Audi Rally Cars: A History

How Audi set the tone for traction. Thanks to Audi Press.

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Audi completely revolutionised the way rally sport is played today. Prior to the 1980s, rally cars were either front or rear-wheel drives. But a rule change request from Audi asking if four-wheel drives could be allowed to compete changed the face of rallying in just a few years.

Audi’s early foray into rallying

Audi took part in a number of rallies in the early 1900s. They had particular success with the Audi Type C, which claimed victory on the Austrian Alpine Rally in 1912 – the first of three back-to-back annual victories at the event for the vehicle. As the Austrian Alpine Rally was one of the most competitive endurance races at the time, this was no mean feat. Audi boss August Horch played a crucial role behind the wheel during this famous hat-trick of wins, and the rally wins raised Audi’s profile dramatically.

But it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that Audi truly shined. The marque had got back into the modern rally scene in 1978 with the front-wheel drive 80 model. A great car in its own right, the 80’s campaign was a perfect way to get the team shaken down and ready for the arrival of the Quattro and a frontal assault on 1981’s World Rally Championship.

The creation of the Audi Quattro

Engineer Jörg Bensinger played a vital role in creating the original Quattro – or ‘Ur Quattro’ as it is commonly known in Germany – as he pioneered the four-wheel drive transmission for on-road vehicles.

In 1979, Audi also requested a change in the regulations – which was accepted – to allow four-wheel drives to compete in rallies. Although the brand was hardly known at the time, this would seal their fate to become a titan in their own right.

The Quattro was the first to take advantage of the rule change and was initially rallied under Group 4 regulations in 1981.

But despite Audi’s high hopes and ambitions, the 1981 tournament proved difficult, with a lot of time spent between rallies servicing the complex Quattro. In spite of this, the Quattro managed to get fifth place in the World Rally Championship. And with the experience of the previous year’s championship under their belts, the Audi team managed to take the manufacturers’ title in 1982.

Although most competitors thought that four-wheel drives were too complex to perform well, many saw the success of Audi’s all-wheel drive and started to work on their own four-wheel drive rally cars.

Group B Quattro rally car

The first Group B Quattro appeared in 1983 and was known as an ‘A1 Quattro’. However, as the 4WD was clumsier on tarmac than its rear-wheel drive counterparts, such as the Lancia Rallye 037, the vehicle wasn’t able to pull off the same victories the team had achieved in the previous year. In spite of this, Hannu Mikkola was able to take the drivers’ championship in 1983.

The team had even more success in the British Rally Championship, with Stig Blomqvist using the A1 and A2 – a more powerful, lighter and more evenly weight-distributed version of the A1 – to win the tournament. A year later, Blomqvist won the World Rally Championship’s drivers’ title and Audi won the manufacturers’ title.

Harald Demuth also campaigned a four-door saloon 80 Quattro during the 1983 British championship.

The Audi Sport Quattro rally car

The short-wheelbase Audi Sport Quattro S1 debuted with Walter Röhrl at the helm on the 1984 Ulster Rally. The ultimate Quattro – the be-winged Sport Quattro S1 E2 – then edged all the other Quattros by 1985.

Audi UK ran an S1 E2 for Michèle Mouton in two events in 1985. However, in 1986, the team continued to find further success by campaigning the S1, winning the National Breakdown and Welsh rallies with Hannu Mikkola.

Group A Quattro

After the ultra-powerful Group B cars were banned at the end of 1986, Audi UK signed David Llewellin to drive a Group A Coupé Quattro. The car still had the advantage of all-wheel drive, but its five-cylinder engine lacked a turbocharger. A win on the Scottish Rally and second on the Circuit of Ireland were its best results in that year’s British Rally Championship.

Audi Sport debuted its 200 quattro on the 1987 Monte Carlo Rally, where Röhrl finished third. Three months later, Mikkola won the Safari Rally, chased home by Röhrl in second. The big executive saloon was also campaigned by Audi UK in 1988, while an Audi 90 quattro appeared at events in Europe around that time.

The Audi UK team withdrew at the end of the 1988 season, returning to the rally stages in 1993 with a Group N Coupé S2 quattro for Shell Scholarship winner Jonny Milner. The Yorkshireman scored an impressive fifth place overall in the road-going-specification car on the Pirelli International Rally.

Audi’s recent entrance into rally raids

Audi recently returned to rallying with the off-road competition car, the RS Q e-tron. The car was used in the Dakar Rally 2022 but due to navigational errors, the drivers lost time on the first day. In spite of this, all three drivers –  Carlos Sainz, Stéphane Peterhansel and Mattias Ekström – won a stage. Sainz also won SS11, meaning that the team had four stage wins on debut.

The RS Q e-tron faired even better at the 2022 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, where Stéphane Peterhansel and Edouard Boulanger gained an overall victory. And once again, the marque made history – this time for electric vehicles – as the e-tron was the first EV to win a rally raid.