Monday, August 11, 2008

Iconic Cars - The Final Part of the Series

My first two choices for my series on iconic racing cars from my youth were, in many ways, polar opposites. The Porsche 962 was stunningly, conspicuously successful, where the Metro 6R4's competition history was a story of opportunities missed and what-might-have-been. The 962 had a kind of elegant simplicity about it's design where the 6R4 looked like it could have come straight off the set of Mad Max - all wildly flared wheel arches and giant spoilers. And, of course, while the 962 as a race car, the 6R4 was a rally car.

My final choice falls between all these stools. Both a rally car and a racing car - successful, but never to quite the extent that it could have been, and a car whose beauty, or otherwise, was always very much in the eye of the beholder. The early 1980s saw the replacement of the old Group 1-6 system for rally, sports and touring cars with three new categories - Group C, for sports prototypes, Group B, which was principally a category for ludicrously overpowered rally cars and Group A, for both rally cars (following the death of Group B, it became the premier rally category from 1987) and touring cars. For me, the archetypal Group A touring car was Ford's Sierra RS Cosworth.

In its early years, Ford's Sierra was something of a problem child for the blue oval. It's then deeply unconventional appearance (since emulated by most of the motor industry) meant that sales were never as great as for its predecessor, the Ford Cortina. Attempts to go racing with it were not entirely unsuccessful, but Rudi Eggenberger's Sierra XR4TIs were rarely any kind of a serious threat to the then-dominant Schnitzer BMW, RAS Volvo and TWR Rover teams in the European Touring Car Championship. There was success in the UK with Andy Rouse's machine picking up the BTCC title in 1985. The XR4TI would not win on the international stage, however, until its final appearance at the last round of the 1986 ETCC at Estoril.

The car that replaced it - the RS Cosworth - had been on the drawing board since Stuart Turner had taken over at the helm of Ford Motorsport Europe in 1983. However, its gestation period was long, not least because of considerable difficulties in finding a gearbox that would cope with the engine's power. There was even a long tug of war between the engineering team and the marketing men over the Cosworth's distinctive "table top" rear wing. The team developing the car insisted it was necessary to counter the considerable aerodynamic 'lift' generated by the car at 180mph and above, while those responsible for selling the road-going versions required by the FIA's Group A homologation rules felt it would be a significant obstacle to selling the necessary 5,000 units.

The car eventually took to the race tracks at the start of the first ever World Touring Car Championship in Monza, but in a farcical turn of events, the two works Sierra Cosworths were disqualified for running the wrong fuel injectors, which left the field open for BMW to score a 1-2-3-4-5 on the international debut for it's M3. The result, however, did not stand, as all the BMWs were excluded for an infringement relating to the thickness of their roof metal, leaving a doubtless baffled Allan Moffat to claim victory in his Holden Commodore.

As it would turn out, the Sierra Cosworth was not immediately competitive anyway. Niggling gearbox and turbo problems caused a number of non-finishes early in the year, while the early Cosworth produced only 340BHP or thereabouts - which was enough to enable the lighter BMW M3 (with around 300BHP) to get on terms with the Cosworth in terms of sheer pace. Ford, though, had an ace up their sleeve in the form of the Evolution version of the car - the RS500 Cosworth. Aston Martin built the required 500 evolution cars, and once they were race-ready, Ford were unbeatable, at least in terms of outright pace, which was not entirely surprising as the power output of the RS500 was reckoned to be in the region of 470BHP. The latter part of the season saw 4 straight victories for theEggenberger Cosworths in the final four races. It was enough for them to clinch the Teams' Championship, though the driver's title went to BMW man Roberto Ravaglia.

The Sierra Cosworth was conceived as a touring car racer, but it would turn out to be a pretty handy rally car as well. The sudden cancellation of Group B, following the death of Henri Toivonen on the Tour de Corse in 1986 saw the 500NHP 4WD monsters replaced with much more sedate Group[ A machinery. The thing is, Lancia aside, no manufacturer had gone to the trouble of building and homologating anything specifically intended for Group A rallying at such short notice. The 2 wheel drive Sierra should never really have been a competitive rally car, but in 1987, it proved good enough to score podium places on the 1000 Lakes and RAC Rallies. Better suited to tarmac rallying than it ever was to mud or gravel, the car took a single outright World Rally win on the 1988 Corsica rally, in the hands of Didier Auriol.

At a national level, the car was more successful still. Jimmy McRae took back to back titles with his Sierra Cosworth in 1987 and 1988, and the sight of the whale-tailed Ford, rear end out at all kinds of angles, became common place in UK rallying through the late 1980s and into the early 1990s. Jimmy's son, Colin, cut his teeth on a Sierra Cosworth as well, picking up a 5th place with one as far back as 1989 on the New Zealand Rally. Only when Toyota, Subaru and Mitsubishi emerged on the scene with their 4WD machinery did the 2WD Cossie fade from competitiveness.

However, in my mind, and I should imagine, that of anyone around to witness it, the Sierra Cosworth is inextricably linked with the glory days of the British Touring Car Championship in the years from 1988 to 1991. OK, so I've said before that one of the things that makes a touring car series interesting is a variety of vehicles, but to be honest, that's of secondary importance to the quality of the machinery itself. Some teams were able to extract as much as 550BHP from their privateer RS500 Cosworths and the sight of these machines, which had far more power than grip, being driven on the limit was far superior to anything the modern 2 litre formula has to offer. Especially when it involved drivers of the calibre of Andy Rouse and Steve Soper. Certainly, I'd be far more interested in seeing what the likes of Fabrizio Giovanardi could have done in those cars than in the underpowered, overly grippy modern Super 2000 cars (if you're curious, there's some admittedly rather poor quality footage on Youtube: see and

Unfortunately, the success of the Sierra Cosworth was ultimately the undoing of Group A as a touring car formula. Put simply, nobody seemed inclined, or able, to build a top category Group A car which could take the fight to the all conquering Fords. The BTCC ultimately abandoned the Group A ruleset for the Supertourer formula at least in part because the BBC was supposedly uncomfortable about broadcasting what was effectively a fortnightly Ford advert. In the German series, the Sierra was dominant in 1988, before rules changed pegged back its performance in 1989 and banned it altogether come 1990. In the Australian series, it was a front running car as late as 1992 - some 6 years after it had first made its debut, though there, more modern machinery from Nissan and Holden eventually brought an end to its dominance.

Ford's Sierra Cosworth may have missed out on the first (and for many years, only) World Touring Car Driver's Championship but it remains for me the very zenith of the Group A touring car formula - and one of the iconic race cars of the 1980s.

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