What Jolly Club meant to the WRC

After the recent death of team boss Roberto Angiolini, David Evans explains Jolly Club's evocative contribution to the rally scene

Miki Biaision Jolly Club Lancia WRC Sanremo Rally 1984

The fact that Jolly Club never brought a Totip-liveried car to the RAC Rally only served to further my enthusiasm for a team about which I knew little. But wanted to know everything.

Talking to Carlos Sainz about the loss of Roberto Angiolini last week reminded me how much of my youth had been lost to the far-off mystique of the Milanese. Growing up, I loved Lancia. Don’t get me wrong, I always wanted Ford to win, but I loved Lancia. I loved the Martini-ness, I loved the way Ninni Russo was rarely seen without Wayfarers and the way they all wore Sparco.

Sparco overalls in Martini colours. Is there anything more Italian? Is there anything more fever?

Yes. The Jolly Club.

The Jolly Club. It had all the Italian cool of the official team from down the road in Turin. But it was called the Jolly Club. And it was sponsored by Totip. What did Totip mean? Who cares. It’s a Totip Jolly Club Lancia. When Motoring News printed those four words in the same sentence, I was lost to the rest of the world.

My obsession was the best kind. It made little sense, born out of the some sort of Ceefax-fed far-off infatuation.

And the BBC’s Ceefax service was pressed firmly into action in 1989, when Alex Fiorio looked briefly like he might break the Jolly Club duck and win a round of the World Rally Championship – in a Totip-backed Lancia Delta HF Integrale.

He didn’t of course. And it was perhaps a demonstration of my naivety to think he might be allowed to beat Miki Biasion’s factory 16-valve version. Remember that event was even more important to Lancia, it was the debut of that 16-valve car. Martini colours run on a red car. Bellísimo.

In the end, son of Cesare would trail Biasion home by five seconds.

890301P Fiorio 06 rk

Alex Fiorio heads for the 1989 Portugal podium in his Jolly Club Lancia - from the McKlein Photography archive

Fiorio Jr’s seasons in the sun – he finished third in the championship in 1988 and second the following year – were really the highlight for the Jolly Club. Or at least they were for me.

By then the organisation was already 30 years old, having been formed by Roberto Angiolini’s father Mario. When his father died in 1966, the then 21-year-old Roberto stepped up and stood at his mother Renata’s side to carry the family dream forwards.

The Jolly Club name originally came from the ‘Joker’ in a pack of cards. Joker in that sense translates to Jolly. And while we’re explaining the Italian side of things, Totip was a horse racing predictor thing: totalizzatore ippico. See? Totip.

Alfa Romeo provided the early machinery for Jolly Club in rallying. There was a brief 1970s flirtation with Formula 1. Silvio Moser put a Bellassi-Ford on the grid for the 1971 Italian Grand Prix. The Swiss driver retired with suspension failure and Monza that year would be the Jolly Club’s only F1 start.

Rallying was where the Angiolini family belonged and domestic success was never far away and rarely more Italian than when Adartico Vudafieri took the 1982 Italian title in a Jolly Club-run Ferrari 308 GTB.

Group B brought the opportunity to work with Biasion for the first time. He drove a Totip-liveried 037 for three years before graduating to the Martini team. It was, however, the transition to Group A and Group N that provided the chance of a championship.

From 1987, the governing body of world motorsport introduced the FIA Cup for Drivers of Production Cars – the forerunner of the P-WRC or WRC 2 or 3 today.

Fiorio took the 1987 title in a Group N Delta.

Interestingly, Jolly Club always ran the orange and green stripes in precisely the same way Martini’s blue, black and red flashed the side of the Lancias.

The orange and green was sorely missed when Totip pulled the plug on its backing at the end of 1989 after eight years with Jolly Club.

For 1990, a deal was done with Fina and a Frenchman called Didier.

It was Auriol who delivered the ultimate prize to the Angiolini family with a maiden world championship win in Sanremo 1991. It’s fair to say, as the event progressed – as all these events progressed – the lines between factory and semi-factory teams blurred; mechanics in Martini hats would regularly be found dirtying hands beneath a Fina-coloured car.

Didier Auriol Jolly Club Lancia WRC Sanremo Rally 1991

Didier Auriol's 1991 Sanremo win was Jolly Club's long-awaited breakthrough - image from the McKlein Photography archive

We all know what happened in 1992, when Lancia delivered the ultimate Delta HF Integrale – a weapon known as Super Delta or, even more evocatively, as the Deltona. The decision had been taken within the Fiat Group that touring car racing was to be the focus.

The Deltonas – along with Martini backing and a driver line-up including Auriol and Juha Kankkunen – were handed to the Angiolini family firm. By now Claudio Bortoletto was managing the Jolly Club effort and that was ’92 season was really something else. The Martini cars won eight of the WRC rounds they started and delivered a world title to Lancia (Toyota’s Carlos Sainz lifted the drivers’ title from under the noses of Auriol and Juha Kankkunen).

Lancia was, however, never far from that 1992 season. In Ninni Russo’s words, it was a little more in the shadows, but it was still there.

The following year was all Jolly Club when Sainz arrived to drive a Repsol-liveried Lancia.

Lacking ongoing development, the Delta was suddenly exposed as being a little long in the tooth. The partnership, while it delivered lifelong friendships, bore relatively little success and no wins.

With Lancia gone, Ford’s Escort RS Cosworth was the weapon of choice for Franco Cunico’s hat-trick of Italian titles from 1994-96.

Even with Martini backing and Malcolm Wilson driving one of its car on the 1994 Sanremo Rally (before supplying the team with cars in 1995 and 1996), Escorts weren’t what Jolly Club was about.

Sadly, 40 years on from four friends sitting around a table on a foggy February evening in Milan, deciding to make Jolly Club a reality, the doors were closed. The team bankrupt.

I never knew Roberto Angiolini and never worked with Bortoletto, but those two men combined to shape so much of my enthusiasm for rallying and their country. For that, there are just two words.

Mille grazie.