Everybody idolises the sensational Lancia Stratos, but no-one worships it more than “Rally God” Markku Alen. The Finnish legend, a winner of 19 WRC rounds, is one of the lucky men to have raced the stunning Ferrari Dino V6-hearted icon in its glorious heyday.
Even he was kept waiting, though.
Back in the seventies, the Bertone-designed Stratos was a game-changer and very much the rally weapon of choice. As the world’s first purpose-built rally car, it clinched three consecutive Constructors’ titles between 1974 and 1976.
Lancia’s parent company Fiat, however, was not keen to see its star driver winning in what was a very limited-production special – after all, fewer than 500 Stratos were ever built.
As a result, although Alen had been Fiat’s factory driver from 1975, it wasn’t until late in the 1978 season that he finally got his hands on an amazing Stratos. By that time, the Finn had safely captured the coveted FIA Cup for Drivers – the precursor to the World Championship – competing in a far more mainstream and marketable Fiat 131 Abarth.
The long-overdue switch, though, brought immediate success. Indeed, Alen stunned everyone on his Stratos debut by winning the San Remo Rally – beating all the Italian heroes on their home ground. It was a stunning performance that ignited a lasting love affair with the mid-engine missile.
“It was an incredible car – for me, it was like a little boy stepping into Formula One,” he recalls. “I kept asking and asking to drive it, but all the time I was told, ‘131 for you’. When I finally got to drive one, I realised how easy it was, especially on tarmac. Like night and day. My only problem was I was so tall – I hit my head all the time. And in the fog and rain you don’t see as well.”
Alen’s famous San Remo victory, though, came very late in the Stratos’ lifetime. By then, development had virtually stopped and the Italians were starting to plan for its successor, the equally awesome Group B-inspired Lancia 037 – a car in which Alen was also a WRC winner.
Much to the delight of UK rally fans, and notwithstanding the Stratos’ declining competitiveness, Alen did persuade his bosses to let him enter one into both the 1979 and 1981 RAC Rallies, forest events he believed the ageing supercar could still win.
Alen did lead briefly in 1979, but was delayed by technical issues and had to settle for numerous stage wins and fifth place in the final classification. A crash ended his hopes in 1981, by which time Audi’s four-wheel-drive quattro had raised the bar to another level.