Opel tiptoes back towards WRC

Opel, the principal European brand of General Motors, has announced a long-term plan to return to front-line rallying along similar lines to that taken by Toyota.

To start with it will hold a one-make championship within the ADAC Rallye Masters package for its new city car, the Adam. The Adam Opel Cup cars will be built to FIA R2 specification with front-wheel-drive and a 1.6 litre non-turbo engine and go on sale at just under €25,000.

According to German outlet Rally-Magazin the new car will be presented to the world at the Essen Motor Show on 1 December as it begins to recruit aspiring stars from Germany and neighbouring countries to the programme. ADAC sports president Hermann Tomczyk has already stated that there will be a € 100,000 prize fund behind the series, meanwhile Opel has suggested that the Adam Opel Cup will, like that of Toyota’s Yaris one-make series, ultimately lead the way back towards the top flight.

An Opel Adam in rally colours prior to the December 1 launch

While the Adam project gets underway, Opel will be developing a competition variant of its next-generation Corsa model to R3 and R5 specification. The new Corsa, which goes on sale in 2014, is expected to take styling cues from the sporty Astra Coupé and present a sporty alternative in the crowded supermini sector.

Opel’s competition department in Rüsselsheim has been tasked with getting the R3 specification Corsa (front wheel drive with a 1.6-litre turbo), ready for 2014 and the 1.6-litre 4WD R5 a year later. If this programme is achieved, the plan is to aim for a full WRC programme starting in 2016.

Dr. Thomas Sedran, Deputy Managing Director, Adam Opel AG, was quoted as saying: “These new motorsport activities play in the strategic realignment of the company an important role, they are a fundamental element in our brand profile.”

Opel was a stalwart of the WRC’s first decade, with several of its models from the sporty Kadett and Manta to the executive Kommodore being seen in action through the 1970s. It was with the mid-range Ascona that it found the most success, however, and in 1982 the German ace Walter Röhrl won a hard-fought title battle to beat the Audi Quattro of Michèle Mouton to the WRC drivers’ title. The Ascona’s success was followed by that of the Manta 400, which did not trouble the 4WD giants of the WRC but achieved honours in national and regional competitions worldwide.

Opel Manta 400 was a star of the Eighties

Since the 1980s, Opel has not enjoyed a particularly fruitful time in motor sport. It dropped its plans for a Group A assault on the WRC with the Calibra coupé in the early 1990s in favour of contesting the German Touring Car CHampionship and FIA International Touring Car Championship but despite the likes of former Formula One world champion Keke Rosberg at the wheel it never overcame the might of Mercedes-Benz or Audi.

A Super 1600 version of the second-generation Corsa was found in competition at the turn of the century, followed by a Super 2000 rally version of the third-generation car that was built by MSV that competed in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Neither of these programmes achieved stirring success, and Opel has suffered heavily in the contraction of European car sales in recent years.

Andreas Mikkelsen shone in abortive Corsa S2000

It would be great to see a return to form for the famous white and yellow colours of Opel at the top level of competition… but three years is a long time in the European automotive industry!

Advertisements

The ultimate rally babe

Just like you lot, we know that there’s never any harm in bringing together an awesome piece of rally kit with an equally awesome young thing who is easy on the eye and conspicuously lacking in clothing. Let’s be straight about it: we love a good rally babe here at WRF.

But 30 years ago, while it was busy reinventing the sport with its mighty Quattro, Audi Sport struck upon an even better way of bringing brawn and beauty together – it hired Michèle Mouton to drive alongside the well-proven talents of Hannu Mikkola.

Michèle was born in June 1951 in Grasse on the French Riviera, where her parents grew roses and jasmine on their large property as part of the local perfume industry. Such girlish things didn’t seem to interest the daughter of the house, who drove her father’s Citroën 2CV in a rally at the tender age of 14. Despite her parents’ encouragement to study law she was back in harness by 1973, taking part as a co-driver in the Monte Carlo Rally.

The highlights of rally fashion in the ’70s: A110 and flares!

Abandoning all hope of a ‘proper job’ her parents duly funded an Alpine-Renault A110 for Michèle to compete with. Through the 1970s she campaigned Alpines and later Fiats with aplomb, scoring top-10 finishes on major events, and was duly signed up by Audi for its burgeoning 4WD campaign with more than one eye on the publicity that its glamorous driver could bring them.

