbo for another three years before a couple of drives in a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus towards the end of 1981. But the following year Audi Sweden asked him to drive its Quattro on the Swedish, which he promptly won, ahead of regular driver, Hannu Mikkola.

“Hannu was leading and I was second,” remembers Stig. “But then he went off. I squeezed by him, but Michèle Mouton [aboard the third Quattro] was next on the road and she punted Hannu even further off the stage. I could not help but win.”

Stig was tackling British rallies in the Talbot, but by mid-season Audi Germany was offering him more Quattro work. On the 1000 Lakes he was a close second to Mikkola, winning 21 of the stages: “I had a deal with Michelin and could use their latest TRXs, but Hannu was stuck with the Klebers the works team was contracted to. We both got so far ahead that the engineers detuned the cars on the last day. I had a suspension problem, Hannu took the lead and they decided we should stay that way.”

To outside observers, Blomqvist’s style with the Quattro was reminiscent of how he’d driven his Saabs: very committed, with lots of left-foot braking. “Sure, I used left-foot braking, but early Quattros were quite difficult: the power came in suddenly and it was easy to brake too much with the left foot, kill the speed and the engine, or not enough and get caught by understeer.”

It was something that he — and the sport — was going to have to get the hang of.

The Group 4 homologation rules had become subverted by manufacturers building just 400 of a ‘rally special’, such as the Sunbeam Lotus and Stratos, and it was clear that the distinction between saloon and GT was permanently blurred. FISA, the new regulatory body, decided that simplification was needed and sat down with the manufacturers in the early 1980s to draw up new groups and tuning rules. With rallying in mind, it was quickly agreed there should be two groups: Group A for cars produced in numbers greater than 5000 per annum, and Group B for cars produced in ‘small’ quantities. The Germans — Audi, Porsche and BMW — thought ‘small’ should mean 2000 per annum; the Latins, plus a smattering of Brits and Opel (run by a Brit), thought 20 would be about right. Eventually, after more meetings in corridors than in committee rooms, the number chosen was 200. The consensus was that everyone could now build a run of specialist cars and that entry lists would be full…

And it almost happened according to the script. Lots of manufacturers went to extraordinary lengths to produce runs of 200 special cars, and for a brief period there were nine teams contesting the world series. But two things arrived at the same time as GpB: four-wheel drive and turbos.

Audi was not the force that created GpB. But it certainly helped guide its development. Before Ingolstadt arrived on the world scene at the start of 1981, rallying had had exotic cars. It had had turbochargers, too. But low-slung sportscars or engines with lots of power were next to useless if the visibility got bad and the road slippery; Escorts, Fiat 131s and Asconas were approaching the limit of ‘useable’ power.

Audi’s four-wheel drive reset the boundaries. Early Quattros were a bit basic but they showed the rest what the combination of lots more power and 4WD could do. On its debut at Monte Carlo, Mikkola was leading by almost 6min — after six stages. If he’d carried on at that rate, he would have won by more than half an hour!

A well-known Fiat rally engineer dismissed the Quattro as being “too complicated”. But it was not long before it was winning, and if it was a bit “complicated”, the challenge was there for the engineers to make a simpler, more reliable car. GpB was ideal for this process. Engineers could take the shape of a current production car and create inside it a sophisticated 4WD rally car. The companies got the benefits of rallying a car that looked identical to, and had the same name as, the cars they sold, while the teams got a winner and the spectators got a show of unequalled excitement.

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