That Audi set in motion the four-wheel drive rallying revolution with the Quattro is about as widely known an automotive fact as you’re likely to encounter, sandwiched as it is between Ford’s discovery that Austin was haemorrhaging money on every Mini it sold, and the Pinto’s predisposition to engulfing its occupants in a ball of fire when hit from behind.

What’s less well remembered is just how brief the Quattro’s reign actually was, the rise of more specialized cars like the Peugeot 205 T16 relegating it to the status of also ran with remarkable alacrity. By 1985 it was effectively all over; the E2 variant of the Quattro was able to win the Sanremo Rally thanks in no small part to the talents of Walter Rohrl, but the German pairing were fooling no one – the winds of change had blown the Quattro into the weeds.

The A1 and A2 Quattros had their roots in rallying’s Group 4 category, and as such they were always destined to struggle when ranged against Group B thoroughbreds like the T16 and S4

You might ask why Audi didn’t simply admit defeat and commence development of a mid-engined Group B car of its own. Well, the truth is that the company did indeed build such a car and even got as far as commencing an incredibly secretive testing programme, but the internal politics of the day (not least Audi’s unwillingness to admit the competitive limitationS of the front-engined Quattro concept itself) meant that it was destined to be no more than interesting footnote in Audi’s rallying history.

Work on the mid-engined Quattro had actually been commenced early in the decade, so much so that the prototype was ready by the time the then new S1 made its competitive debut on the 1984 Tour de Corse, as did the 205 T16. The contrast between the two couldn’t have been starker, or for Audi, painful. The pair of PSA machines were comfortably on the pace and Ari Vatanen’s might well have won had he not crashed out, while the lone S1, driven by Rohrl, retired on only the second stage.

Audi pinned a great deal of hope on the original S1 Quattro, but it proved to be an underwhelming, twitchy and fundamentally compromised car from the get-go

The writing was very much on the wall as far as the original Group B Audi was concerned but not everyone could, or would, see it. One man who could was Roland Gumpert, (later of Gumpert cars) and the driving force behind the project, so much so that it would eventually play a role in his eventual fall from grace within Audi itself. It fell to Gumpert to convince Ferdinand Piëch of the project’s worth, after which the Audi head honcho have his tacit (but distinctly guarded) approval.

A mild nod of acquiescence it might have been but this was by no means an official project, rather one which was to be conducted in a covert manner. As such Gumpert looked East when the time came to actually test the new machine, specifically to the Desna test site located in Cold War era Czechoslovakia, very much out of view from all but the most advanced of American satellites. What followed was a gradual evolution, the test programme conducted in situ with the E2 rally car and becoming more and more advanced as 1985 ticked by.

Covert images (indeed the only images) of the mid-engined Quattro during its illusive test phase

The core ingredients were already well understood, namely the riotously powerful Audi 5-pot turbo, though of course it was now stuffed behind the front seats like 205 T16 and the soon to debut Lancia Delta S4. There was still a great deal of work still to be done when the project was canned (more on that in a moment) but from the outset it was clear that this was unequivocally the way to go. The mid-engined car displayed none of the twitchy nervousness of its nose-heavy sibling, with a pronounced reduction in that most irksome of all Group B Quatro traits, understeer.

All this performance and its potential to catapult Audi back to the top of the WRC competitive order begs the question, why on earth wasn’t it pursued? In a word, photography: the all-encompassing secrecy of the project was shattered at the car’s first ever test session, conducted just over the border in rural Bavaria and on an unremarkable looking strip of tarmac. A single, hidden photographer snapped an image of the new cars with Rohrl at the wheel, and within days they’d been splashed across a popular Austrian car magazine.

The Quattro’s fearsome 5-cylinder was translated from the E2 largely unchanged. The big Audi never wanted for power…

The fallout from the bust was felt almost as quickly as the car on which it centred went, and within days the skunkworks Quattos* were being stripped in front of Audi’s top brass, Gumpert and Piech included.The latter had been raked over the coals by the VW management, the powers that be apoplectic that its subordinate arm had effectively defied express instructions and commenced covert development of a new Group B rally car.

The rest, as they say, is history. Audi returned to the E2 in an attempt to wring as much performance from it as possible and exited the sport in the wake of the tragedies of 1986, after which the Works cars were seen only at Pikes Peak. The untimely demise of Group B allowed Audi to bid a hasty retreat from World Rallying and to instead focus its motorsport activities on IMSA, touring cars, and in time, Le Mans.

Some of Peugeot’s Group S thinking can be seen in the 205 T16s fired up Pikes Peak in 1987 – check out the ever-more-aggressive aero package

Could the mid-engined Quattro have restored Audi WRC dominance? That’s a question that’s almost impossible to answer accurately, mainly as we’ve no idea how effective it would have been compared to the Evolution variants being cooked up by both Peugeot and Lancia. The fruits of the former’s efforts can be gleaned in part from the 16 ‘E3’ cars used for the 1987 Pikes Peak assault, complete with more aggressive aerodynamics and an overhauled transmission with driver adjustable torque split.

There’s also the question of timing; would the car have had a chance to prove its worth before the mooted introduction of Group S in 1988? Here things get murkier still, as the FIA redrafted the rules governing the formula several times before its eventual cancelation, and as such it’s hard to know exactly which cars and which specifications would’ve been granted homologation. Audi’s own proposed Group S car, the curvaceous RS 002, grew from the Desna project of course, but the category’s demise at the end of the 1986 season doomed it to a life spent at the Ingolstadt museum.

The best know ‘skunkworks’ Audi project of them all, the RS 002

In short, we’re left with a whole load of questions without any concrete answers, all of which makes the mid-engined Quattro and its RS 002 relation nothing more than an intriguing footnote, one of the great ‘what might have beens’ of modern motorsport history.

*Three such cars were supposedly built, one of which was ripped apart to appease VW’s top brass, one which became the RS 002. This leaves a mooted third car unaccounted for, which is in itself a hugely intriguing prospect…

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