Denied the opportunity to prove their worth, much less compete, the Lancia ECV and ECV2 stand apart as some of the WRC’s most intriguing ‘what if’ stories, and a tantalising glimpse into the possibilities of Group S

When Group B bit the dust at the end of 1986, everything changed. The wheels set in motion by FISA back in 1982, when it had supplanted Groups 1 – 5 with Groups A, B and C, were unceremoniously halted. Car makers, teams, drivers and spectators, all found themselves in something of an automotive limbo, trapped between the unhinged, anything-goes world of Group B, and the more prosaic, resolutely production-based formula on which the WRC’s new order would be built, Group A. 

Yet there was a moment, a small, rapidly closing window, when another route was possible, the destined to be shelved Group S. Attempting to clearly define what Group S was is akin to prising open a can of automotive worms, not least as the concept changed dramatically from when it was first laid out in 1985 to when it was finally shelved at the start of 1988. 

Group S seemed to offer all of the upsides of Group B but paired with an increased awareness of safety: power was to be pegged back to a modest 300bhp, fire suppression systems improved and manufacturers generally placed under greater scrutiny.

A rare top-down view of the ECV gives an idea of how focussed its design actually was

What began as little more than a series of modified Group B rules with tighter restrictions on aero devices and slicks (a move designed to curb the alarming cornering speeds of ‘peak’ Group B cars) evolved, and come its demise a potential Group S car would’ve been strictly limited to 300bhp and with a blanket ban on some of those composites deemed to weak and likely to splinter in the event of an accident. Also banned were the increasingly exotic fuel brews being utilised by the likes of Lancia, Peugeot and Audi.

Everything else – be it drive, induction and use of composite materials, remained free. Best of all, at least from a car maker’s perspective, a mere 10 units had to be produced in order for a Group S machine to be granted homologation. 

The reasons why Group S was finally consigned to the dustbin of history are myriad, though a good deal of the blame can be placed upon the uneasy, at times deeply fractious relationship between the teams and the head of FISA at the time, Jean-Marie Balastre. His distaste for rallying had only mounted during the Group B years and had been crystalised by the fallout from the tragedies of 1986. Faced with the choice of handing the OEMs precisely what they wanted in the form of Group S or re-establishing his authority via Group A, he didn’t hesitate to plump for the latter. 

The fact that it took so long to pin down precisely what a Group S car could and should be is reflected in the changing specifications of the cars shown here; Lancia’s ECV and ECV 2.

ECV/SE041

Note the ECV’s more refined aero devices compared to the S4, namely front splitter, side skirts, more complex rear wing, and, at the rear, a diffuser

Never a team to rest upon its laurels, Lancia commenced work on a slated Delta S4 Evo the moment the car made its competition debut at the end of the 1985 WRC season, though the concept of the ECV – Experimental Composite Vehicle – had actually been sketched by Abarth back in 1984. The prospect of Group S and the freedom it entailed merely gave the team freedom to explore them fully, one eye firmly on its potential as either a Group B or Group S car.

The ECV boasted a monocoque made from bonded carbon fibre and aluminium honeycomb, off of which were hung the body panels made from a mix of carbon/Kevlar, plastic and fibreglass. The wheels, made for the ECV by Speedline, were also made from carbon and tipped the scales at just 6kg per corner. The whole car tipped the scales at a featherweight 930kg, at least 20% lighter than the S4. 

Speedline made special, one-off carbon composite wheels for the ECV programme

That the concept of what constituted a potential Group S evolved as the months ticked by can be seen by looking at the ECV’s engine, the stunningly engineered Triflux. It was originally intended to pump out a thumping 600bhp by means of a pair turbos, and an all new cylinder head complete with highly innvotive 16v layout.

The valves were arranged in a diagonal manner, with an inlet and an exhaust valve on each side of the cylinder. This provided three distinct ‘paths’ for air to fow; one inlet and two exhaust, with the latter routed to a pair of distinct manifolds, each with its own K26 turbo and intercooler. Claudio Lombardi, the engine’s designer, hoped that this layout would better enable the head to resist warping under the extremes of heat and pressure generated by forced induction, helping to improve the S4’s somewhat patchy reliability record.

The Triflux engine had more than a whiff of Johny 5 of about it

As even when it comes to Group S prototypes of this nature, there’s more than a little intrigue and internet hearsay surrounding the ECV in general and Triflux in particular. It’s commonly stated that the paired turbos were run in a sequential fashion in order to combat turbo lag, which would have made sense. However, all the available diagrams show a more conventional, parallel twin turbo arrangement. This tallies with interviews given by those Abarth drivers tasked with testing it in period, all of whom said, to a man, that it was all but impossible to man-handle effectively. 

As ever when it comes to this kind of thing it’s hard to speculate what form any ECV-based rally car would have eventually taken, though it’s safe to say that it would have been well financed and expertly driven, as per all Lancia rally cars. It could well have formed the basis of Lancia’s planned Delta S4 Evo2 variant slated to take its competitive debut in 1987.

The wraps are pulled off the ECV at its public launch in 1988

SE042

One way of grasping just how committed to continuing its WRC winning streak Lancia was at the end of the 1980s, is to look at the lengths to which it went to in order to optimise its potential Group S challenger. As stated above, the rules governing the formula evolved with the passing of the months, so much so that the Delta S4 based ECV1 would’ve represented a less and wholehearted interpretation of the rules come the time of the formula’s eventual demise.

Enter stage left, the SE42. Unlike either the ECV or ECV2 no SE042 prototype was ever built by the Abarth skunkworks, though they did get as far as laying down its basic principles. It would naturally have made as much use of composites as possible, paired with a more modern, aerodynamic body. The biggest change, though, would’ve concerned the engine. This would likely have been a 1.4 16v turbocharged engine, the decrease in displacement a way of making the most of the new, more restrictive Group S regs. Frustratingly, we’ll never know.

The ECV2 was most definitely a case of function over form

ECV2 

Amazingly given that there was no longer a championship in which it could be run competitively, Abarth kept working on the ECV concept in the wake of Group S’s demise, even going so far as to recycle the original car into the ECV2. Freed from the need to actually homologate the new creation the Abarth engineers let rip, using the core architecture and chassis of the original car to create a more modern, aerodynamically honed car. 

The engine was the most impressive development though, with the true potential of the Triflux concept having been achieved via some re-engineering of its forced induction setup. Gone were the K26s, replaced by a pair of smaller, faster spooling K24s, this time arranged sequentially. The single waste gate could be actuated so that pressure to one of the K24s could be shut-off lower down the rev range, allowing its opposite number to spool up swiftly. Then, when a pre-set level of boost had been achieved, the second turbo could be brought ‘on stream’ and the engine allowed to make its full, 600bhp potential.

A diagram detailing how the ECV2’s modified Triflux engine would have functioned. Note the single, massive waste gate governing the left-hand turbocharger

This ingenious means of reducing lag was in effect an undulating of the S4’s turbo/supercharger setup, albeit one more easily controlled by the ever improving electronic management system of the day.

As stated the ECV2 was never intended as anything more than a test bed, a technological showcase and, though we couldn’t have known it at the time, the high watermark of Lancia-Abarth performance engineering. 

There is at least a happy end to this story, namely that both ECVs still exist. The original, SE041 car was effectively re-cycled to form the ECV2 in 1988, and the latter still exists. As for the red ECV1, that was actually constructed from a road going S4 Stradale in the latter portion of the last decade with help from Abarth engineers. It broke cover at Rally Legend in 2010 and has been a firm fan favourite ever since.

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