The story of how a little known Bavarian car maker with a limited range of quirky models came to dominate the sport of rallying in the early ‘80s is well known, and for a good reason. Thanks to Audi, rallying can be neatly broken into two halves; BQ and AQ – ‘Before Quattro’ and ‘After Quattro.’ The four-wheel drive revolution the Vorsprung Durch Technik boffins set in motion means that the sport has never been quite the same since.
What’s less well remembered is that Audi’s dominance was actually relatively short lived, with the Quattro’s winning all but confined to the history books by 1985. The reasons are myriad, though the most significant must be the Quattro’s unashamedly road-car based origins (it’d been first homologated into Group 4 in 1981, only becoming a Group B car a full year later). This meant that the big Audi was forever handicapped by its relatively conservative layout, not least its heavy ‘five pot,’ marooned ahead of the front axle and therefore contributing to mammoth understeer.
The Quattro’s Group 4 origins also meant that it was ill equipped to deal with the rising tide of more sophisticated upstarts from Audi’s rivals, chiefly the Peugeot 205 T16 and Lancia Delta S4. Both were mid engined, space-framed, and by the standards of the day, utterly out of this world. They made the venerable Quattro look positively old hat with indecent haste, and both would go onto dominant the World Rally Championship from 1985 to 1986, the apex of the Group B era.
Not that Audi was content to accept defeat readily, and in attempting to stem the inexorable onslaught from France and Italy, Ingolstadt gave the rallying world, indeed the motoring world, one of the most charismatic competition cars of all, the E2 Quattro.
One of the most endearing things about the E2 was that it was borne from compromise, destined to fight the likes of the T16 and the S4 with one ‘hand’ tied behind its back. Unwilling to countenance the idea that its all-wheel drive baby might be handicapped by one of the traits it was best known for, Audi top brass flat-out refused to countenance the idea of re-homologating a new Quattro with a mid-engined layout. The Quattro would remain a production-based competition car, and upstarts at Audi Sport would just have to deal with it.
Attempting to circumvent the fundamental drawback imposed by the location of the engine prompted the Sport Quattro of 1984, complete with a new 20v head, a hike in power, a more steeply raked windscreen, and a full 320mm chopped from its length. The majority of these changes were intended to rid the Sport of the unnerving levels of understeer exhibited by its A1 and A2 predecessors (largely by making the rear more inclined to ‘step out’ when driven aggressively), but it was only ever a partial success. The bulk of Audi Sport’s drivers reported that the Sport was just as tricky (if not tricker) to drive, and Stig Blomqvist flat out refused to swap from his old ‘long’ Quattro until he’d put his 1984 title beyond doubt.
The Audi ‘skunkworks’ therefore went into overdrive, desperate to rectify the Sport’s evil handling while also stemming (and ideally reversing) the Quattro’s ailing performance on the special stages of the world. Their solution was the E2, the ultimate WRC iteration of the Quattro and a machine borne, at least partially, from a stubborn, bloody minded refusal to acknowledge the way the Group B winds were blowing.
The ‘E2’ suffix denoted that the new car was an evolution variant, something reflected in its wholly revised specification. Group B regulations stated that a mere 20 versions of said evolution model be produced for a manufacturer to be permitted to compete with it, a minuscule number for a firm like Audi, and something reflected in its exotic specification.
The most obvious changes were external, the E2 sporting a massive rear wing and imposing front end, complete with aero-honed splitter and even wider arches. The rear wing was something of a coup, Audi having managed to convince the FIA that it doubled as a cooling device to duct air over the rear-mounted radiators, and that the team should therefore be permitted to run a larger device than that found on the rear of its prime rival, the 205 T16.
The relocated radiators were evidence of one of the themes running through the E2, namely a desire to move as much weight to the back of the car as possible, an attempt to compensate for the five-cylinder ‘up front.’ It was joined in the boot by both the oil and transmission coolers, and also the hydraulically operated alternator, all of which contributed to an eventual 51/49 (Front/Rear) weight distribution.
It might’ve been mounted in a less than desirable location from the perspective of the Audi Sport boffins, but the Quattro’s 20v engine remained the envy of the service park, and the introduction of the E2 saw it gain further revisions. The 2110cc monster made an easy 500bhp on the E2’s debut on Rally Argentina 1985, and by the next year was supposedly good for a whisper under 600bhp if and when required.
Lack of power had never been an Audi Sport driver complaint, but lack of finesse and usability most certainly were. Audi therefore developed the Umluft system, ‘circulating air’ in German, effectively a form of anti-lag and a means of ridding the E2 of one of the most debilitating traits of all Group B cars, chronic turbo lag. This it most certainly did, but it also imbued the E2 with its characteristic ‘chirp,’ itself one of the most beloved of all ‘rally noises.’
Audi’s commitment to technological innovation didn’t ‘t stop there; the E2 also made use of a piece of technology that’s since become de rigour in high performance applications, the dual clutch transmission. A relative of the six-speed PDK unit as used by Porsche’s all conquering 956 Le Mans programme of the same decade, the PDK was clear evidence of both Audi’s determination to wrest back control of the WRC, and also the frantic pace of technological development at the height of the Group B era. Full throttle gear shifts and a 0-60mph time of a whisper over 2.5 seconds was the happy result.
Another nod to enhanced drive-ability could be found within the E2’s centre differential. Old Quattros possessed all the handling finesse of a beached porpoise, a problem largely caused by the 50/50 torque split between the front and rear axles and at its worst on tarmac. Audi Sport engineers attempted to cure the problem by fitting the E2 with a combination of Torsen and Ferguson hardware, the addition of the latter’s vicious coupling bringing about appreciable improvements in handling prowess, and also the ability to make alterations in torque split ‘on the fly.’
With all of the technical polish and budget outlined above, not to mention the driving talents of one Walter Rohrl, you might’ve expected the E2 to make the WRC its own once more, but it didn’t. The car debuted on Rally Argentina 1985, and while it made an impression (both on those charged with driving it and those who’d turned out to watch), it couldn’t reverse Audi’s ailing fortunes compared to those of arch rivals Peugeot.
Audi Sport were dealt a further blow at the end of the year when Lancia unveiled the Delta S4 (a winner first time out on the RAC), and the team pulled out of the world rallying after the rash of tragic accidents the following year.
It was a sad way for the Quattro rally programme to end, though the E2 was at least able to claim one last victory before the plug was pulled, and it was only fitting that the man behind the wheel was Walter Rohrl. The rally in question was the 1985 Sanremo, mere months on from the E2’s Argentine debut and an event with a healthy entry list, headed by the hitherto dominant 205 T16 of Timo Salonen. The pudgy, bespectacled Finn would of course go onto claim the drivers’ crown that year, but in Italy he was comprehensively outclassed by the combination of Quattro and Rohrl, and the German’s eventual winning margin was 6 minutes 29 seconds.
The world would of course get to see the combination of Quattro and Rohrl on the daunting Pikes Peak hillclimb two years later, but the Sanremeo triumph marked the final time the pair would stand atop the WRC order.