When the Delta Dominated Group A
What is it about competition that makes a car desirable? What could possibly elevate an otherwise unassuming box of a car, seemingly styled solely by ruler and pen, to a level of lust amongst gearheads normally reserved for ancient, red, V12-powered things from Italy? Box flares help, as do turbos, iconic liveries, and hazy memories of perfectly-executed Scandinavian Flicks. Above all these single elements, though, is a greater attraction, one of unparalleled success and glory during one of the most dramatic eras of one of the most dramatic forms of racing on Earth—at the center of it all the incredible Lancia Delta Integrale.
Following the 1986 abolition of Group B rallying, and along with it the monstrous, twincharged S4, Lancia was faced with having to scramble for a new car suitable for racing in Group A, now by default the WRC’s new top-tier formula. Fortunately, they already had the Delta HF 4WD production model, homologated with relative ease into WRC spec, with which they easily clinched the 1987 world title.
In 1988, with a newly-revised version of the HF 4WD, Lancia dominated the competition and claimed outright victory at 10 of 11 rounds—again finding themselves winners of the WRC manufacturer’s championship.
The year 1989 initially saw further success for Lancia and their boxy little hatch, but midway through the season the increasingly sophisticated competition from Toyota and Mitsubishi began to catch up, and Lancia started to slip in the podium standings—fortunately, they had more magic up their sleeves. At that year’s Sanremo Rally, Lancia unveiled the latest version of the Delta rally car, the mighty 16V. As the name suggests, it replaced earlier versions eight valve motor with a four valve head design, though the block remained an evolution of Aurelio Lampredi’s legendary twin cam four, which had roots dating back to Fiat’s 1966 124. The new car was an immediate success, and after securing the manufacturer’s title for the third year running, Lancia took the bold step of declining to contest the final round held that year in Wales.
Almost predictably at this point, 1990 brought yet another manufacturer’s title home to Turin, although for the first time since 1986 the driver’s championship went to a non-Lancia driver, Carlos Sainz, at the wheel of a Toyota Celica GT-Four.
The competition between Toyota and Lancia hit new heights in 1991, with many at the beginning of the season predicting that Sainz and his Celica would finally break the Delta’s winning streak, a feeling reinforced with the Spaniard’s win at the season-opening Rally Monte Carlo. Doubts of Lancia’s continued dominance soon dissipated, though, with their first place finishes in Kenya, Argentina, Finland, Australia and Sanremo. For the fifth time in a row, a Delta won its maker the manufacturer’s championship, with Juha Kankkunen again bringing Lancia the driver’s cup as well. Amid all this drama, rumors of “creative rule interpretation” from both the Japanese and the Italians were rampant, though nothing was ever proven. It was an incredibly exciting time for the WRC, with both companies reportedly writing their teams an endless stream of blank-checks in pursuit of victory. It’s also been speculated that most cars, not just the Delta and Celica, were running closer to 400 HP rather than the 300 HP limit as speculated by the rulebook.
Though Lancia officially withdrew factory support after 1991, they continued to fund for a semi-private team by the name of Jolly Club, which unbelievably won them one final constructor’s championship in 1992—in a car with roots dating back to 1980. In 1993 Jolly Club again entered a Delta, but a fourth place finish in championship points had shown that its ancient roots had finally caught up. The Delta’s WRC career, as well as Lancia’s, was finished forever. With 6 consecutive manufacturer’s championships, the Delta’s legend was secured. To this day, the record remains unbeaten.
Today, road car versions of the Integrale are among the most sought-after and collectible mass-market cars ever built, with prices steadily rising every year since the final example rolled off the production line in 1994. They’re said to be absolute magic to drive, with light, precise controls, a rev-hungry and musical engine with power to spare, and adjustability and delicacy of handling similar to an all-wheel drive E30 M3. A late Evoluzione II model in Lagos Blue remains one of my all-time dream cars, its position on my ever-rotating and evolving bucket-list of drives remaining constant for nearly twenty years now, the only car on said list that’s always been there. I imagine it always will be. Until I import one someday, of course… only six more years to go before that’s legal here in the US!