27.12.2004 Christmas special: 25 years of the lancia delta - the ultimate pocket rocket rally extraordinaire 

A substantial reworking of the Ritmo’s floorplan also meant that Beta-derived MacPherson struts on all four corners (with twin transverse links at the rear) were substituted in favour of the Fiat’s standard MacPherson front/transverse leaf spring and wishbone rear suspension – a recognisable nod to its Beta and Gamma bigger brothers, but a move which also benefited handling.

This was useful, as the eighties trend towards turbocharging didn’t take long to manifest itself in various developments of Lancia’s baby.  In 1983, a turbocharged version of the Beta’s 1.6 twin-cam appeared developing 130 bhp, later upgraded to 140 bhp with the addition of fuel injection in 1986.  But these improvements were to be overshadowed by a much more significant development.   

The image of the Delta had received a timely fillip towards the end of 1985, six years into its life, when the Delta S4 was let loose onto the world’s rally stages on the end-of-season, and extremely demanding, Lombard RAC Rally.  Like all Group B cars, the relationship between the road car and its competition counterpart was next to nonexistent – Abarth even designed an all-new twin-cam 16-valve engine, with both a turbocharger and supercharger to reduce the effects of low-down turbo lag, mid-mounted and driving all four wheels, some way from a humble road-going Delta.  But while there may have been little relation, the car was certainly effective, winning its first-ever special stage and sweeping to a one-two finish on its very first outing, Henri Toivonen leading home long-time Fiat/Lancia exponent Markku Alen.   

It seemed after that performance that 1986 would be full of promise, but it was to be a scenario that would not be fulfilled.  After taking a superb win on the Monte Carlo rally in January of that year and leading in Sweden prior to engine failure, Toivonen and Lancia arrived in Corsica at the beginning of May searching for a win.  Leading from the off, Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto built up a commanding lead, until on the second day – a year to the day when another works Lancia pilot, Attilio Bettega, was killed on the same rally in an 037 – their S4 plunged off the road and exploded, killing both crew members, in an accident that has never been fully explained.  Lancia immediately withdrew from the rally, and although it continued to fight on in both championships, it was left on the back foot.  

The all-wheel-drive S4 rally car launched the Delta into legendary status in 1985, sweeping a 1-2 finish on its very first outing.

Lancia brought rally technology to the road with the Delta Turbo 4x4.

It was not until Argentina that a change in tyre size meant that the other pilots, such as Alen and Biasion, were truly able to come to grips with the S4, by which time Peugeot had already built up a sizeable lead in the manufacturer’s title race. Despite this, the car was competitive enough to keep Alen in the title fight until after the final round, when a courtroom decision handed the championship to Peugeot’s Juha Kankkunen. 

It seems amazing to think now that an all-new Delta was pencilled in for a 1988 launch.  In fact, excluding the Integrale, production of the original car ceased in 1993, five years later – almost the full life of the average car.  The Delta may have been a fundamentally decent car, but by the mid-eighties it was ageing and sales were starting to tail off.  It was Fiat’s giant publicity campaign which rescued it from death’s clutches – and more specifically, Lancia’s determination to dominate the special stages of the world.   

The death of Group B rallying at the end of 1986 was clearly necessary on safety grounds, but overreaction by FISA meant that the proposed Group S category (effectively quite similar to the world rally cars seen nowadays, with cars limited to 300 bhp) was killed off as well in favour of the production-based Group A.  Lancia had already readied the carbon-fibre and Kevlar ECV1 prototype, a Group S contender loosely based around the S4, but found that their newly-released Delta HF 4WD fitted the bill perfectly when Group A was announced as the category of choice.  This car, which mated the 1.995 cc twin-cam engine from the Thema Turbo ie to a brand-new permanent four-wheel drive transmission (including epicyclic centre and Torsen rear differentials), was ideal for the new class, for three reasons.  It was the right size, featured four-wheel drive, and had a turbocharged engine on the class capacity limit of 2.000 cc – the three ingredients crucial for any car to succeed in this category.  In fact, Lancia was the only manufacturer to combine these three elements – Renault’s R11 Turbo lacked four-wheel drive, Audi’s 200 Quattro was far too big and lumbering, while Mazda’s 323 had only 1.600 cc and lacked reliability.  But it wasn’t just the car being right that made the Delta so tough to beat – that fact was combined with the most formidable drivers, massive commitment and an unerring determination to win on the part of Lancia and Abarth. 

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