Not every competition car is destined to enjoy a glitter, championship laden career, that much is obvious. For every McLaren MP4/4 there was an Andrea Moda, for every Lancia Delta Integrale a Sunny GTI-R, and for every Audi Quattro a Citroen BX4TC. Thing is, while heroic failures and ‘close but no cigar’ motorsport projects are seldom recalled with much affection by those tasked with driving, running or financing them at the time, it’s hard to deny the appeal, not least as many were the result of wild speculation, inexperience or merely good old fashioned rotten luck.
So-so competition cars and the teams that ran them have long been a popular topic of conversation here at Retropower which is why we found ourselves jotting down a list, one which no team, driver or engineer really wants to be on – 5 of the least effective race and rally cars ever signed off by a car maker.
1 – Nissan Sunny GTI-R
Nissan spent much of the ’70s and ’80s seeking to bolster its overseas reputation through motorsport, which is why a stream of hardy Datsun Violets were a common sight in Group 4 rallies at the time. These machines tended to major on strength and build quality as opposed to pace or technical sophistication though, and by the time of the introduction of Group A in 1987, it had become all too clear that something rather more polished would be required to take the fight to Ford, Lancia, Toyota and Mitsubishi.
The GTI-R was the result, the first Nissan rally car developed in Europe by the newly formed Nissan Motorsport Europe outfit, and a car groaning under the weight of technical sophistication. Much was expected of the Sunny, both by its creators and its opposition – many really did consider the GTI-R to have the makings of a world beater. It was compact, sported a trick (for the time) series of ‘diffs, was four-wheel drive and had the potential to make well over 300bhp.
Yet the GTI-R never came close to emulating the feats of its closest rivals from either Japan or Europe, and most of the blame can be laid at the door of one component and one component alone, its intercooler. It had been located at the top of the engine, presumably a way of protecting it from damage from stones and other detritus, but this also meant that it soaked up an inordinate amount of heat and robbed the car of power, as much as 50bhp in some scenarios. It was soon christened ‘the inter warmer’ by Parc ferme wags, and the name stuck.
With the factory unwilling to green light the new run of homologation cars required to rectify the issue, NME soldiered on. The GTI-R did eventually manage to score some respectable if not exactly world beating results, including a sold 5th on the Safari and 3rd on the Swedish for Stig Blomqvist, but it wasn’t enough. Nissan grew tired with the programme and quit the WRC at the end of 1992.
2 – Life Racing Engines
The late ’80s and early ’90s were something of a golden era for hopeless F1 teams across the board, and while few could hold a candle to Andrea Moda (see below) in the abject failure stakes, the little known Life Racing outfit could run at least run them close. Life was founded by Ernesto Vita, a man with a plan. He’d just purchased a radical new W12 engine design off an Italian engineer, Franco Rocci, and while his initial plan of selling it to a top team had failed to materialise, he reasoned that there was nothing stopping him from sticking it in a chassis of his own and attempting to show the F1 establishment what it was missing out on.
The W12-powered Life L190 debuted at the start of the 1990 season and immediately looked out of its depth. Inexperience and a tight budget were both challenging things for Life to overcome, but the addition of an unproven, self-built engine made the whole exercise very nearly impossible. It might’ve been compact, but the W12 was also unreliable and slow. Painfully slow. It put out 480bhp in peak trim, at least 200bhp down on the most powerful NA engines of the time, which combined with the so-so chassis to form a truly awful race car. Life failed to qualify for any of the 14 races on the 1990 calendar and were gone by the following season.
3 – MasterCard Lola
The combination of MasterCard millions and Lola’s expertise should have made for a promising outfit, certainly by the standards of the day. That the Lola cars came to represent everything that was wrong about F1 at the lower reaches of the grid in the mid ’90s can be blamed almost entirely upon the MasterCard side of the partnership, and the team’s failure has been used as a text book example of how not to set about motor racing ever since.
