Delta Bravo

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In the final part of our series on Lancia’s world rallying legends, Matthew Franey gets to grips with the awe-inspiring Delta S4 and Integrale

In the mid-1980s, world rallying entered its most awesome period – it was also its darkest. Technology had brought four-wheel drive to the sport, allowing cars to grip harder, brake later, accelerate earlier, and the new Group B rules demanded a homologation run of just 200 cars, clearing the way for manufacturers to build highly specialised rally machines machines noted for their prodigious power, but also frightening speeds.

After struggling on against the odds with its ageing 037 Rally, Lancia created what many now regard as the archetypal Group B machine, the Delta S4. In front of me now, on a quiet road in northern Italy, rests that behemoth of its era; an evocative reminder of an unrestrained past. Not only is the Delta the most powerful rally car ever built, it is also the machine that claimed the life of Henri Toivonen, Lancia’s world championin-the-making.

The Italian marque’s riposte to its hi-tech rivals, the Audi Quattro and Peugeot Turbo 16, the Delta S4 was unveiled to the media at the end of 1984, a year before its spectacular but brief entry on the world stage. Fourwheel drive with a unique in-line four-cylinder 1.7-litre engine that had both a supercharger to produce formidable low-end power and a KKK turbo to provide the high-rev grunt, the Delta was developed throughout 1985, making a brilliant debut on the RAC Rally that November. Britain’s world championship round was usually an event that Lancia avoided, and the Delta arrived in the United Kingdom among rumours of fragility and concern about its handling and power. It was classic Italian sandbagging. In the hands of Toivonen, the S4 swept to a convincing one-two as its rivals fell away.

The Delta’s success lay in the radical route that Lancia had taken at the new car’s conception. Gone were 20 years of monocoque-based Lancias, the S4 being built around a lightweight tubular spaceftame with the engine, unlike the Audi, mounted amidships, giving the four-wheel drive brute greater poise and considerably less understeer than its rivals. Suspension came in the form of wishbones front and rear, the latter using twin dampers to improve poise, with power transmitted through a fivespeed Hewland gearbox to the centre differential from where the driver could adjust the power distribution.

Pulling tight the six-point harness as I contemplate what lies ahead of me, the interior of the S4 is stark, functional but curiously antiquated. Ridiculous images of film footage from early space missions flash through my mind. Aluminium reflective foil lines the dividing wall between my neck and the 500bhp behind it and a grey alloy dash sweeps across the cabin, punctuated only by large square red warning lights which seem to have no purpose other than decoration. Just one ominously large dial commands your attention, a rev counter that enters its yellow stage at 8,500rpm, a red line at 9,000. To the right of the leather wheel, now worn shiny with use, sits a switch numbered one to four indicating the variations in available turbo boost. Boost that you know is set to redefine your opinions on what constitutes real acceleration.

Carbon sheets line the cockpit walls, joining the spaceframe tubing and it quickly becomes clear that this is more a purpose-built race car with body panels haphazardly dropped on top than a simple rally car. Reaching for the ignition it dawns on me that the Delta S4 has just one purpose to go as fast as possible from A to B.

It catches on the first press of the starter, filling the car with a great mechanical din. No throaty roar or glorious scream that you would find emanating from Lancia’s earlier 037 or Stratos, but an aural assault so distracting that I have to pause before depressing the heavy racing clutch and engaging the dog-leg first.

Earlier in the day, Gino Macaluso, the car’s owner, told me with a smile how the Delta pulled with ease from tickover in any gear, its torque curve almost unstinting throughout the range. Rolling slowly through an asphalt hairpin, I exit facing a slight incline with a humpback bridge perhaps 300 yards away. The needle shows barely 1000rpm as I grit my teeth and stamp hard on the throttle.

Fighting in vain to stop my head slamming back into the seat, my neck muscles are simply incapable of resisting the forces that are trying to push me back into the engine compartment. In the time it takes to blink, the needle is rushing up to the red line, second gear beckoning and the bridge already upon me. The Lancia is geared to pull no more than 50mph in its lowest gear, but with second and third offering just a few miles an hour more each time and no discernible flat spot whatsoever, the acceleration is formidable. Debutants in Formula One cars often comment on the difficulty they have in simply focussing on the horizon as it rushes towards them. The Delta offers that sort of experience.

Weighing in at under 900kg and producing nearly 300bhp per litre, it is a struggle to even get your hand off the wheel and down to the gearlever under full acceleration. This is a brutal machine -its attitude and reaction to changes in throttle almost feral. In a straight line I was never convinced that it was entirely under my control, in the corners it simply wasn’t. The gearbox remains notchy at any revs, but clanks through quickly nevertheless, and as I grabbed second, mounted the bridge and plunged down towards a quick right-hander, my speed was still relentlessly increasing. A quick flick on the wheel and the Lancia turned in surefootedly but not that reassuringly. The steering is light and as quick as you would expect from a competition vehicle, but grip levels from the 255/50 Michelin tyres are not immense and it was clear that they were struggling to cope with power that was forever trying to push the car straight on. A small prod on the rock solid brake pedal slows things enough to get the nose back on line, but not the one first intended.

