When chassis number nine rolled out of Ingolstadt, it’s future was fairly clear. Hannu Mikkola would drive it on the Mänttä Rally in the second week of August and after that it would be used for testing and promotional purposes.
Nobody mentioned a Christmas tree.
The final evolution of the car that changed the face of rallying – Audi’s quattro E2, to give it its full homologation title – was designed to do great things between the trees. It wasn’t meant to drive one home for Christmas.
Yet that’s precisely what BGMsport owner Ian Gwynne is doing right now. Sort of.
The tree’s not going to Gwynne’s place, but to the home of Girardo & Co; collectors and brokers of some of the finest and most fabulous motorsport machinery around.
At this time of the year, Girardo & Co has become to us what Coca-Cola was to a generation. And what John Lewis still is to some Brits.
It’s become the go-to maker of Christmas-themed videos. Commercials. Films.
What do we call them?
“They’re not really adverts for the cars,” reasons Max Girardo. “The films raise awareness of the cars, they remind people how cool the cars are and, of course, it reminds people of Girardo & Co. But above all of that… it’s good fun.”
This is the fourth film and the third featuring a tree on the roof.
“When we started with the first film [in 2016], we were just messing about in the office,” says Girardo. “We wanted to make a video, we’d just discovered Longcross [test track], we had my Lancia 037 and we needed a Christmas tree.”
The combination of those elements made film number one. A year later and it was the kit to go beneath the tree which was required.
“The basic premise was that we’d forgotten the presents,” Girado continues. “So the 037 was used again, then we borrowed a Delta and had the Martini van to collect them. After that, things really did escalate a little bit. That one involved three days filming in a bloody freezing Sweet Lamb.”
For 2018, the Subaru Impreza WRC97 Colin McRae used to win the 1997 Safari was pressed into action to bring the tree from Wales to Girardo’s office.
And last year?
“Life got in the way last year,” Girardo says, “so we wanted to be back with something special this year.”
Something special is the Audi quattro E2 which sits before us right now. Complete with beautifully lit evergreen pine – it might have been a spruce or even some sort of fir-conifer-type arrangement. Funnily enough, most of the attention was focused south of the roofline.
Girardo was the man who brokered the sale of the car on behalf of DirtFish owner Steve Rimmer.
Sensing Girardo is warming up to tell his side of the story of how we got here with Steve’s new car, Gwynne steps in.
“Wine,” he grins, “might have been involved… Max and I were talking about this idea. He asked if I thought Steve would be up for helping us make the video this year. I said I thought he would be OK with it.
“Max said: “So, if you could just talk to Steve and ask him about putting the tree on the roof, that’d be great…” We all got on a call and sure enough, Steve and James [Rimmer, Steve’s son and accomplished rally driver] were all over it.”
The car landed into BGMsport’s Brackley premises on Thursday. This is Tuesday. The previous four days had been spent going through the car, making sure everything was where it should be. It was something of a relief for a four-owner car from 35 years ago.
When three of those owners are Audi itself, Mikkola and Juha Kankkunen, you know you’re onto a good thing. A very, very good thing.
And the quattro Sport E2 really was that good thing.
Here at DirtFish we’ve always had a soft spot for Audi’s final shot at Group B. Why? Because Mikkola gave the car a debut victory in the heart of Washington state on an event now sponsored by DirtFish, the 1985 Olympus Rally.
Having redefined rallying so comprehensively at the top of the ’80s, it’s fair to say Audi had been caught and comprehensively overtaken by rival Peugeot and Lancia would follow soon enough.
The E2’s predecessor, the quattro Sport, wasn’t Ingolstadt’s finest hour. Chopping 244mm out of the original quattro wheelbase then shoehorning a longitudinal 20-valve five-cylinder motor ahead of the front wheels didn’t make for the most compliant of cars. It was six months before one of these cars made the finish of a world championship rally and little wonder Stig Blomqvist would happily step back to the less powerful but more predictable quattro A2 if asked.
“The worst handling car I ever drove,” says M-Sport managing director Malcolm Wilson, who was bitten by one on the 1985 Manx Rally.
“But it was also a car I absolutely loved. When you got it right, it gave you so much satisfaction. All that power and torque and trying to tame it and keep it on the road – I’ll never forget my time in that car.”
The E2 was the car to solve all of those issues. All of them?
