The rebirth of the Audi brand in 1965 and the merger of Auto Union and NSU in 1969 gave the topic of motor sport new significance. In 1973 racing drivers were offered the Audi 80 GT, a car that promised to be competitive.
It was not until the idea of a passenger car with permanent all-wheel drive was born, however, that Audi acquired its role as a progressive, challenging manufacturer.
Once the engineers began to give the car its final form, and it had also acquired a name – quattro – the next objective was to get involved rapidly in motor sport. Not out of sheer sporting ambition: if the quattro concept really was so revolutionary and superior, conventional strategies would be inadequate for launching the product effectively. The fundamental driveline principles had to be pitted against each other as soon as possible: quattro versus conventional drive. What better context in which to do this than rallies at World Championship level?
To prepare the way for the Audi quattro in competition, the Audi Sport Department was established in 1978 and in the same year the Audi 80 took its first tentative steps in German rally championship events. In 1979 came the first overall rally victory for a car bearing the four-ring emblem: the Audi 80 won the Trifels Rally. In parallel with this, the first international events were entered. Harald Demuth and test driver Freddy Kottulinsky scored considerable successes with a front-wheel-drive car.
The drivers in the very first quattro team were the Finn Hannu Mikkola and the Frenchwoman Michèle Mouton. Their début in the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally caused an absolute sensation. In one of those moments that made motor sport history, on a snow-covered surface ten kilometres into the very first special stage, Mikkola overtook a Lancia Stratos that had started one minute before him. A new era had begun.
The rally car was a cautiously developed version of the original Ur-quattro. The 2144 cc five-cylinder turbocharged engine delivered a reliable 340 bhp (compared with the standard engine’s 200 bhp). In the 1981 Monte-Carlo version, the quattro accelerated from 0 to 100 km/h on a dry road in 5.9 seconds. More important sill: with M + S winter tyres and the small spikes permitted for rally driving, only 8.3 seconds were needed for the same sprint on fresh snow.
Another unbelievable "first" took place in autumn 1981: Michèle Mouton became the first-ever woman to win a World Championship rally, in San Remo. Reactions ranged from ecstatic to devastated.
A few nostalgic machos deemed it "only possible because of quattro", as if to say that "even a woman" could win with this technical concept; many others were naturally more impressed by this new, "modern" situation.
The 1980s were the decade of rally driving. Never before had rally sport proved such an effective means of publicising technical progress. It was not simply a question of putting an idea into practice, but of proclaiming it from the rooftops. In technical terms, Audi was at least two years ahead of its challengers, and all its competitors entered the 1982 season with conventional two-wheel drive cars. Audi won the World Championship, with Michèle Mouton only missing out on the drivers’ title in the very last heat. From 1983 on, there was only one category for top-level rally competition: Group B, which granted considerable technical liberty. Everything pointed to a real showdown between the inventors of the permanent four wheel-drive car and their most ambitious imitators.
In 1984 the Bavarian winners of the World Championship finally signed up a Bavarian driver of international standing: this was the year that Walter Röhrl teamed up with Audi. Mikkola, Mouton and the Swede Stig Blomqvist completed the team. In his direct, intuitive way, Röhrl succeeded in raising the status of rallying, thanks to his careful handling of the media: rather than attempt any populism, he profiled himself as an adept ambassador of his sport, whetting the public's appetite for its thrills and excitement. Röhrl was capable of expressing the sensuality that was the only possible explanation for his balancing acts so close to the car’s physical handling limits.
The quattro idea had by now become established and was being copied worldwide. All these new challengers attempted to go one step further with their new designs. The only way in which this could be done was to build an out-and-out racing car, then place a near-series body over it. This was of course entirely permissible under the Group B regulations. Audi, for its part, saw that an involvement in rally driving only made sense if the fundamental features of the series model were preserved.
A wide-track version 24 centimetres shorter than the original Ur-quattro was exhibited as the Sport quattro at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show. Developing 306 bhp, it was the most powerful car built to date by a German company for use on the open roads. The rally version of this car with four valves per cylinder had a power output of 450 bhp from the very start, and was easily capable of holding its own in a field brimming with new developments. The climax of this period of rally competition was victory for Walter Röhrl/Christian Geistdörfer in the 1985 San Remo Rally.
Rally sport as a whole had experienced such a boom that there was increasing anxiety about safety. Even though the several hundred thousand spectators were spread out along many dozens of kilometres of a special stage, those who flocked to watch such events would often be standing several deep. Whereas spectators still exhibited some degree of self-control at such events as the Thousand Lakes Rally in Finland or the British RAC Rally, the situation became increasingly difficult to control in Latin countries.
The Audi team was not involved in the severe accident that occurred during the 1986 Portugal Rally, but its professional drivers reached the only correct conclusion and dropped out of the rally. Back in Ingolstadt this decision was adopted as general company policy, and Audi withdrew immediately from rallying.
This brought to a close the first six “quattro years”. Michèle Mouton, Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist and Walter Röhrl had won 23 world championship heats between them, and brought four world championship titles back to Ingolstadt. This era was one of those rare examples of how genuine technical superiority was publicized with the aid of motor sport: quattro, the triumph of an idea.