We take a look back at a criminally overlooked period from rallying’s recent past, the F2 ‘Kit Car’ era
Kit Car. It was always an odd sounding collective for a crop of manufacturer-built competition cars, each the product of countless millions of pounds worth of investment, but it came to denote the most exciting rally cars since the abolition of Group B some ten years previously. Kit Cars had little in common with anything produced by Lotus or Caterham bar the basic premise of internal combustion, but it didn’t matter; the term was soon inedibly associated with manic front-wheel drive cars, among the most specialised machines to ever grace a special stage – and Retropower icons to boot.
Kit Cars, or ‘F2’ as the class soon came to be known (and this despite the FIA never sanctioning the name officially), were marvels of engineering at the vanguard of what front-wheel drive competition cars could do, and yet the story which lead to their creation is one of intrigue, internal politicking and controversy.
Yet it was supposed supposed to be so simple, or at least it was back at the very beginning in 1993, when Renault’s sporting director Patrick Landon went to the FIA with a request. Landon was charged with selling as many road going Renaults as possible and therefore thought, quite understandably, that some French national rally success would enable Le Regie to further burnish its sporting reputation. Yet winning on home turf had become progressively tougher as the ‘90s ticked by, the trickle down of ex-works, all-wheel drive Group A machinery having consigned the likes of the 5GT Turbo and 11 Turbo to the dustbin of motorsport history.
Something clearly had to be done to readdress the balance, and Landon was the man to do it. Now, it won’t have escaped your notice that Landon, Renault and the FIA were (and are) French, and it really was no coincidence that the rules governing what would become the F2 Kit Car class were weighted heavily in favour of Gallic car makers. The idea, which would become something of a loophole in the fullness of time, was that French OEMs would build rally cars intended to excel in the conditions that made up their national championship, which is why the likes of Peugeot, Citroen and Renault would all go onto produce dedicated asphalt racers. It didn’t really matter that most were compromised on gravel by dint of this hyper-specialisation, sealed surface pace really was the be all and end all, and to hell with the consequences.
There were of course many upsides to building cars so unashamedly dedicated to a certain surface, and that’s before we even touch upon the potential advantages for F2 cars over their four-wheel drive rivals written into the regulations from the very beginning. Low weight (the Xsara tipped the scales at just 960kg) was a given, but so too was immense freedom when it came to the design and scope of bodywork and aero appendages. It wasn’t long before wheel arches blistered, wings sprouted and suspension travel grew, as did power outputs.
One can see this clearly with the evolution of the original Kit Car, the Renault Clio Maxi. What began life as a fairly demure competition variant of a mass market hatchback soon grew, and in the most literal of senses. 1993 saw Jean Ragnotti doing his utmost to embarrass the all-wheel drive opposition but found the diminutive Clio Williams wanting, though his attempts to do so must surely rank among modern rallying’s most impressive spectacles. Within 2 short seasons though, the car had been almost totally re-engineered, with wider arches, improved suspension and a more sophisticated ‘diff, in the process gaining the ‘Maxi’ monicker and effectively creating the template for a French F2 car in the process.
The differential would swiftly become the F2 Kit Car’s trump card, the formula having arisen at the same time as truly capable front-wheel drive LSDs, one of the biggest stumbling blocks facing front-wheel drive rally cars previously. Differentials had become far more sophisticated in the years preceding the advent of the F2 class thanks to the mass adoption of ‘active’ centre differentials in all-wheel drive Group A machinery, but the increasing capability of Limited Slip Differentials was most apparent when viewed through the prism of the F2 Maxi.
Renault’s Megane was among the first Kit Cars to truly make full use of trick mechanical LSDs, which was only fitting when you consider the role its maker had played in the formation of the class itself. It also flung open the door to a flurry of comparable systems. It wasn’t long before fully active ‘diffs were a cornerstone of all top flight Kit Cars, helping them send hitherto unheard of power figures through the front wheels alone, and without the end result being an under-steer ridden monster. Taming an F2 Kit Car remained a tricky prospect from a driver’s perspective, but it was a damn sight simpler than it would’ve been in the early 80s.
