1981 Lancia Stratos Group 4 Specification
Driving the fourth Stratos built. Flat-out in the privateer Stratos that helped save Lancia’s works rally campaign.
Kilometers per hour don’t matter, if the packed dashboard of this rally-born Lancia Stratos is anything to go by. The speedometer is such an afterthought that it plays second-fiddle even to the temperature gauge. But what are important are revolutions per minute. More in keeping with a sports-prototype or even a single-seater racer, the dashboard is dominated by a vast tachometer, fully visible while everything else is obscured by the steering wheel rim. The redline is set at 7000rpm, and once the fuel pump is flicked on and the starter-button punched, the yowling eruption of the Dino V6 behind my head announces every intention of hitting it with the slightest of provocations. There’s a clear runway and a complex of airfield roads ahead of me. And no speed limits.
‘I imagine snaking mountain roads and pebble-strewn hairpins as I carve my way around this airfield circuit’
There’s not much about the sound that suggests a relatively modest V6. Instead, imagine a high-powered mining drill slamming into a wall of marble, which manages to intensify further with a tap of the throttle. It reaches its redline as rapidly as a Vespa gets off the lights in downtown Turin, with just an impulse-jerk of the ankle. Acceleration is as urgent as the noise, so long as you make the changes careful and deliberate but quick on the short-travel, straight-cut gearbox – a bespoke Lancia item in the rally cars, rather than that shared with a Dino 246GT in the roadgoing Stratos. It needs a firm hand, but the closely stacked ratios are a wrist-flick rather than an elbow-throw away. And as it gathers pace along this crackling asphalt runway, Its single-minded sense of purpose is telegraphed via a total lack of luxury. There’s nothing other than a thin sheet of metal between my ankles and the flying gravel beneath, although this general lack of accoutrements means there’s actually plenty of room for my arms, legs and head once I’ve threaded my way through the door and the bars of the rollcage. The same can’t be said for the navigator’s seat. It seems almost like an afterthought. So much rally kit has been crammed into the right-hand side of the tiny cockpit that there’s hardly any room left at all for timecards, let alone a frantic expert map-reader wielding an Ordnance Survey sheet.
‘There was a narrow window for Fiorio to get the Stratos homologated’
And it’s this sense of single-mindedness that tells so much of this Stratos’s story. This car, the very first privateer-run Stratos to contest rallies at both Italian national and World Championship level, was a crucial part of the events of summer 1974 that made the Stratos the rally icon it is today.
Few cars have had a birth quite so difficult as the Lancia Stratos, conceived in 1970 by HF Squadra Corse rally team boss Cesare Fiorio and Bertone stylist Marcello Gandini, outside of parent company Fiat’s knowledge. Gandini evolved his 1969 Autobianchi Runabout concept – a combination of sports car and beach buggy. By 1973, the familiar Stratos coupé design was finalised and the first handful of prototypes built, but its rallying role had been cast into uncertainty. Its low ride height, mid-mounted engine and spaceframe chassis dressed with flimsy lightweight glassfibre body panels made the Stratos much more reminiscent of an Abarth sports-racer, unsuited to punishing surfaces found on rallies like the Acropolis, Safari or RAC. Classified as Group 5 Special Production Sports Cars, their first motor sport forays were in French and Italian tarmac road-races, competing in the likes of the 1973 Giro d’Italia, Tour de France Auto and the Targa Florio, the latter two being wins for Sandro Munari and Bernard Darniche respectively. Its rivals on events like these were cars like the De Tomaso Pantera Gr.5 and Porsche 911 Carrera 2.7RSR; more purposeful offspring of the new supercar boom, customer racing cars capable of worrying more focused prototypes, designed around rules promoting wild modifications.
The Stratos, it seemed, was best-suited to this role, to the point where development of a Group 5 racing version began in earnest by Christmas 1973, the car sprouting huge splitter and rear wing, ground-effect side-skirts and a turbocharged engine, with Gandini proposing a roofless Spider version to make it eligible for yet more racing classes. Fiorio’s desire, however, was to build 500 examples to homologate the car, with adjustable suspension, in the production-class Group 4, and with it a high-profile World Rally Championship entry. With this, though, he faced a problem – Fiat. The new Fiat-led Lancia regime didn’t completely object to the existence of the Stratos – upon the launch of the new Beta in 1972 it featured prominently in promotional photography, and Group 5 road-racing wins didn’t go amiss either. But paying Bertone to build 500 for Group 4 homologation ahead of a WRC assault trod on the toes of another recent Fiat acquisition. Fiat had quietly bought Abarth, its long-term tuning and competition-preparation partner, in July 1971, not making the buyout public knowledge until October’s Turin Motor Show, where Gandini’s pre-production concept Lancia Stratos graced Bertone’s stand.
