Proof There’s Still Fight In Rally Legends Of The ’90s
Story and Photography by: Davide Cironi
Here I am in front of three legends, almost afraid.
They look each other askance, like they still were fighting for the Group A Championship. The Lancia Delta Integrale has muscle, is the meanest, most bossy, and stands superior in the middle of the scene. “I’ve won everything on earth, girls” it seems to growl. The Ford Escort RS Cosworth knows it can beat the road-going Delta—this is the road, not the Group A—the Ford is younger and stronger but, secretly, the Italian still knows its business.
And then I see the Japanese one, silent and composed on the left. Different, not showy— especially in black. If you don’t know it, you don’t turn your head when it pops up in the city. It seems like a normal coupé. At a better view, you’re able to see air intakes on the hood, rear spoiler, big brakes…and then realize that is a serious thing.
My job here is to sit in all of them, drive fast, and try to figure out which is the best. History speaks clear through racing. In this case, Lancia wins. But these are road-going cars, not racers. So what will be the best real-world rally car from the golden age?
I never driven the Celica GT-Four. I had the sensation this coupé would have been my favorite, so I start with it. First thing: its centre of mass and roof are lower, so on wider corners, it is on another level. At the same time, it has the worst understeer and the easier oversteer, the two phases switch in a second, where the other two are on rails.
The Japanese car is the most powerful here, with 242 horsepower, but also the most heavy at 3,207 lbs (1,455 kg). The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine pushes it over 149 mph, highest speed of the group but slower than the Delta from zero-to-60. It’s not noisy inside, I hear the other two coming behind me and not much Toyota engine. Steering is harder than in its opponents, which I already know, but it doesn’t make it more precise or fun.
This car is really serious, and provides little space for showing off. It does exactly the same of Lancia and Ford, but without that rally emphasis I love.
I need that competition thrill on a sports car, so I jump in the Escort; immediately I realize it will be a special ride. The racing halo is all around me. Recaro seats, the Miki Biasion signature steering wheel, tall shifter tight to the driver. What a rough, focused cockpit. I know the noise from its masterpiece of an engine from Cosworth; it hums in front of me, ready to do battle to see who’s the fastest. The power doesn’t lack at all.
First impressive thing? The steering precision going into a corner, it’s so flat and incisive, you almost find yourself turning in late against its quickness. No understeer, and infinite traction on the way out. Front is perfect, nothing more to say. So best steering, but worst gearbox of the group.
This racing stick doesn’t help, very good to see and touch, but not the same when you have to run with the wolves. The more I push, the more I fall in love, there will be a lot of jealousy by the Italian lady. This Ford is a real opponent, it was built for this purpose and that’s easy to see. In those years past, the three cars hated each other, and still today I feel very bad vibes.
The Cosworth engine spits out 220 horsepower at 6,250 rpm, with an identical zero-to-60 to the Toyota; both are slower on acceleration than the Delta, both faster on top speed. This one is the lighter with only 2,976 lbs (1,350 kg) but how is that possible the Italian weighs 143 lbs (65 kg) more, has 5 hp less, and accelerates more quickly? Ok, I can’t wait anymore.
This is the attack to the crown. Decades of frustration by eternal seconds, years of hate and envy. The “Queen”, the Delta, is the most detested car for those who own any other rally car from the ’90s.
In Italy, you can avoid knowing the face of who you are voting for, you can avoid paying taxes, but there’s no escape: you must love the Lancia Delta HF Integrale. The Evoluzione is probably the most male car on the planet; its face is not pretty or sensual as an Alfa Romeo, not graceful as a Jaguar or classy like a Porsche. This is brutal.
With 215 horsepower in a 3,119 lb (1,415 kg) car sounds kind of tender for that bad face, but if you drive it, magically, it is engaging as a supercar. If you want to change your opinion about sport cars forever, drive a tuned Delta with more than 400 hp (easy to find in my country) and then you will never want another car again: just a trusted and very patient mechanic.
Here I am, now, forgetting this is a comparison. I don’t hear other sounds, don’t see other cars, just the road and the Momo wheel. I know this car very well, I’m lucky enough to drive it often, but every time is like the first. Its steering is so direct and light to use, there’s no need to squeeze the wheel, which is the opposite of how it seems, looking at it from the outside. Traction is superb, the most mechanical here. You can understand the drivetrain’s organs, scattered around the chassis, in a unique sensation of control and power.
Sound is Italian; rough and violent as it should be, from a bossy, mean, 4-cylinder turbocharged engine. Gearbox, suspension, and brakes are all calibrated to be an extension of your body.
That said, the road going Delta is not the five times Group A World Champion. It is fragile and whimsical, it loves to stay in a workshop and spend your money, all the time.
So which is my favorite? Which one I’ll pick if I want to do a lap time? Probably, the Cosworth is fastest. But every time my brain says Ford, my heart says Lancia. I think it wouldn’t be bad to own the complete trio. If I had to buy only one, it couldn’t be the composed and silent Celica, even if it does the same job of Escort and Delta.
So I guess I have to choose between philosophy and mathematics…I’m Italian, so which do you think I prefer? Too easy.