How Björn Waldegård became the WRC’s first drivers’ champion
What’s in a name? Plenty, actually. Just ask Markku Alén. The Finn took the FIA Cup for Drivers in 1978. Had he done the same 12 months later, he would have enjoyed the slightly snappier title of World Rally Champion.
Twenty-nine years after Giuseppe Farina was celebrated as the inaugural Formula 1 world champion, rallying caught up and placed a similar crown of Björn Waldegård’s head in 1979.
After much debate about the move to a world title for drivers – the manufacturers’ award had been in place since 1973 – the first year didn’t disappoint in terms of competition, conspiracy and collaboration.
And the conspiracy started early, on the season-opening Rallye Monte-Carlo.
Ford and Fiat would be the two main protagonists forty years ago, with Lancia having announced the 1978 RAC Rally would be the final official outing for its Stratos. That didn’t mean there wouldn’t be a handful of those glorious Group 4 Dino-engined machines lingering in private hands. And Bernard Darniche was one such privateer.
The two-time European Rally Champion was well capable of making a nuisance of himself at this level, but a win was reckoned beyond the Frenchman.
Ford’s preparations for the Monte were hindered by a pay-related strike which left much of Boreham on the picket line for the winter of discontent. Once the politics were sorted, the Escort RS1800 was lightened and given its most powerful engine ever (generating more than 270bhp once Kugelfischer fuel injection replaced the tried, tested and trusted twin-48 Webers). Hannu Mikkola and Waldegård got a car each to take on Fiat’s 131 Abarth.
Mikkola was quickest out of the blocks and raced into an early lead. Unfortunately for him – and without any evidence of wrongdoing – he was hit with a five-minute penalty after Digne plod reckoned the Finn had “Overtaken dangerously some time between noon and three o’clock” on the event’s second day. That left Waldegård comfortably out front and ready to manage a four-minute lead over Alén through a final night in the Alpes-Maritimes.
Then Darniche made his move. He won stage after stage with the perfect tyre choice in horribly changeable conditions, but was still 90 seconds off the leader with two stages to go. All that would change when Waldegård came through a left-hander and found two rocks right on the line.
How had they got there, nobody knew. Some might point to ardent support for a French win or even some cross-border co-operation with Italian fans keen to give the Stratos one final hurrah. Whatever, Darniche won by six seconds and the race to be the first ever World Rally Champion was up and running.
If round one was controversial, round two was cutting-edge as Stig Blomqvist and his Saab 99 registered world rallying’s first victory for forced induction. Waldegård was second and moved to the top of the table. A third runners-up spot at the next round in Portugal kept the big Swede out front, but only nine points separated him and Portuguese winner Mikkola when it came to round four in Kenya.
Because Ford had no interest in competing on the Safari Rally, its two drivers were released to Mercedes, where they found a pair of 5.0-litre 450 SLCs waiting for them. The big Mercs might have had grunt galore, but they were no match for the guile and know-how of Shekhar Mehta and his Datsun 160J. Mikkola was second and Waldegård was sixth, tying them on points.
Two rounds on and we were no further forward. Waldegård won the Acropolis, while Mikkola retired with an engine fault. But Hannu won in New Zealand where Björn didn’t start.
A further engine-related retirement cost Mikkola any hope of a 1000 Lakes win, Finland, representing Alén’s sole victory of the season. Waldegård was third in Jyväskylä and followed that with a commanding win in Canada. Ford missed the following rounds in Italy and Corsica (and this time there were no Mercs waiting), but when Fiat failed to capitalise and win either, a first manufacturers’ title went to the Blue Oval.
Delight at Boreham was short-lived when Ford Motorsport manager Mike Kranefuss dropped a bombshell.
He said: “We’ve been active in rallying for 17 years without a break. A rallying sabbatical will give us the opportunity to proceed with vehicle development.”
Despite that news, a now two-man title fight raged on into the RAC Rally. Mikkola needed a strong result and delivered just that with a second consecutive win on Britain’s biggest rally. For Waldegård there was a brand new RS1800, but a troubled event with what would be one of the last official Escort Mk2s to come out of Ford kept him in ninth place.
Fiat had long-since surrendered any hope of success, which was part of the reason it allowed Alén his own way in Britain. Markku felt the Stratos was more suited to the wet autumnal woods and Lancia dusted down a HF for the Finn. He led early on, but once Mikkola was up and running, his countryman simply couldn’t contain the Ford.
Some consolation for Waldegård was that he would lead Mikkola by six points (12 points once dropped scores were taken into account) as the pair moved to the season-closing Bandama Rally on the Ivory Coast. Back to Africa meant back to the Mercedes to decide the direction of the first ever drivers’ title.
Mikkola had to go for it and did just that, overcoming a strong challenge from fellow 450 driver Andrew Cowan to take the win. Waldegård by comparison drove a careful event, calculating that second would be enough – just – to take the title.
He ended the season as he’d started in: second. But this time, the Swede was smiles all around as he clinched the maiden drivers’ title by a single point.
Since that inaugural season, 16 more drivers have won the title, the last 15 of them going to France via Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier.
But few seasons delivered the twists and turns of 40 years ago.