Fiat’s new property did not include Abarth’s sports-racing interests – they went to Enzo Osella – leaving a niche within the Fiat empire for the Stratos to exploit. However, so far as Group 4 rallying was concerned, Fiat’s plans were concentrated on the existing Abarth 124 Spider. With Carlo Abarth out of the picture, ex-Ferrari engine designer Aurelio Lampredi was put in charge – and his Fiat twin-cams powered both Abarth’s rally cars and Lancia’s new Beta range. Fiat was readying another blow to the Stratos’s Group 4 rally ambitions too – an Abarth twin-cam version of its new mid-engined X1/9 sports car, another Gandini-penned spinoff from the Runabout concept, also temporarily classified in Group 5.
The 124 Spider and X1/9 were big-volume production-line cars, competition success paying far greater dividends for Fiat in showroom sales. By contrast, Fiorio needed Bertone to hand-build 500 Stratoses, but his specialised, focused rally car stood a greater chance of dominating the championship. There was a narrow window for him to make his point and get the Stratos homologated for the 1974 season, but Fiat’s management threw him a curveball: HF Squadra Corse would have to hedge Fiat’s bets by developing and running Lampredi-engined Beta Coupés for the lesser Group 3 in the 1974 season as well.
But then, as 1973 drew to a close, the oil crisis struck. In response, the FIA set back the start of the 1974 World Rally Championship until March. The cancelled list included the rough Monte Carlo and Acropolis rallies, neither of which favoured the Stratos. Fiorio figured that if he could get the Stratos homologated in time for the bulk of the rearranged season, now packed into October and November, Lancia stood a chance of making a decent showing in the WRC. His target for the Group 4 debut was the Italian round, the Rallye Sanremo, on October 2.
And that’s where this car comes in. Sidetracked by Fiat’s insistence on building Group 3 Betas, HF Squadra Corse still needed to test the Stratos’s mettle on more surfaces than just smooth tarmac. There was also a prototype two-setting suspension system, with stiffer ‘Monte Carlo’ and longer-travel ‘Safari’ setups that needed testing. With only a handful of Marlboro-liveried Stratos prototypes at HF’s disposal, Lancia sold a pair of Stratoses to privateers the Jolly Club and Team Grifone to quietly shake down alongside the works entries in the Rally Alpi Orientali. This little-known domestic Italian Rally Championship event forgoes Targa Florio-style high-speed tarmac in favour of cracked asphalt, gravel and punishing high-altitude hairpin bends on the Italian-Slovenian border.
This car – chassis number four – was the Jolly Club’s entry. The Club was originally formed to offer its members, many of whom were actually professional drivers and engineers, the opportunity to race and rally at the highest levels. Prior to 1974, it had worked with Autodelta to develop Alfa Romeo’s touring cars.
The Jolly Club took delivery of this Rosso Stratos car – still wearing Prova prototype plates because the car was yet to be homologated into Group 4 – on 17 May 1974, a little over a month before the start of the Alpi Orientali. Fiat works driver Roberto Cambiaghi and navigator Gianpiero Bertocci crewed this car, playing a supporting role to the Marlboro HF Squadra Corse cars of Sandro Munari and Amilcare Ballestrieri. Lancia was not the only team running a Group 5 prototype to take advantage of the rally’s development potential either. Ominously, Fiat turned up to what was ostensibly a lower-league event with a four-car works team headed by Fulvio Bacchelli in a Group 5 Abarth X1/9 prototype.
On the surface of it, the 1974 Rally Alpi Orientali looks like a humiliation for Lancia’s works team. Bacchelli claimed victory in the X1/9 while both works Stratoses succumbed to mechanical failures. However, it was the Stratos privateers that upheld the car’s reputation, proving the concept by finishing. Bacchelli’s X1/9 may have won, but Cambiaghi took second place on the Group 5 podium, and Grifone’s Giacomo Pelganta came a class third.
I imagine those snaking mountain roads and pebble-strewn hairpin bends as I carve my way around this airfield circuit. The brakes respond sharply to a determined shove, but what really surprises is the way this car corners, even on a rough, gravelly surface. The Stratos has a reputation for twitchy tail-happiness, but the sheer width of the tyres – 235/45 R15 on the front, 305/35 R15s at the rear – and the grip they afford as part of the Group 4 rally package inspires huge confidence. It’s a sense felt at the tiny steering wheel too. The front tyres dull fine feedback and foul their arches on full lock, but you steer a Stratos from your shoulders rather than your fingertips. Push it really hard into a hairpin bend and there’s screeching understeer – even more pronounced when the tyres are cold – before the back end nudges out of line, but it’s only a little bunny-hop before the rubber arrests the lateral slide.
