In the early 1980s, the 4WD revolution initiated by the Audi Quattro took the world of rallying by storm, and when the Group B era came to an end, four-wheel drive cars had been victorious on all WRC events bar one. Only the Safari Rally, the toughest round of the World Championship, remained as the last bastion of the old guard. That is until a 45-year-old veteran came along in a ‘Gentlemen’s Express’.

Now the winning combination, Hannu Mikkola and the Audi 200 Quattro, have returned to Kenya.

Mikkola and 200 Quattro on the way to claiming the first 4WD victory on the Safari in 1987

When Audi joined the World Rally Championship with its Quattro at the beginning of 1981, the old hands were sceptical. For them, four-wheel drive was fine for events like the Paris–Dakar – as the victory of the Audi-designed VW Iltis had shown. But beating a Fiat 131 Abarth, Renault 5 Turbo or Talbot-Sunbeam Lotus on a twisty mountain road? That was hard to imagine. Even Walter Röhrl, who lived an hour’s drive from the Audi factory, refused to join the team after testing the Quattro. The 1980 World Champion feared that the car would not last a rally because the transmission was too harsh. Others thought the combination of turbocharging and four-wheel drive was too heavy and complex for rallying.

It did not take long to prove the sceptics wrong. On the Quattro’s second World Rally Championship outing, the 1981 Swedish Rally, Hannu Mikkola claimed overall victory after winning 15 out of 25 stages. But the snow-covered roads in the Swedish Värmland were only the starting point for the triumphal march of the Quattro’s technology. It conquered the world-famous Monte Carlo Rally, literally ‘flew’ to victory on the 1000 Lakes in Finland and succeeded on mixed-surface events in Portugal and Italy. The Quattro became a worldwide winner. It mastered the vast pampas and twisty Andean tracks of Argentina, the fast and flowing gravel roads of New Zealand and even the thick jungle paths of the Ivory Coast.

Reunited in 2017, Mikkola and Quattro at rest

When Group B was abandoned at the end of 1986 following a couple of fatal accidents, the WRC map had only two blank spaces where the Quattro flag had not been planted: Corsica and the Safari. The twisty tarmac stages of the Tour de Corse were anything but the perfect hunting ground for the Quattro. The ‘Rally of 10,000 Corners’, as the event was nicknamed, favoured lightweight racing cars such as the Lancia 037 Rallye or Renault 5 Maxi Turbo. And in Corsica it would be the Peugeot 205 T16 that finally brought 2WD supremacy to an end in 1986.

On Safari

Thus, it was only the toughest event of them all, the gruelling Safari Rally in Kenya, that remained as the final garrison of the 2WD brigade when Group A became rallying’s new top class in 1987. The big question was whether this last bastion would finally fall in the new era. Toyota and Nissan were leading the old guard and Japanese manufacturers had dominated the Safari over the past decade by winning seven of the last eight editions (Toyota 3, Nissan/Datsun 4), and now both came with newly developed rear-wheel drive sports coupés. They were joined by Ford with its Sierra RS Cosworth (RWD), the new 2-litre Opel Kadett GSi and the tiny 1.8-litre VW Golf GTi (both FWD).

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