The story behind Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive system is the stuff of automotive legend. Long story short, in 1979 Volkswagen was working on a four-wheel drive vehicle for the military and Audi soon realized the potential for four-wheel drive cars for family cars. From there, Audi then realized the potential it had for rally use. After some smooth talking, Audi got the rally-race bosses to change the rules to allow four-wheel drive cars and the original Audi Quattro was born just three years later.
From there, Audi simply dominated the World Rally Championship in 1982, as the fire-spitting Quattro was unmatched in its ability to tear rally stages to shreds. But after seeing Audi crush its competition, another legend of rally decided to take it to the four-ringed brand but do it with just two wheels. Thus the rivalry between Audi and Lancia was born.
In this new episode of The Grand Tour, Jeremy Clarkson takes us through that rivalry and the 1983 rally season in which Lancia was able to beat Audi in a true David and Goliath story.
To combat the mighty Quattro, Lancia developed the 037, a rear-wheel drive, mid-engined car that was as pretty as it was agile. While Audi’s Quattro was far superior on loose surface, which cover most rally stages, the Lancia 037 was lightweight, nimble and very, very fast. Lancia also had some incredible drivers on board, such as the famous Walter Rohl (who ironically later raced for Audi). Despite the 037 being a great car and Lancia having brilliant drivers, it was still the underdog.
Audi’s team was far better funded, having Volkswagen as its parent company, and its team was far better equipped. However, what the Lancia team lacked in funding or mechanical know-how, it made up for with rally experience and savvy. So Lancia decided to, let’s say bend the rules a little. It lied about how many cars were homologated to the road, lied about the construction of its roll cages (which actually made the 037 a death trap for driver if they crashed) and even swapped out tires mid-race on some stages. The latter bit wasn’t explicitly against the rules but it wasn’t exactly allowed either. Lancia also had its driver pour salt on icy roads ahead of their car, which was against the rules as well. Lancia drivers would also delaying their start times on dusty roads, so as to let the dust finish settling from the previous car, even if that was also against the rules.
Lancia ended up winning that 1983 rally season, despite actually taking some races off, on really slippery events where they knew the Quattro would win. So despite deliberately tanking a few races, Lancia’s 037 would end up ruining Audi’s brilliant season. Since then, Audi has become a motorsport giant, having success not only in WRC but in WEC (World Endurance Championship), as well as others. Lancia has almost completely fallen off the face of the Earth, become a shell of its former self. Now, Lancia is involved in all of zero motorsport activities and makes only one road car and it’s a re-badged Chrysler only sold in Italy. It’s quite sad actually.
It’s a great episode of The Grand Tour but the last part, which features this incredible story, is the best part of it. It’s a truly fascinating story of two completely different automakers battling it out on the world rally stage with two absolutely, brilliantly epic cars.