Erik Comas: the driver with Stratos written on his heart

His "bête à gagner"  

Erik Comas, an eclectic French driver who enjoyed a long career, started racing in the Eighties, winning all the "nursery" Formula championships, joined Formula 1 and then moved to Japan to race GT cars. He retired from professional racing to return to his first loves: rallying and the Lancia Stratos.

The passion for the legendary Lancia Stratos has always been shared by many fans all over the world. And their number also includes professional drivers like Erik Comas, who we had the pleasure of interviewing actually during the certification session for the car he uses in competition at the FCA Heritage Officine Classiche.

It is by no means a given that the automotive passion for Italian cars extends over the Alps to embrace France, but the love of the Lancia Stratos is truly international. Erik confirms this as he takes us back to 1979 when, as just a boy, he attended the Monte Carlo Rally and came face to face with his great love for the first time.

"As a loyal Frenchman, of course I was supporting Bernard Darniche, who was racing in a fantastic car with a bright blue livery. It was the Lancia Stratos, the unbeatable war machine ("bête à gagner" as the French called it) belonging to the team run by French Lancia importer André Chardonnet, prepared in Italy by Biella-based wizard Claudio Maglioli.

Darniche dominated in the snowy conditions of the “Monte”, beating Alen's Fiat 131 Abarth, chosen years before as official car of the Fiat Group's Racing Team ahead of the Stratos itself, into third place, and, thrilled by his fellow countryman's performance, Erik Comas realised that what he really wanted to do in life was to drive and to win. 

Once he turned 18, he made his debut in kart racing. Erik was talented and courageous, and soon recorded his first win. "On 3 November 1984, one of the key dates in my life history, I won the “Volant Elf”, the concluding race of a driving course for racing drivers attended by three hundred candidates. The win brought me funding from Elf for a season's racing in Formula Renault, the real launch-pad of my career."

He won easily and often. His victories in Formula Renault, Formula 3 and Formula 3000 flung open the doors for him to join Formula 1. He competed in the queen of categories for four years, but there is another date that left an indelible mark on Comas's life, and, of course, his career. It was 1 May 1994: the Imola Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna's last race. Erik Comas decided to complete the season, but in his heart he already knew he would be ending his adventure in Formula 1.

He moved to Japan, where he raced in the GT Championship with Nissan for ten seasons, winning in two consecutive years, in 1998 and 1999. After retiring from professional racing, he came home and decided to focus on the dream that had stayed with him since his teenage years: to be a rally driver in the cars he dreamt of as a boy, first and foremost the Stratos.

For Erik, 50% of driving pleasure comes from precision gear-changes. Synchronising heel and toe shifting when changing down and braking at the same time is the real art of driving.

"There's no other sport in the world in which the "fundamentals" have changed so much."

In view of his CV, who is better qualified than Erik Comas to compare the sports cars of the past with the modern equivalents? This is a subject very dear to the French driver, who is keen to underline technical factors and the gulf between the cars competing today and those which raced in the past. 

"I served my apprenticeship in a sport that involved use of three pedals, a gear lever and a steering wheel. Today gear changes are almost automatic, and the clutch pedal has disappeared, so there's no need for heel and toe shifting any longer. All the driver's skill in performing the whole sequence perfectly, shifting down and braking at the same time, isn't a factor any more." 

It's a trick that's very difficult to coordinate, with one hand on the steering wheel and one on the gear lever, one foot on the clutch pedal and the other one half on the accelerator and half on the brake. "You needed agility and experience to bring it off to perfection, so before you could get to the top in rallying or Formula 1 you had to race for several seasons in Formula Ford, Formula Renault, Formula 3, Formula 2 or Formula 3000,"

Drivers liked the Stratos, and still do, because it's not an easy car to drive, and you have to really know what you're doing, but perhaps it was and is even more popular with mechanics because it's so easy to work on. Even though it was created as a rally car, the Stratos also proved to be an excellent car on the circuit, since you could change the gear ratios in just 12 minutes, so you could have short ratios for rally special sections and long ones for circuit stages. In fact, in 1973 the Lancia Stratos won the Tour Auto in France - a success repeated by Erik Comas himself exactly forty years later - and in 1974 it won the World Rally Championship. An unforgettable success, the echoes of which can still be heard today.

"To pay homage to that victory, the car and the people who took part in that wonderful project, I've created the website. I've managed to persuade a Swiss watch producer (creating a very appropriate link between the Stratos and precision mechanisms), to sponsor me in a three-year racing programme with my Lancia Stratos. Not only have I competed in and won first the Italian Rally Championship for classic cars in 2015, followed by the European Championship, but with their backing I've been able to organise the World Stratos Meeting in Italy, in the city most closely associated to this amazing car: Biella. The town where Claudio Maglioli developed the Lancia Stratos that won victory on roads all over the world."

Erik Comas's great love of the world of classic cars leads him to reflect a little bitterly on an issue increasingly common in historic car competitions. Many of the cars taking part are not original; they have been rebuilt. This is "another world", consisting of cars which are too different from the originals, unlike his Stratos, initially prepared by Maglioli himself. On these grounds, he is a strong supporter of the FCA Heritage department. "I believe it is extremely important for a collector to be able to obtain authenticity certification issued by the Constructor, so I've decided to commit to conserving my Stratos as well as I possibly can after competing in it at the highest levels. I'll only take part in gatherings and re-evocations. I'd like to invite lots of collectors to do the same, to create a clear distinction between the world of authentic cars and "the rest", a factor that the FIA should also take into consideration in its rankings."

Keep up to date with all the news, events and insights from the Heritage universe.