OK, some of them.
That was the only time in my career when I got a sensation I was no longer sitting in that car. It was like being on the outside of it allHannu Mikkola
Forgetting the Christmas tree, the most noticeable thing about the silhouette sitting before us today is the aero. Snow plough at the front and a whopping wing on the rear. Peugeot had been forced to trim its own tea-tray rear wing from the rear of the 205 T16, so eyebrows were raised when FISA signed-off on Audi’s idea.
But there was a difference. This wasn’t all about the aerodynamics, see. No, no, no. It had to be this big to make sure sufficient air could be fed into the various radiators, oil and hydraulic fluid coolers installed in the car’s rear.
Ah, OK. So, the 500 kilos of downforce it created were just a coincidence? Gotcha.
That rear wing went someway to balance the car’s hideous weight distribution – don’t forget the quattro E2 still had that great five-cylinder lump hanging somewhere way out ahead of the front axle. As the E2 neared the end of its days, Audi trimmed the mass over the front wheels from 58% to a more manageable 52%. But it was still a chunk.
Even with the addition of a center differential for the first time, it was a challenge to get the car turned in.
For Walter Röhrl, the only man ever to win at world championship level with the E2, it was the ultimate challenge.
“It didn’t like to go around slower corners,” says Röhrl. “The handling was not easy. You had to force it around the corners with a bit of swinging and left-foot braking. But on the quick stuff… it was really nice to drive.”
And the quick stuff doesn’t come much quicker than Ouninpohja, that legendary stretch of Finland which makes heroes and creates legend on an annual basis.
Having used the car we have here with us today for his recce, Mikkola well remembers his record-breaking run with a sister car through Ouninpohja a few days later.
“I’ll remember that for the rest of my days,” said Mikkola. “That was the only time in my career when I got a sensation I was no longer sitting in that car. It was like being on the outside of it all. Later on when I related the experience I’ve been told fighter pilot sometimes get a similar feeling of being extraneous to activities they’re performing.
“The Audi had those big wings then. The harder you dared drive the harder the car will be pressed into the road giving it better grip. It was really difficult to find a limit. I hit a pile of logs on the previous stage and broke the rear suspension. They told me they had to fit three titanium springs and one steel spring because they’d run out of the titanium ones.
“At the start of Ouninpohja, I thought: “I don’t give a damn about the springs, I’m just going to go for it.””
Go for it he did. The E2 stopped the clocks on 11m35s for the 16 miles, meaning an average of just over 80mph.
Mikkola continues: “I drove 12 years together with Arne [Hertz, co-driver] and he never normally made comments on my driving, no matter whether the stage has gone well or badly. When we were rushing up the last climb and Arne had read his last note he unexpectedly said: “I shall immediately give my overalls to the person who drives this stage faster!””
Those overalls remained on Hertz’s back.
But today, it’s me in his seat.
The second best seat in the house. Trust me, I’m very happy it’s Gywnne who’s dealing with wheel and pedals.
The thing is an absolute monster of a car. Off the line, the five inline cylinders sing like it’s 1985 all over again. But come the corners – Curborough only has slow ones – and Röhrl’s exactly right. It needs persuasion. And by persuasion I mean brute force and physics.
Early in the day, Ian’s still finding a sensible limit to drive to, but by the time I get in he’s sussed a sweet spot which has the quattro tearing at the Tarmac to haul towards and over the horizon in no time. It’s exquisite. More than that. It’s a privilege.
“Walter might have been right…” says Gwynne, “it’s not easy to drive at first. But you do get to feel more comfortable. There’s a lot of understeer there and it’s just about having the confidence to keep the boost pushing.”
He’s telling me this as he flicks front-end push into a stunning four-wheel drift.
Eyeing the dials, Gwynne comes off the throttle and settles us back beside the BGMsport truck.
“It’s getting quite warm,” he says.
So much for all of that rear-wing cooling jiggery-pokery.
“Yeah, but I don’t think that aero and cooling package took this into consideration,” laughs Gwynne pointing to the tree.
Good point. Back to the reason we’re here.
Back to explaining Alex Easthope’s Lego-loving dream created, written, filmed and edited by Tom May.
Actually, you don’t need to me to explain it.
Just enjoy it. Right here.
And then start counting the days until the next one. This really is the most wonderful time of the year…