When Supercars Were Super Cars
Racing folk like people to think they are making street cars better with the technology they develop. Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport but they have banned everything that we plebs have on our hot hatchbacks, so it is a struggle to make the trickle-down tech argument stick. Our street cars can have ABS, traction control, stability control, automated gearboxes, four-wheel drive, torque vectoring differentials, magnetorheological dampers, active aerodynamics, and four-wheel steering, all of which are banned in F1. Its not even a case of the tail wagging the dog – street cars and proper race cars are two completely different animals.
But maybe there is an exception…
What if there were a top-level form of motorsport that took place on real world roads, in all climates and conditions, in completely street-legal cars? Wow, that sounds like it would offer tangible benefits and tech transfer to the cars I drive. Well, it exists and it’s called rally.
With one notable exception, the World Rally Championship, and its variously named ancestors and siblings, have always been a showcase for existing production cars pushed to their limits. In the early ‘70s Lancia drove a wedge into the rules, literally, when it built a production car specifically to tackle rallying, the Stratos. It became an icon and ultimately heralded in the WRC’s Group B era, during which rallying allowed the tail to wag the dog, basing its formula completely on purpose-built, homologated monsters.
The Lancia Stratos, from lanciapress.com
But even then, unlike on the sanitized irrelevance of the F1 battlefield, the Stratos, and the subsequent Group B cars it spawned, still had to be road-legal and able to conquer everything a regular driver might find – from the frozen roads of Sweden to the sun-baked asphalt of Spain to the muddy forest trails of Wales.
Rally-bred road cars have always been everyday supercars that you and I can drive over an icy mountain pass, an arid desert road, or through wet, twisting country lanes, with great speed and stability. No Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Pagani is going to see which way a well-driven Subaru WRX or Mitsubishi EVO went on a twisting, crowned road marked with sewer drains and potholes. And as Aldous Huxley rightly said, “Speed provides the one genuinely modern pleasure,” so don’t bother telling yourself that it’s more important to look good to go good.
Even at its most celebrated and crazy peak, Group B rallying produced technology that was directly relatable to regular folk’s real-world driving experiences. And the homologation specials built to satisfy those regulations remain some of the most captivating and mythical road cars ever produced. The differentials in Audi’s squat, weapons-grade Sport Quattro are directly related to the ones pulling you and your RS4 through that apex covered in wet leaves. That lag-free slug of acceleration you enjoy from your BMW’s sequential turbos can be traced back to the Lancia Delta S4 and the Porsche 959. The antilag systems de rigeur on modern WRC cars have become so efficient and sophisticated they can now be implemented in road cars. The lessons learned in the snow and gravel can now be enjoyed taking the kids to school.
Rally-bred cars are weapons for real-world drivers. But anyone who has spent time on a racetrack will tell you that track driving has nothing to do with street driving. I have demoralised vastly more powerful WRXs and EVOs at time trials with a humble front-wheel-drive race car. Our ‘84 Dodge Omni GLH is completely prepared for one thing, time trialing on the wide, smooth tracks of the Northeast. It is not road-legal and would be utterly unstreetable even if we could get a plate on it – we trailer it where it needs to go.
I remember following one 400hp WRX and watching it push its way inexorably towards Pocono’s unforgiving concrete wall before sweeping neatly underneath him. Even with four times the power, he never troubled my mirrors for the rest of that session. But rallying isn’t like the controlled environment of the track, where the changes to the surface’s fixed dimensions are measured in single degrees of temperature. Rallying is about improvisation, about getting from A to B and dealing with anything the environment can throw at you along the route. And for that, my track car would be left in a ditch spinning its cold tires, watching the rally cars grip and squirm past every two minutes.
A snapshot of another trip to Pocono Raceway: Different car this time, I had been loaned a reasonably well-prepared Alfa Romeo Milano 3.0. It was ‘street legal’- or at least it had plates – and I was driving it to and from the track. On track it was awesome. With its de-catted straight pipes, it sounded like a ‘70s F1 car when the sound bounced off the wall. It was a fun day at the track and the car was fast. While everyone packed up, a huge summer rain storm rolled in. How I wished I had a trailer. Route 80 was a river and I was in a rock solid, ground scraping, over sprung track car with anti-roll bars the size of my forearm and R-compound tires. Oh, and it wasn’t mine. Not just a long, cheek-clenching ride home, but a dangerous one…for me and the others on the road with me. Somehow, I don’t think Mr. Pushy WRX had the same experience. These musings are timely for me. A couple weeks ago I had a two thousand-mile road trip to make between Nova Scotia and New Jersey. It was the end of March, and I set out knowing I could face anything along the way. The dreaded Cobequid pass can throw drivers into unrelenting white-out conditions without so much as a mile’s warning. Hugging the shores of the Bay of Fundy is often a four-seasons-in-one-day kind of experience. Route 9 in Maine is a two-lane roller coaster through a largely unpeopled, 98-mile stretch of wilderness.
For some time, our aspirational vehicles – supercars and hypercars – have been shaped by track technology. At last month’s Geneva Motor Show, Ferrari and McLaren put all their trickle-down F1 tech on show in the forms of their new LaFerrari and P1. Both are awe-inspiring and lustworthy. But in equal measure, they are irrelevant. Both these manufacturer’s entry-level models, the 458 and 12C, are already too fast to be fully exploited on any real-world road. Now their uber-siblings have upwards of 300 more horsepower and weigh less. Where can they be used? Only on the racetrack is where – and you’ll probably want to get them there with a trailer.
I remember driving around the twisting country roads surrounding Lime Rock Park, in northwest Connecticut, in a Lamborghini Gallardo. Once settled into the experience I became aware that I was, of course, consistently over the speed limit, and that I was in second gear. I felt great with all eyes on me driving back into the paddock, but other than a few good hard pulls in first and second gears, I didn’t feel like I was returning from an exhilarating drive. I’ve driven the same roads in a 542 horsepower Jaguar XKR-S and had even less fun.
For a brief moment, when Group B ruled the roost, it looked like our Supercars might wind up being super cars – relevant in the real world. Rallying was the sporting equivalent of F1 in the forest. An Audi Sport Quattro, Ford RS200, Peugeot Ti16, Lancia 037 or Delta S4 could be driven on the road. Any road…anytime. But, famously, it didn’t last and we are stuck with irrelevant track monsters, unfit for the real world.
Italdesign Parcour, from salon-auto.ch
So I played the usual game with myself when I set out into the late-winter unknown – through snowy rural mountain roads towards slushy suburbia. If I could choose any car, what would be ideal for such a journey? Would it be a Supercar or a super car? Well, it would have been one of cars that debuted in Geneva, and it would be both – Giugiaro’s Italdesign Parcour. It is plainly inspired by the greatest rally car of all time, the Lancia Stratos, and like its inspiration, it is fit for purpose. A useable Supercar. Which is super.
This article originally appeared on Nicholas D’Amato’s blog, Just Add Lightness