But put faith in the stability of the tyres, and the immediacy with which its short, wide shape changes direction makes it feel like an extension of my mind as much as my body. Admittedly these wider wheels, arches and spoilers came after the Stratos had achieved Group 4 homologation, when the car was taken back by HF for modification ahead of its rallying career in the hands of a Signor Angelini, who bought it from the Jolly Club after the 1974 season was over. However, before then, it had a date with destiny. Fiorio acquired Group 4 homologation papers for the Stratos the day before the 1974 Rallye Sanremo began. How he managed this when Bertone clearly hadn’t got 500 examples ready is still the subject of much theorising, with rumours of a boozy lunch while cars were hastily given new identities and shifted around. Fiorio claims the roof fell in on the storage warehouse, leaving several cars in a state of disrepair. Also, the much-referenced FIA homologation committee took the form of Belgian motoring journalist and former Ferrari F1 and Le Mans racer Paul Frère, whose enthusiasm for all things Maranello – in the Stratos’s case, its engine – was well-known. Either way, Lancia had enough parts to complete the homologation run, and the Cambiaghi Stratos lined up at Sanremo with the Munari and Ballestrieri works cars, plus an additional Jolly Club Stratos crewed by Gabriele Sciascia and Francesco Bullani, and a trio of Betas with drivers including Shekhar Mehta and Simo Lampinen. In a show of internecine force, Fiat flooded the grid with Abarth 124s, an entry including no fewer than five works Group 4 cars. While this Stratos retired with mechanical problems and Ballestrieri’s car hit a bridge, Munari beat the leading works 124 of Giulio Bisulli by nearly eight minutes. With Fiat star-driver Markku Alén’s car succumbing to a steering fault on the third special stage and all but Bisulli’s suffering accidents, the victory was clear – Sanremo 1974 was the first WRC win for the Stratos. In response, Fiat admitted defeat and cancelled the Abarth X1/9. It marked a turning point in the Championship too. Fiat still led the table at Sanremo, but incredibly, having started the season using old Fulvias, ending it with the Stratos, and having to run a secondary backup team of Betas on the orders of its corporate parent, Lancia won the 1974 Championship. The season included victory on the Tour de Corse, a useful podium on the RAC and even Lampinen’s Beta in second place behind Munari in Canada.
The mighty effort of design, preparation and the sheer doggedness of Cesare Fiorio, encapsulated by this car’s first forays onto Italian rally stages, also marked the beginning of Lancia’s dominance of the WRC. The 1974 title was the first of three in a row. The mid-engined Stratos prompted the creation of the Renault 5 Turbo and with it, Group B. The Group 3 Beta could even be seen as the origin of the Delta Integrale. With 11 manufacturers’ titles to its name, Lancia remains the most successful constructor in the history of the sport, despite not having contested a WRC rally for 26 years.
This car’s dashboard is unique – neither the early road car style nor the later Group 4 slab. Wider wheels, arches and spoilers part of the 1981 upgrade. Cambiaghi debuts this car in the 1974 Rally Alpi Orientali.
‘The car’s closely stacked ratios are a wrist-flick rather than an elbow-throw away’
1974 Lancia Stratos (1981 Group 4 specification)
- Engine 2418cc V6, OHC per bank, three Weber 48 IDF7 carburettors
- Max power a 270bhp @ 7600rpm
- Max torque 205lb ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
- Steering Rack and pinion
- Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers.
- Rear: Macpherson struts, coil springs, telescopic dampers
- Brakes Discs front and rear
- Weight 910kg
- Performance Top speed: 132mph;
- 0-60mph: 4.1sec
- Cost new n/a
- Value now £700,000
Two-setting suspension testing was crucial ahead of Rallye Sanremo Barrel-like fire extinguisher commandeers the navigator’s footwell That’s ‘Anteriori Sinistra’ – front left – on the classic coffin-spoke wheels.
Triple Weber 48s lurk beneath enormous airbox of the 270bhp V6. Low ride height meant the Stratos’s rallying role was questioned in 1974. direct steering, but not as twitchy as its reputation Engine speed prioritised over all else, race car style Radio among kit crammed into navigator’s side of the cockpit.