She brought far more than added glamour, however. Yes it’s true that la Mouton was a conspicuous presence in the sport, not least because she was regularly given a slinky black Quattro next to the regular team’s white ones, but something about that car really clicked with Mouton’s talents.

“The feeling of the Quattro was a strong car, nothing can happen to you,” she recalled in America’s Road & Track magazine. “It really gave you the satisfaction when you wanted do something, you could always do what you wanted with the car.”

The classic Mouton: attacking in a black-painted Quattro

Too right, she did. Despite being up against the mighty Mikkola, and later joined by Swedish artist-at-the-wheel Stig Blomqvist, the young Frenchwoman raised her game with rally after rally – so much so that in 1982 it was she who was in contention for the world championship title.

In that astonishing year, Mouton started with a rollercoaster ride in the Monte Carlo Rally, setting the fastest time of all through the Col de Turini but crashing heavily soon afterwards. A fifth place finish followed in Sweden and then came outright victory in Portugal. A disappointed seventh place finish on the Tour de Corse was followed by a second, exultant victory on the Acropolis which carried her to second place in the standings as the season came down to a battle between Michèle and Opel’s German ace Walter Röhrl in the more traditional 2WD Ascona.

It has often been rumoured that her rivalry with Röhrl was tinged with a flat refusal on his part to accept Mouton as an equal. If that were ever the case, that’s the sort of thing which rally people choose to forget: “With the other drivers, they were professionals and gentlemen,” Mouton recalled. “Inside the car, we were all racers. Outside the car, they were very supportive. I never had any problems.”

Just one of the boys!

She didn’t finish in New Zealand, but regained ground in Brazil when Röhrl foundered. She crashed out of the 1000 Lakes in Finland but held on for fourth in Sanremo to keep her title hopes alive – and take Audi in to the African events, which it had not planned on contesting. A huge and hurried programme to get the Quattro fit for the savannah territory took place while the drivers got used to a new and hostile environment – the Quattro’s confines reached temperatures of 70°C through the combination of ambient and mechanical heat!

The Ivory Coast rally was brutal, and all the more so for Mouton because her father succumbed to cancer at home in Nice before the start – with his dying wish that she should take part in the event and win the title. At the halfway stage, an epic 2500km in to the event, Mouton led from Röhrl by more than half an hour – despite losing 25 minutes due to transmission problems. Time and again mechanical frailties hit the Quattro, which was making its displeasure felt at the long, hot slog through Africa.

Controversially, the Audi Sport team managed to make an enforced change of the fuel injection system on Mouton’s car to keep her in contention, leaving the Quattro and Röhrl’s Ascona tied for the lead at the start of the final day – in which Mouton rolled and, in that accident, ended her title challenge.

The 1982 Ivory Coast rally was an unforgettably gruelling duel

Mouton remained with Audi for the next three seasons, but never made such as strong challenge for the title. She moved to Peugeot for 1986 but found the 205 T16 much more nervous to drive than the Quattro and, with the abolishment of Group B at the end of the season, she retired from competition. Since then, the first lady of rallying has gone on to be one of the founders of the Race of Champions all-star event and remains one of the most charismatic figures in the sport’s history.

Among all the highlights of her career, Mouton habitually picks one thing that defined rallying for her: the astonishing coupé that brought her so close to claiming rallying’s greatest prize.”If I have some emotion, of course it’s the noise of the Quattro. I mean, nobody can forget the noise. Even today, I think we miss this kind of noise.”

And, it must be said, the drivers, Michèle! After 30 years we’re still spellbound by that title fight…

When worlds collide…

America is generally pretty unaware of rallying. It’s something that happens in ‘Yurp’. Where ‘yurp’ is they’re not sure. But it’s where rallies happen.

Americans have sent something called a Ken Block to ‘yurp’ and it takes part in the occasional rally, which does make for some splendid comedy crashing.

In return the Americans have taken rallycross to their hearts, in the guise of the X-Games. It’s a bit like Twenty20 compared to test match cricket, but it’s a start.

Clearly this enthusiasm came from somewhere. There is hardcore support for rallying in America. A small bit perfectly formed college of rally fans, no less. And so we are honour-bound to salute you, our dear American cousins!