How One Iconic Rally Photo Helped Audi's Quattro All-Wheel Drive Take Flight

When Audi introduced all-wheel drive to rally racing, most saw it as a gimmick. This image helped change that forever.

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Courtesy: Audi Motorsport

Rally driver Hannu Mikkola and navigator Arne Hertz couldn’t have known as they crested a hill that they were about to be frozen forever in an iconic and crucial moment. This image of the Audi Quattro World Rally Championship race car would sear itself into the consciousness of an entire generation.

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There is debate as to who took the photo and where. Audi says Rallye Sanremo, 1982. Mikkola thinks it was at the 1983 Rally Finland. "It was a long brow-type jump . . . a very long flight at about 150 km/h!" he says. The photo encapsulates a period of racing dominance that helped Audi establish its roadgoing all-wheel-drive technology. But like every overnight success, the Quattro story was years in the making.

Audi’s all-wheel drive germinated in a 1970s West German military contract for a Jeep-like 4x4. The resulting truck, the Volkswagen Iltis, beat out a Mercedes-Benz prototype that would develop into the G-wagen. Soon Audi sought to apply all-wheel drive to passenger vehicles.

Development of the Quattro road car and the rally racer happened simultaneously, with a great deal of input from Mikkola. Audi tapped the Finnish driver based on his years of experience and clean driving style, both of which seemed suited to the dynamics of the nose-heavy Quattro blueprint. Audi wanted Mikkola racing the front-drive 200 for the first half of 1980, until the all-wheel-drive car was ready. But Mikkola, doubting the car would be completed so soon, committed only to testing in 1980, continuing to drive for other manufacturers. He joined Audi full time in 1981.

It may be hard to fathom now, but all-wheel drive was at the time unproven technology. Naturally, other rally drivers were skeptical. "They thought, okay, I was 37 years old so I just got my pension," Mikkola says. "They never believed that car was going to be quick. It took two years before they realized it was the future."

In the meantime, the future needed some work. Early breakdowns were inevitable as new systems were refined, but Audi was determined to make the most of its investment—and not only on track. "I have never seen a rally team so connected to production-car building," Mikkola says. Ferdinand Piëch, then head of Audi’s technical development, used racing as a test bed for new technology that often wasn’t even intended for rallying. Mikkola says Piëch told him, "I can get an answer from you in three months. If I put it in development, it takes one year!"

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Turbocharging, a relatively immature technology at the time, was also key to the Quattro. It, too, had teething problems, namely low-rpm lag. "Like nothing, and then it was like somebody hitting you," Mikkola recalls. Wheelspin was key; it kept the turbocharger spooled and the engine in its powerband. This made the Quattro race cars well-suited to gravel and snow but less competitive on asphalt, until an anti-lag system was developed in the mid-Eighties.

Another challenge was getting the car to turn properly. Audi’s front-drive platform, with the engine ahead of the front axle, had to compete with better-balanced, purpose-built, rear-drive race cars. "It was a lot of work to get it handling right," Mikkola says.

Despite the hiccups, by 1981, the reality of Quattro’s capability was setting in. David Richards, who navigated for driver Ari Vatanen in a Ford Escort RS1800 that year, guessed Mikkola was 10 seconds faster in the first stage of the Rallye Monte Carlo. "I said, 'Yes Ari, you are right. But you forgot the one minute,'" Mikkola says. "I was one minute, 10 seconds faster. So it was quite nice to see their faces when they heard it."

Audi took seven outright wins in 1982 and four second-place finishes en route to the first manufacturers' championship for a German automaker. Mikkola won the drivers' championship the next year.

By the end of 1982, Audi would reveal its model 80 (called 4000 in the U.S.), the company's first major push for all-wheel drive in a production car. The Quattro coupe was a relatively low-run model, with just 11,452 built over an 11-year life. Audi went on to have more racing success with WRC driver and manufacturer wins in '84. By the Nineties, automakers were engaged in an all-out all-wheel-drive war, both on rally stages and in showrooms.

The Quattro's success in WRC is the one of reasons all-wheel-drive racing thrives today. It helped create a market for all-wheel-drive road cars that turned a previously sleepy German brand into a global player.

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