Chequered Flag: the underdog Lancia Stratos squad

How this pioneering British Lancia rally team succeeded where the works team failed, to take the first British win for the remarkable Stratos

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It remains a footnote in motor sport history, but a significant one for fans of rallying’s first pin-up, the Lancia Stratos. In February 1976, Andy Dawson and Andy Marriott conquered the forests of Yorkshire to win the Mintex International Rally. They did so aboard a Stratos fielded by Graham Warner’s Chequered Flag team.

It was a phenomenal result for this plucky London squad, not least because it represented the first time that one of these mid-engined projectiles had held together long enough to win on British soil. What’s more, it did so without any assistance from the works team, which tried – and failed – to take home silverware in the UK in period.

Claimed Warner in 2013: ‘We sold more Lancias that anyone else in Great Britain, but it counted for nothing. The factory didn’t want to know. It was Mike Parkes who made all the difference. I’d known Mike since he’d raced [Formula Junior] Geminis for us, and he was responsible for turning the standard Stratos into something fit for rallying.

‘Through him we got an entrée to Lancia’s competition chief Cesare Fiorio. To begin with it was all “no, no, no”, but eventually he sold us a crashed one.’ Three Lancias had gone off on the same corner on the Monte Carlo Rally in January 1975, and Warner bought the ex-Pinto/Andruet car.

Warner continued: ‘We had good drivers. Initially we had Per-Inge Walfridsson, who was outstanding on the loose stuff, and Cahal ‘CB’ Curley, who was brilliant on Tarmac. Nonetheless, the Irishman and co-driver Austin Frazer didn’t make it past the third stage of the Stratos’ first event, the March-April 1975 Circuit of Ireland: the team had packed a wealth of parts, but they didn’t stretch to a spare engine.’

While the Chequered Flag Stratos racked up more than its fair share of column inches in the specialist press, it wasn’t always for the right reasons. On the next event, May’s Welsh International Rally, Walfridsson starred during the early running only for the car’s oil pressure to drop suddenly. The Swede coasted into retirement.

A month later, he and co-driver John Jensen had a 20-second lead, only for the car to suffer a terminal loss of transmission fluid. At the end of June, Cahal was back in for the Donegal International Rally. Unfortunately, the Stratos connected with a bridge parapet within minutes of the start.

Walfridsson was reinstated for the August 1975 Burmah Rally, but he retired the car with broken rear suspension. It wasn’t until October of that year that it finally lasted the distance, when new incumbent Tony Pond bought the car home third on the Castrol event – minus four gears. However, the November’s RAC Rally of Great Britain saw another retirement for Walfridsson.

While the team’s maiden season in rallying hadn’t been without incident, 1975 drew to a close amid much publicity as Formula 1 charger Tom Pryce joined the team for a one-off outing. The policeman’s son didn’t need much arm-twisting to switch disciplines after being approached by David Richards.

The future Prodrive founder was born in Ruthin, the same village as Pryce, and was then a ’Flag regular. Unfortunately, their rally ended just ten miles into the opening stage. Proceeding downhill towards Fourways Bridge, the Stratos got out of shape and clipped a wall. Richards was rushed to hospital to have stiches for a gashed knee. It was the only time that he broke the skin during his lengthy and successful career as a co-driver.

Following a frustrating campaign, Warner was nonetheless guardedly optimistic ahead of the rally team’s sophomore season. However, it was business as usual on the January 1976 ShellSport Dean Rally with new appointee Andy Dawson being co-driven by Clive Richardson. The duo were fastest over the opening stage, but lost ten minutes while the gearbox was fixed and came home in 24th place. Meanwhile in Belgium, Pond and Richards appeared set for a podium finish on the Boucles de Spa, only to connect with a tree during the final night.

And then came the long-overdue breakthrough: Dawson and Marriott’s Mintex International Rally triumph. ‘Everyone thinks the Stratos was a really powerful car, but it had no low-down grunt and wasn’t as quick in a straight line as the Escorts,’ Dawson claimed. ‘What it did have was fantastic traction exiting tight corners. It was great out of 90-degree bends. That helped on the Mintex.’

Elation turned to frustration on the March 1976 Granite Rally, where a hidden boulder on the Benachie stage caught out Dawson and Marriott. It didn’t help that Tony Pond put the Stratos up a tree on the Cheltenham Forest Rally a few weeks later. The car was rebuilt by chief mechanic Ron Pellatt and his crew in just a fortnight.

Armed with a new Racing Services-built V6, the Lancia was ready for the Circuit of Ireland classic held over the Easter weekend. Then disaster struck: a directional arrow had been removed from a tree on the Brechfa stage during the Welsh Rally. Walfridsson arrived at a corner travelling far too fast, smacked a bank and the Stratos rolled, catching fire in the process. It was only the actions of spectators (on what was a non-spectator stage…) that saved their lives, Jensen suffering a broken sternum.

‘There was no way we could repair it. There was nothing to repair! To make matters worse, the service van was broken into and a lot of valuable spares were stolen,’ Warner recalled. ‘We then went back to Fiorio. Once again, no new cars were available. Instead, we heard about one that had been a team car used for a Safari Rally recce. It had been left in Kenya, so we mounted an expedition to Africa. The car was being loaded onto an aeroplane in Uganda when bullets started flying. It was the night of the Entebbe Raid, where Israeli Special Forces attempted to rescue hostages from a hijacked aircraft.’