The Delta is not an understeering nightmare, simply a short wheelbased car with huge power. Rush up to a corner and floor it and you get what you deserve. Lancia’s works drivers in 1986 used to say that they tackled many events as if they were driving a dragster: maximum acceleration on every straight followed by an off-throttle roll through the bends. Any time lost there would soon be made up on the next flat-out section.

Only one man really tamed the S4, wrung more from it than any other Lancia driver: Henri Toivonen. The Finn could do things which made his colleagues shake their heads in disbelief; but eventually even he was unable to control the Delta on the frighteningly quick Tour de Corse. Toivonen’s fatal accident shook the rallying community and rang the death knell for Group B. Earlier in the year catastrophe had already struck in Portugal when a Ford RS200 flew into the crowd killing several spectators. The second fatal accident of the year was one too many for the sport’s governing body, who banned the supercars for the 1987 season.

What replaced them was Group A, forcing manufacturers to build 5000 production vehicles and, most importantly, limiting power outputs to 300bhp. Lancia, as ever, responded in typical fashion, turning the Group B Delta into the Delta HF in just a few months. The new car stormed to the manufacturers’ title in its first season, a victory that signalled the beginning of world rally domination never imagined by the marque’s rivals. Between 1987 and 1992, no manufacturer got a look in, Lancia winning six makes’ crowns on the trot and four drivers’ titles for good measure. In its final guise as the Delta Integrale in 1992, it won eight out of the 10 rallies in the season, taking the title by a country mile from Toyota.

Surprisingly, one of the events where the Lancias failed to take maximum points was the Safari; a rally it had won on three of the last four occasions. Juha Kankunnen took second spot on the African plains, and it is this very Integrale that rounds off this remarkable group test. The most obvious contrast between the Integrale and the S4 comes when you look over your shoulder. Not since the very early days, and the little Fulvia saloon, had Lancia ran a front-engined car. Now, four models later, the Delta’s 2-litre Garrett turbocharged fourcylinder block sits transversely in front of the driver, some neat packaging wedging the block, turbo, intercooler and six-speed gearbox into the confined area. In comparison to the purpose-built Group B car, it is the motorsport version of sardines, and must have made servicing major components a real problem.

In its full Safari trim, the Integrale sits tall and proud, its colossal springs and Bilstein dampers giving the Michelin tyres a good eight or 10 inches of clearance under the wheel arches. To cope with the fast, often flat-out stages across the African continent the Lancia runs just a small rear wing, and heat reflective material inside the rear windows helps to keep out the pervasive desert sun. To get an idea of just how tough the conditions on this marathon rally can be, a small thermometer in the cabin starts at 100F and ends at 150F. All around this purposeful rally car are incongruous reminders of how these high-tech machines set out to tackle an event like the Safari. A carbon dash with electronic rev counter lights the way to 8,000rpm, expertly spaced aluminium drilled pedals peek out through the suede wheel that reaches deep into my chest. But look behind the co-driver’s seat and an enormous machete – mandatory for all competitors is strapped to the door and a fiercesome `gnu-bar’ for helping clear rocks and large mammals bolts squarely across the front of the car.

With its Safari set-up untouched, we take the Integrate away from the tarmac and head for a fast, sweeping dirt road lined with potholes and random piles of deep, crunching gravel and stones; the perfect test of both traction and suspension. A light, springy clutch action and featherlight power steering give no indication of the potential of this remarkable machine. Snicking into first gear I accelerate hard along a short straight barely wider than the car itself; a whisper of turbo lag is soon replaced by formidable and linear acceleration that picks up the Delta and throws it forward. The deep, grooved tyres cut their way through gravel which is at times a good five inches deep, the car gaining speed as if on flat, smooth asphalt. Suspension more compliant than you could possibly imagine turns potholes that would break your road car in two into mere distractions, the Lancia’s pitch and attitude hardly changing. Heading towards the first of what looked like a mini-Grand Canyon, my first instinct was to lift, certain that to drop in it would mean an instant trip off-road. The reality is quite different, the Integrale so much more at home in these inhospitable conditions than its driver.

The true test of this car is to ask it to do things that you know no other would be capable of: braking from 90mph into a sharp corner in just 20 or 30 metres; cornering on loose shale at speeds that would shame a sportscar on the road. The Lancia does it all with room to spare. Smash the brake pedal deep into the floor and the four-pot Brembo brakes grip so hard that speed just falls away, whatever the surface. There is very little feel through the pedal but that is almost an irrelevance when the brakes are so efficient.

The whistle and flutter of the turbo wastegates sings out as you point the car towards the apex of a corner and then just accelerate hard away, the rear end shimmying nervously as the car fights to put the power down through the lighter rear wheels. I ran out of road and courage way before the Delta ran out of power or grip.

This is technical prowess at its highest, a fitting tribute to the Lancia marque and a worthy winner of a world championship. Just 20 years earlier, Italy’s hopes were pinned on a little red and black road car as it fought its way to victory on the 1972 Monte Carlo Rally. Less than one generation later, cars unimaginable to drivers such as Sandra Munari were proudly keeping the Lancia name at the top of world rallying. With its current Fiat paymasters drawing tight the pursestrings, hopes of a Lancia return to the world rally stage may be wishful thinking. In the meantime the Delta S4 and Integrate are fitting reminders of what the single most influential name in the sport achieved. Our sincere thanks to Gino Macaluso and his staff at Girard-Perregaux for helping to make this feature possible.

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