Throwback: Why rear wheel drive still has a place in the World Rally Championship

A Lancia 037 weaves through a series of tight tarmac bends, its flat six singing as Finnish driver Markku Alen works his way through the gearbox, incessantly dancing on the gear lever as he flings his car to victory on the 1984 Corsican Rally. He will win this rally and after this several more in the coming years.

It will however be the last for the car he is driving, it will be the last victory for a rear-wheel drive car in the World Rally Championship. As the Lancia Delta S4 is still-born the Lancia 037 can only occasionally put up a fight against the four-wheel drive Audis and Peugeots that have more power and more grip.

That was 1984 and since then rear wheel drive has remained out of world rallying, until 2011 that is.

That year, the FIA introduced a new class to the championship, R-GT. It was meant to be a class just for rear wheel drive cars. The rules stated that the cars entered had to be based off of rear wheel drive road machines or, if the donor car was four wheel drive, converted to rear wheel drive.

The premise was promising, at a time when the WRC was slowing down its top class by reducing engine capacity from 2 to just 1.6 litres, this was a welcome opportunity to have top rear wheel drive road cars slithering their way across the world just as they had done before.

Manufacturers were interested too, Lotus converted their Exige sports car whilst several privateers converted 911s. There was even a privately entered Aston Martin Vantage in the pipeline. However, rather than these cars being the tip of the iceberg, they were the ice-cube that resulted.

In the three seasons that the R-GT ran, from 2015-2017, each one was won by 911 GT3s; their rear engine balance providing great traction on what was a tarmac rally only series. These champions, Francois Delecour, Marc Vallicioni and the great Romain Dumas weren’t without competition however. Fiat entered several 124s in 2017, again another attempt to reboot a class that has been so anonymous this year that Wikipedia has not updated its entry.

So, is the Group R-GT class just another one of motorsport’s failures? A throwback that no-one really wanted? On the surface yes, but the concept was hindered by bad timing. In 2011, when it was introduced there weren’t that many rear wheel drive cars on sale and those that were, unattainable. Astons and Porsches lacked the cost-effectiveness for teams such as M-Sport and Prodive to convert them to rally spec.

What we have in 2018 however is a far different, far healthier group of rear wheel drive cars on sale. Since 2011 Toyota and Subaru released the GT86/BRZ, BMW has improved the 1-Series hatchback immensely whilst Alpine, famed for its rallying success in the 1960s and 70s has returned.

Changed too is how rallying is viewed. With the return of Toyota and Ford (M-Sport was a privateer until this year) as manufacturers alongside the recent regulation changes to make the cars faster the WRC has increased status. The cars are now worthy of bedroom walls and dreams again too. Technology has advanced with more people watching rallying from their phones, tablets or laptops than TVs.

Our suggestion then? Re-launch the R-GT class, but extend it to all rounds, position it alongside the current WRC2 class as a support act so that it too can have its moment in the social media sun. Below is our view of how the rules would look.

Power: Restricted to 380bhp in parallel with current WRC cars.

Engines: How many cylinders those engines have are up to the manufacturer to increase noise variety.

Aerodynamics: Wings and aero to echo WRC regulations. (Imagine the wing of a Yaris WRC on a GT86!)

Safety: Standards also to match WRC regulations.

Is it plausible?

We think so. At least in terms of the engines and aero, particularly for Porsche, Alpine (owned by Renault), Toyota, Ford and BMW. In fact Toyota and Ford could probably transplant powerplants from their Yaris and Fiesta into the GT86 and Mustang (yes, you read that correctly).

So we think it could work and we think rally fans would too. The real question is, would the FIA and WRC approve of rear wheel drive sliding back into the stages?

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