Yet the basic ingredients had potential. Lola had plenty of experience when it came to designing and building race cars, and while the Cosworth-Ford engine selected to power the T97/30 was far from the class of the field, it should at least have made for a competitive package. Where things began to go awry was when it came to funding, as while MasterCard was willing to fit some of the bill for the car’s development much of it would have to come from funds raised from an associated card holders scheme, a scheme very few people were interested in investing in.
MasterCard’s association brought further problems, namely the demand by the bankers holding the purse strings that the team enter the sport a full year earlier than originally intended, which is why Vincenzo Sospiri and Ricardo Rosset found themselves trying to qualify for the 1997 Australian Grand Prix. Both failed, badly. The former was fastest and set a time a mere 11 seconds off pole and 5 seconds shy of the 107% rule required to make the grid on Sunday, while Rosset was a full 2 seconds slower than that. The cars never turned a wheel in anger again and the project was quietly canned soon after.
4 – Citroen BX4TC
Group B rallying will doubtless be familiar to every one of you reading this, and that’s no surprise; those cars campaigned in the middle of the ’80s have gone down in history as among the most brutal of all competition machines. Of course it stands to reason that not all Group B cars were technological wonders capable of besting all comers. Some were poorly thought out, compromised from the beginning, and badly finished, all of which apply to the Citroen BX4TC.
Citroen were late to the Group B party with the BX, only beginning work on the car in 1985, the move itself having been inspired by the firm’s limited class success with the Visa. Budgets were tight, a situation no doubt compounded by the rampant success being enjoyed by Peugeot at that point in time with its 205 T16, but by far the biggest problem was the BX’s outdated layout and fairly tame specification. A desire to preserve the innate ‘Citroen-ness’ of the project compelled the team to retain more mass market components than their rivals (including its iconic hydraulic suspension), and as a result the BX4TC tipped the scales at 1150kg, making it comfortably among the heaviest of all Group B cars.
It didn’t help that the BX4TC exhibited many of the less desirable traits as the early A2 Quattro, namely a heavy engine located on (and partially ahead of) the front axle and a somewhat agricultural transmission, one devoid of a centre differential. The car was always destined to struggle, and that’s before we touch upon the year in which it debuted, 1986, the final year of Group B and the one in which power outputs really did go through the roof. The modest, 390bhp BX was destined to be out-gunned from the get go.
The career of Citroen’s top-flight Group B contender was mercifully short – and not merely as Group B was canned at the end of its first year. 6th position on the Swedish Rally (and off the back of a double retirement on the Monte a few weeks previously) would be the car’s best result, with yet more retirements from the Acropolis proving to be the final straw. Citroen pulled the plug on the BX programme there and then, then set about buying back as many of the cars as possible to destroy.
5 – Andrea Moda
Lola, Life, and a handful of other teams including Eurobrun and the short lived Coloni-Subaru operation could all be bundled in with F1’s least effective cars and teams, but only one outfit managed to combined the worst bits of all them – Andrea Moda. At times it really did beggar belief that a team could be this disorganised, this ill-equipped to deal with the rigours of top-tier motorsport, and it says much that Andrea Moda were eventually kicked out of F1 for bringing the sport into disrepute.
Andrea Moda ‘competed’ in F1 from 1991 to 1992 and never finished a race, much less finished one in the points. Its car, the S921, was initially financed by Andrea Sassetti, an Italian shoe magnate, but was based (however loosely) on a tidy if not exactly spectacular design penned bay Nick Wirth. Andrea Moda then carried out a series of modifications to the machine, none of which were in any way effective and all of which had to be completed in less than a month. The result was predictable; the Judd V10 powered machines were both desperately slow and chronically unreliable, and the team’s fortunes weren’t helped by a revolving door of drivers and an ever decreasing budget.
Given how shoddy the entire operation had been from the get-go it was only fitting that Sassetti effectively went to war with the FIA, and lost. The Italian was arrested after Spa 1992 and was soon facing accusations of fraud and financial misconduct, and while the team did travel to Italy for the next round of the season they were banned from entering the Monza paddock.