The fact that Kit Cars were governed by a very loose set of rules was most evident when looking at their engines, with only the OEM valve size having to be retained. Everything else, be it pistons, cranks, cams, rods, inlets, exhausts or ports, could and would be altered almost beyond recognition. This meant that a Kit Car’s 2.0 engine would rev to 10,000rpm and could make an easy 300bhp by the end of the decade. The actual figures made by the likes of the Xsara and the 306 were almost certainly far higher of course, but both Citroen and Peugeot kept their cards very close to their chest in this respect.
As had been the case when Audi sought permission to rally the Quattro a decade previously, the mass market, World Rally Car-building opposition failed to appreciate the threat posed by ultra specialised, purebred sealed surface missiles. They probably assumed that they would be nothing more than a regional threat, an irritant destined to prove a thorn in the side of those teams competing in the French national and perhaps the European Rally Championships, but nothing more. The FIA clearly didn’t see the potential complications sanctioning such specialised cars could and would create, and the Kit Car class was duly enshrined within FIA stature without so much as a murmur of OEM dissent.
The art of Kit Car construction evolved rapidly as the decade progressed, and something of a Gallic arms race was soon in full swing. The Clio made way for the Megane, a car with a far wider track and enhanced suspension travel to boot. As above, the Megane pioneered the use of front wheel drive differential trickery, even succeeding in conquering the British forests thanks to the efforts of Auto Mecha and despite its rather basic rear suspension geometry, this being one of the few restrictions inherent within the rules.
Peugeot and Citroen would build the ultimate interpretations of the Kit Car rules however, the former’s 306 and the latter’s Xsara doing more than any other F2 to really rub egg in the faces of the Word Rally Car opposition. The PSA siblings shared the same engine and floor pan, but that was about it. The two teams worked separately and viewed each other as arch rivals, Citroen building its engines in house, Peugeot opting to farm its out to a specialist.
National success fell to a succession of French Kit Cars, as did the ‘99 European Championship thanks to a stunning, Megane-based performance by Enrico Bertone, not forgetting Martin Rowe and Tapio Laukkanen’s British Rally Championship victories in ’98 and ’99, results which marked the Megane as one of the most versatile of all Kit Cars. It encouraged other car makers to have a crack, and the Escort, SEAT Ibiza, Hyundai Coupe, VW Golf and Skoda Octavia were all subsequently transformed into two-wheel drive rally cars. While they tended to lack the outright tarmac pace of their French siblings they were often more versatile, with the Ibiza ending up as the most successful single F2 car of the lot.
None of this would have mattered had key tarmac rounds of national rally series not also featured within the WRC, a situation which couldn’t help but throw the relative performance of the two types of cars into sharp relief. Things reached a hit midway through the 1999 season, when disquiet within the WRC camp boiled over, first in Spain, then a few weeks later on the Tour de Corse. Given the nature of the rules which had birthed the Kit Car class, it was only fitting that it fell to Citroen to deliver the fatal blow, its Xsara proving to be more than a match for the four-wheel drive opposition on bone dry asphalt stages, particularly with a driver of the calibre of the Phillipe Bulgalski behind the wheel.
Citroen’s famous victories over the WRC regulars had a multitude of ramifications. They encouraged the French concern to re-enter the top tier of the sport for the first time since the ill fated BX4TC of 1986, and the Xsara WRC would of course go onto become the most dominant car of the decade, but they also hastened the end of the F2 class. Citroen’s wins forced the FIA’s hand, and from 2000 any Kit Car had to compete with a hefty weight penalty, a means of pegging back their performance and gifting the advantage to the likes of Subaru, Toyota, Ford and Mitsubishi once again.
The regulation tweaks meant that no two-wheel drive car has troubled the World Rally Car hegemony ever since, and seeing as the format for WRC eligibility and success has never been as well established or inflexible as it currently is, that’s likely to remain the case going forward. Kit Cars were ultimately a victim of their own success therefore, though it’s also worth noting that they were expensive to both purchase and to run, and that getting the most from them required a very specific, talent-exposing style of driving. It’s no coincidence that the crop of drivers who achieved most in Kit Cars (Panizzi, Bulgalski, Ragnotti, Laukkanen and Higgins) could all be confidently called rallying greats.
The cost of designing, building and campaigning a Kit Car was also an issue, with the likes of Hyundai and Skoda simply unwilling to invest the massive financial resources required to take the fight to the French ‘big three,’ and it was one which grew ever more pressing as the category matured. It would eventually play a key role in the Kit Car’s decline and eventual demise.