Bearing the legend ‘Stratos 2’ on its nose, Chassis 1637 made its first appearance in ’Flag colours on the September ’76 Ulster Rally with new boy Billy Coleman belying his lack of seat time to finish seventh alongside Peter Scott. Later that month, the team headed for the Isle of Man’s Manx Rally, only for Walfridsson to bend the rear suspension.

The team rounded out the year with a tilt at December’s RAC Rally of Great Britain, Walfridsson and Frazer struggling to overcome a collapsed upright before the inevitable retirement. Warner estimated that £120,000 had been sunk into campaigning Lancias to the end of 1976. Nevertheless, hopes were high going into the following year.

The 1977 season kicked off with Coleman and Peter Bryant coming home eighth on January’s ShellSport Dean Rally. It was a heroic result, given that three stages had to be completed with a broken front upright. The theme was set for the rest of the year, with the Stratos proving a front-runner as long as it held together.

A month later, Coleman was paired with co-driver Frank O’Donoghue as he attempted to win successive Galway International rallies. It wasn’t to be: the Stratos duo finished fourth after countless breakages. Coleman and new wingman Richards would finish an embattled 15th on the Mintex International Rally later that month.

Coleman hoped for better on his next event, April’s Circuit of Ireland. However, his bid to claim a third win was hobbled by a bout of flu in the run-up to the start. While Ford Escort RS1800 duo Russell Brookes/John Brown would take a masterful win, Coleman and Scott were fastest on 15 of the 54 stages to claim second place.

Yet for the team’s next event, May’s Welsh Rally, Coleman and co-driver Richards would have a different mount. ‘We were asked by Fiat to run the 131 Abarth on selected British rallies,’ Warner said. ‘To my mind, we were recruited to act as an unofficial development team in the run-up to that year’s RAC Rally. We went through the whole car and made recommendations that ran to several pages, many of which were implemented.’

Coleman put in some competitive times early on despite the loss of fifth gear, only to put the car in a ditch during a repeat run of the Glynsaer stage during the final day. Coleman and Richards would make amends a month later on the International Scottish Rally, claiming fourth place despite an unusual problem.

Pirelli had been on hand to offer assistance, with various combinations of tyre compounds being tested. ‘The issue wasn’t with the rubber, it was the wheels,’ Warner insisted. ‘They kept breaking! Afterwards, we switched from the factory Campagnolo items to stronger Minilites.’

June 1977 saw a return trip to Letterkenny for the three-day International Circuit of Donegal with Coleman and Austin Frazer emerging victorious aboard Stratos 2. They assumed the lead halfway in and were never headed.

The Stratos was brought out again for a run on the October’s Castrol 77 event, only for a dropped inlet valve to end Coleman’s run.

Having taken a decisive World Rally Championship title over Ford, Fiat descended on the RAC Rally of Great Britain season finale armed with six 131s, with the ’Flag colours flying on the trio entered for three-time winner Timo Mäkinen, Timo Salonen and Simo Lampinen. And just to make life really difficult, Warner’s equipe also fielded Coleman in the Stratos. Unfortunately, his promising early form was for nought thanks to a broken distributor, while Lampinen and co-driver Solve Andreason guided the first Fiat home in seventh place.

The 1978 season kicked off with fifth place on February’s Galway International Rally for Coleman/O’Donoghue. A month later, Scott returned to pace notes-reading duty for the Circuit of Ireland where they finished behind Escort duo, Brookes/Brown. A foray to Italy for the Rally 4 Regioni event in May ended in retirement for Coleman and Renato Meiohas, Coleman re-teaming with Scott to finish sixth in the 24 Hours of Ypres. There would be no further outings until October’s Texaco Rallysprint event, in which Dawson saw off a variety of contemporary rally and F1 stars.

Sadly, Stratos 2 was then all but destroyed in June’s International Circuit of Donegal. The Chequered Flag chose to run the Lancia for ’Flag old boy Cathal Curley, who put it in a ditch on the first morning. On the final day, the car got of shape on a fast-left bend, the nearside wheel striking a post which then flipped it onto its back.

‘The car was a wreck,’ Warner recalled. ‘Fortunately for us, our seasoned engineer Don Fenwick had started to build up a road car around a damaged tub left over from an insurance rebuild. We took that and transferred all the best bits off our second car, although it carried the same chassis number. Don later built another Stratos based around a repaired tub for a customer.’

Andy Dawson and Kevin Gormley drove the reconfigured car on the 1980 Manx International Rally, finishing fourth. Still carrying the registration number OYU 353R, but no longer bearing the legend Stratos 2 on its nose, the most striking feature was its right-hand-drive set-up, which was done at the behest of the left-hand-drive-disliking Billy Coleman. Gartrac replicated the pedal box mounting, while the steering rack was borrowed from a Ford Cortina MkIV. Coleman never drove the car again, however, and it was converted back to LHD.

‘We did only a few more events,’ Warner said. ‘Russell Brookes was fourth on the 1981 West Cork event. By that point it had our old reg number LOV1 [which many years earlier had graced Warner’s hugely successful Lotus Elite racer]. Our final event was the 1982 Donington Rallyspint, where it was driven by that year’s Formula 1 World Champion Keke Rosberg and his Williams team-mate Derek Daly. The car was then sold to the Earl of Mexborough. And that was that. We were out of motor sport’. Out, but not forgotten.

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