Martini and rallying is a partnership that evokes memories, passion, highs and lows, dust, suffering and joy. It is a love affair that spanned decades, and will be forever remembered through the most romantic era that rallying has ever seen. Rallylegend 2018 acknowledged this special bond between the two in San Marino recently. This year marks forty years since Martini met the sport of rallying, and little did anyone know but it was to be the start of rallying’s most iconic love affair.
Martini had a brief fling in 1978 when they partnered up with Porsche in the World Rally Championship after having dabbled in Formula One, but sadly it wasn’t to last. The second foray into rallying with Lancia would however go the distance and prove to be one of the longest, and most recognized partnerships in the sport. At the dawn of the 1980s’ Martini moved its allegiances back to Italy where Lancia had shifted its focus from the circuit to rallying and Martini didn’t need any persuading to go along for the ride. For many it was a match made in heaven having an Italian brand, car, and drivers on the stages. Looking back, the sport would have been unthinkable without them, the passion the Italians brought to rallying was second to none. They lavished love on whatever they did, and it was evident by the stunning design of the 037, S4, and Delta Integrale that were campaigned.
Throughout the Group B era of the sport, Martini Racing brought the romance to rallying, it was a team made up of people building on success around a passion for racing. An ability to thrive when their back was against the wall, was endearing, sleepless nights in Corsica, sub-zero temperatures in Sweden and the searing heat of Africa was all part of the game. Lancia’s approach to rallying resembled a blockbuster movie rather than a motorsport campaign. Rallying had truly eclipsed Formula One in more ways than one, and Lancia and Martini had a big part to play in that.
After the shock cancellation of Group B in 86’, for many the sport of rallying was dead. Henri Toivonen’s Lancia Martini S4 plunged down a Corsican ravine and burst into flames with the crew trapped inside. Undoubtedly the lowest of lows the sport has ever seen, this was the final straw for the out of control Group B category and as one chapter of the sport closed, another was set to open. Group A seemed a far cry from the fire-breathing monsters of 1986, and while many other manufacturers crumbled, Lancia and Martini simply picked up where they left off; in front. It was the start of a new legacy for the partnership, and with the Delta HF Integrale they once again established that well-known dominance that would see Lancia undefeated as constructor’s champions from 1987 to 1992.
Besides having one of the most lavish, and elegant motorsport campaigns rallying has ever seen, Martini Racing was well-known for one thing in particular, the ability to identify and back winners. Henri Toivonen, Miki Biasion, and Markku Alen all drove through the Group B era proudly wearing Martini on their race suits, while Juha Kankkunen, and Didier Auriol spearheaded the Group A attack. So strong was the partnership between the two that through the Group B and Group A campaigns, Lancia were year in and year out the only team to have very minimal driver changes.
Their pilots were the crem-de-la-crème of rally talent, and fit perfectly with the flamboyant, passionate Italian team. In fact, Markku Alen slipped into the Italian persona so artfully that he became part of it, growing into a folklore attraction. A Finn, dressed in Martini Racing overalls at service sitting in the sun with Ray-Ban aviators and a masseuse working his shoulders, while he barked setup changes at his mechanics in fluent Italian between mouthfuls of pasta and prosciutto.
After numerous drivers’ and constructors’ titles it looked like the combination was set to continue forever but when Lancia withdrew from world rallying, so did Martini. They dabbled in a few national championships, but it was Ford that lured them back to lay their stripes on the Ford Focus entries of McRae and Sainz in 1999. Sadly, Ford never managed to secure a championship in that era and Martini pulled out in 2002.
After a relationship of 25 years with rallying, Martini has well and truly departed from the WRC stages, but thanks to Rallylegend we get to see that return of the pairing. This year saw twenty-three genuine Martini-adorned rally cars present both on show and out on the stages. Sitting in time control for stage start, was a cluster of five Lancia S4 machines checking in, not even in the 80s’ could such a sight be witnessed. One by one they were waved off into the stage, giving spectators a glimpse into those magical years of rallying many remember so fondly.
There are few pairings that have the ability to leave an imprint on an entire sport, let alone on the hearts and minds of fans around the world. Many have wondered what could have been should the love affair have continued, the answer to that question will forever remain unanswered. The mystery merely heightens the legend that is Martini Racing and their love affair with the sport of rallying.