Thirty-five years ago today, a year-long unbeaten streak for the Lancia team was snapped on the Tour de Corse.
The early years of the World Rally Championship’s Group A era were dominated by Lancia. It claimed the drivers’ and manufacturers’ crowns every season from 1987 to 1989.
In that first year, the Lancia Delta HF 4WD was immediately the car to beat but it wasn’t initially completely dominant. Wins on the 1987 Monte Carlo Rally and Rally Portugal for Miki Biasion and Markku Alén sandwiched success for Timo Salonen’s Mazda 323 4WD in Sweden. Then Hannu Mikkola took victory for Audi on the Safari Rally, an event Lancia didn’t contest.
Next up was the Tour de Corse, where the twisty asphalt roads offered two-wheel-drive cars a chance, especially given the extra weight of four-wheel-drive machinery. On its WRC debut, the Prodrive-engineered BMW M3 of Bernard Béguin led from the off before local driver Yves Loubet’s Lancia took over when the roads turned wet.
When Loubet hit tire trouble, Béguin’s BMW assumed the lead again and went on to record a two-minute victory.
It was the last time Lancia was beaten in the WRC (when it was present) until the following year’s corresponding event. Deltas won all of the eight remaining rallies that year except for Africa’s second round in Ivory Coast, which didn’t count towards the manufacturers’ championship and so the team didn’t enter.
Come 1988, the winning streak continued. Bruno Saby took the honors on the Monte, before Alén won in Sweden – Lancia’s first success on the event since Björn Waldegård took the Stratos to victory in 1975.
Replacing the HF 4WD, Lancia’s new Delta Integrale made its debut in Portugal, and promptly won in Biasion’s hands. Perhaps even more impressive was a repeat performance on the Safari; Lancia’s first win on the challenging endurance event.
The first week in May was the traditional date for the Tour de Corse, and the team from Turin headed to the French island seeking to extend its winning streak to a full year.
Loubet and Saby were entrusted with Martini-backed Integrales, and it was Loubet who led the way on the opening day as ’86 winner Saby struggled with his car’s balance.
Two-wheel-drive competition came from BMW, which was confident after Béguin’s victory a year earlier, and a pair of Ford Sierra RS Cosworths – newly lightened for asphalt running – for Didier Auriol and Carlos Sainz.
Toyota, meanwhile, was effectively on an extended test session as it joined the four-wheel-drive camp by debuting the ST165 version of its Celica GT-4 in the hands of reigning world champion Juha Kankkunen and Kenneth Eriksson.
BMW’s challenge was quickly diminished as Marc Duez lost time and then crashed, while Béguin and François Chatriot struggled with their tires. But Auriol was keeping his Sierra in touch.
When Loubet lost eight minutes with his Lancia stuck in neutral, Auriol hit the front and was never challenged again – the 29-year-old taking his first win in the WRC. It was also Ford’s first WRC success for a manufacturer-entered car since 1979.
Béguin was running second when he hit gearbox problems and then went off, dropping to seventh. So Loubet’s charging recovery drive netted him another second place on his home event, three minutes down on the winner but with 22 stage wins to Auriol’s five. The Corsican driver never would taste victory in the WRC.
Lancia’s bid for a full year unbeaten might have been halted, but it didn’t prevent the Italians’ domination from continuing thereafter. The team won every WRC event it entered for the rest of the year as Biasion went on to claim his first world title. Only New Zealand and Ivory Coast featured different cars on top and, again, neither counted for the manufacturers’ championship so Lancia didn’t appear.
Such domination had never been seen before in the WRC. And it wouldn’t be seen again for another three decades. In 2010-11, over a 12-month period, Citroën won 14 of 15 events between Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier but didn’t complete the full year by virtue of missing out in Sweden.
Volkswagen’s domination a few years later was even more comprehensive. It was beaten only twice in 33 events between September 2013 and March 2016. But it still didn’t manage a 12-month winning streak as Hyundai (through Thierry Neuville on Rally Germany 2014) and Citroën (Kris Meeke’s 2015 Rally Argentina success) snapped the run with a win apiece.
The uprated World Rally Car machinery that came on stream in 2017 brought increased competitiveness to the WRC, which has continued in the Rally1 era, with no single marque dominating. It’s hard to imagine a manufacturer ever achieving that elusive 12-month streak.