If we asked you to name any Italian rally car, it would pretty much roll off the tongue. Whether you just imagined a Stratos, a Delta or an 037 there’s little doubt an image of a Lancia just formed in your mind. But think of an Italian WRC driver; and initially, that’s a lot harder.
There’s a sense of irony to that given Italy boasts as many World Rally Championship drivers’ crowns as rally-mad nations like Sweden and the United Kingdom. He may lack the same cult status as his late ’80s Lancia team-mate Markku Alén and Toyota’s Juha Kankkunen, but Miki Biasion beat them both on his way to the 1988 and 1989 world championship titles. Yet despite his title success and 17 rally wins, he’s not overly revered.
Biasion was a mainstay in the Lancia team throughout the 1980s, driving an 037 for the Jolly Club outfit after a spell behind the wheel of Opel’s Ascona. His first victory would come in Argentina at the helm of the Delta S4, but it was when Group B was outlawed and the Group A formula rose to the top that Biasion really excelled.
This was of course the era where drivers didn’t enter every single event, but nevertheless, across his two championship seasons Biasion scooped 10 wins from 12 starts. That’s a winning ratio of 83.3% double that of Alén’s (33.3%) and Kankkunen’s (7.1%) combined.
But, strangely for an Italian, Biasion wasn’t the most charismatic of drivers and was beaten by Kankunnen in 1987, 1990 and 1991 when they were team-mates. A move to Ford in 1992 didn’t bring the hoped for glory either and he retired in 1994, not able to live with the pace of team-mate François Delecour.
To date, Biasion stands as Italy’s only World Rally Champion but he’s far from the only driver to make an impression on the WRC. Sandro Munari was Italy’s first rallying hero and was utterly synonymous with the iconic Stratos in the 1970s. Raffaele Pinto, Flavio Bacchelli and Antonio Fassina all sampled glory throughout the decade too, but none of them could compete with Munari’s class.
Munari’s three Monte Carlo victories on the bounce between 1975-77 proved the point, and had there been a world championship title for drivers in addition to manufacturers in 1977, Munari would have been Italy’s first champion. Instead, he was the winner of the FIA Cup for Rally Drivers, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Attilio Bettega was another Italian driver who represented Italy’s most famous rallying team, and claimed four podium finishes throughout the Group B era. Sadly, the 1985 Tour de Corse claimed Bettega’s life when his 037 left the road and a tree ruptured his seat.
But back to our proposed question, and perhaps the Italian WRC driver that came to mind was Gigi Galli.
That Galli didn’t win a WRC round can be considered a travesty; at the very least because his celebrations would have topped even Petter Solberg’s, a man known for his exuberant victory displays.
Rally of Turkey 2005 was the world’s first true glimpse of Galli’s brilliance as he led early on in an unfancied Mitsubishi Lancer WRC05, only for mechanical trouble to spoil the party.
A move to a privately-run Peugeot 307 WRC in 2006 netted a maiden podium in Argentina and it all looked to be falling into place with a move to the M-Sport Ford team for 2008.
But a nasty accident on Rally Germany robbed Galli of his best years. A fractured left femur sidelined him for five months and he didn’t return the following year.
Franco Cunico would probably score well as an answer on a gameshow such is his relative obscurity, but he did create a moment of history for himself back in 1993. The three-time Italian Rally Champion’s defining career moment came behind the wheel of a privately-run Ford Escort RS Cosworth on Rally Sanremo, his home WRC round, which he won by some 10 minutes.
Italy’s other WRC winners are Andrea Aghini and Piero Liatti. Winners of the 1992 Sanremo and 1997 Monte Carlo rallies respectively, both their careers followed similar trajectories in driving for top teams but later in life being called upon as asphalt experts.
An honorable mention must go to Lorenzo Bertelli too – the heir to the Prada fashion label – who last appeared in a Ford Fiesta WRC on Rally Chile last year.
Bizarrely though, a lot of Italy’s most respected rally drivers never made it into the WRC.
Paolo Andreucci is the godfather of Italian rallying, winning 11 national titles since 2001 in Fords, Fiats and latterly Peugeots. Giandomenico Basso is a renowned force in Europe too, credited with the inaugural Intercontinental Rally Challenge title in 2006 and still winning European and Italian Rally Championship rounds to this day. Three-time ERC champion Luca Rosetti deserves a shoutout here too.
The future seems to lie with two-time Italian Tarmac champion Andrea Crugnola, Simone Campedelli and WRC2 frontrunner Fabio Andolfi (whose immediate family are all drivers or co-drivers) in the pursuit of ending a WRC victory drought for Italy that stretches back all the way to January 1997.