There was little about the early Lancia Delta Integrale that would’ve caused you to have thought it a potentially world beating rally car, let alone a record breaking one. Early examples with modest arches, cropped overhangs and 8V heads looked positively demure. Yet the Delta would go onto become among the most successful models in rallying history. It scored 6 titles on the trot, and helped drivers like Juha Kankkunen, Didier Auriol and Miki Biasion cement their respective places in rallying history.
Lancia had actually been campaigning a Group A Delta for some time before the 1987 season, albeit with a programme very much subordinate to the monstrous S4. It meant that when the axe finally fell on Group B at the end of the 1986 season, Lancia was unique in having a proven, all-wheel drive, turbocharged rally car ready to go.
The same could not be said for Lancia’s rivals, and utter domination swiftly ensued. Titles for Juha Kankkunen in 1987 were merely beginning, with a part of back-to-back gongs for Miki Biasion in 1988 and 1989 marking the Delta out as the car to have. However, it should be noted that for most of this 3 year period Lancia’s prime opposition came from Mazda’s out-gunned 323 and Ford’s two-wheel drive Sierra.
Things only truly began to tighten up when Toyota debuted the Celica ST165 in 1989, a car with enough cutting-edge technology to make the Integrale look second best and, whisper it, a little old hat. Its Xtrac centre differential was a far more sophisticated item than the viscous coupling favoured by Lancia, and it was only persistent reliability gremlins (and rampant overheating) which prevented TTE from being a winner in the GT4’s debut season.
There was no denying that the Delta was handy Group A starting point then, but Lancia’s real skill was its ability to keep revising its spec to meet the challenge of more modern and increasingly sophisticated rivals.
Lancia’s desire to dominate the WRC was reflected in the depths of its coffers, which soon became the envy of the service park. Abarth would eventually be given permission to develop four distinct specifications of car – an Integrale for all seasons, basically. ‘Lightweight’ cars were for the likes of the Tour de Corse and the ‘Monte,’ with ‘Regular’ machines for mixed surface tests like Portugal or Sanremo, and a ‘Heavyweight’ one for rough gravel like the Acropolis. The fourth variant, the one with the most amount of strengthening steel added, was for The Safari.
The changes weren’t merely focused on additional strength or event-specific parts like snorkels and ‘bull bars,’ Abarth also invested heavily in performance. The biggest change in this respect occurred in 1989, the year in which the Integrale gained a 16v head. It was a move which Abarth had been plotting for some time, though the need for extra performance had been thrown into sharp relief by the debut of the Toyota the previous season.
The added performance brought about by the additional eight valves would become even more important when the FIA, alarmed at the ever-rising power levels exhibited by early Group A cars (the Deltas were making nearly 400bhp by this point), mandated the fitment of a 40mm turbo restrictor for 1990.
1990 was also the first time a ‘chink’ in the Integrale’s armour emerged, with the Celica able to carry Carlos Sainz to his first drivers’ championship. Lancia made do with the manufacturers’ gong (and both titles would return to Italy the very next year), but it was clear that further revisions would be required to stem the Toyota tide.
Lancia responded with the ultimate evolution of its old stager, an evolution model officially called the Lancia Delta HF Integrale but known variously as the ‘Super Delta’ or the ‘Deltona.’ It was nothing less than the distillation of everything Abarth had learned about the car over the preceding 5 seasons, and it restored its ailing competitiveness (admittedly by Lancia’s stratospherically high standards) at a stroke.
The most obvious difference between the Deltona and its predecessors were its blistered arches. Granted, Integrales had been becoming ever more swollen in this department for years, but with its final throw of the dice Abarth really did turn things up to eleven. Extra bracing made it a fundamentally stiffer car, while an increase in width from 1700mm to 1770mm enabled larger 17in Speedline wheels to be used all round. The Deltona’s increase in overall side was twinned with a widened track, a move which finally addressed one of the Delta’s biggest weaknesses, a lack of suspension travel.
Interestingly, the Deltona was never a ‘Works’ rally car in the strict sense of the word. The cars themselves were developed and built by Abarth but Lancia, aware of the spiralling costs of the WRC, had opted to pull out at the end of the 1991 season, opting to leave the running of its campaign to the Jolly Club instead. Martini money still flowed into the concern, as did Abarth expertise and resources, but it’s an important point nonetheless.
The Deltona found favour with pretty much every driver lucky enough to pilot it, but Didier Auriol was especially enamored with its charms. So hopelessly besotted was the Frenchman that many years after Lancia had ceased to be force in rallying crew chiefs and mechanics would joke that Auriol wanted every car to behave ‘like a Deltona.’ Such was Auriol’s love for the car that it surprised no one when he stormed to victory on the season opening Monte Carlo rally, an event he was known to relish.
The Monte performance opened the floodgates for a stunning run of victories, with the Deltona taking no fewer than 8 outright wins on an array of different surfaces including a famous one for Auriol on the 1000 Lakes, becoming only the second non-Scandinavian to have done so (and ahead of local team mate Kankkunen). It was a remarkable run of form even for Lancia and the only way to sign off the Delta’s career, proof of the car’s fundamental strength and ability to evolve over the course of multiple seasons.
Lancia’s star would wane in the following months, and even the might of the Deltona wasn’t enough to prevent Sainz from taking the 1992 drivers’ crown. There would be no wins at all the following year.
Time finally caught up with the mighty Delta Integrale but it remains one of the most iconic rally cars of all time, and an easy Retropower Hero.