Lancia’s racing director, Cesare Fiorio, wanted to build a racing car to substitute the glorious Fulvia HF, whose career was coming to an end. Nuccio Bertone, the famed coachbuilder, provided inspiration in 1970, by presenting a futuristic prototype in Turin: the Lancia Strato’s Zero. The rally version of this car, powered by the thrust of a Ferrari engine, would lead to the creation of the legendary Lancia Stratos HF.
The “Strato’s Zero” prototype was presented by Bertone at the Turin Motor Show in 1970. The car, powered by the Fulvia 1.6 HF engine, immediately caused a sensation among press and public: it was an outrageously low and sleek futuristic coupé with rear-wheel drive and engine, but no doors. How did the driver get inside? By opening the large glass windshield! Lancia's sporting director, Cesare Fiorio – who had already been thinking about a new rear-engined rally car to be used in competition, replacing the now out-of-date Fulvia – managed to convince Lancia's new general manager – Pier Ugo Gobbato – to invest in the project. The new prototype, created by Bertone to a design by Marcello Gandini, presented an irresistible challenge and source of inspiration for Fiorio: to design a new Lancia that would dominate the World Rally Championship.
However, a powerful engine was indispensable in order to impose against fierce competition. One after another, several different Fiat Group engine hypotheses were rejected, from the boxer of the Lancia Flavia to the V6 of the Fiat 130. The choice finally fell on the six-cylinder V engine of the Ferrari Dino 246, whose outstanding qualities of power and reliability had already been well tested. Fiorio and Gobbato eventually succeeded in persuading Enzo Ferrari to supply the daunting number of engines necessary to have the car approved by the FIA. This was due to the regulations of the International Federation, which required the construction of at least 500 identical exemplars to obtain sporting homologation in Group 4. And so a true racing beast (the French nicknamed it bête à gagner) was born, combining a rear-central engine in a transverse position, McPherson suspension at the rear and double wishbones at the front.
Everything about it was designed for rallies, starting with the hood and boot, made up of two lightweight shells that also included their respective mudguards, thus providing fast and large openings which during races offered team mechanics immediate access to the engine and chassis. The futuristic wedge shape of the initial prototype was also evident in the definitive Stratos, which instantly became an icon of Lancia sportiness. The cockpit only had space for the two seats and not much else, but two compartments in the interior of the side doors permitted the housing of the racing helmets.
One year after the presentation of the Strato's Zero, the version equipped with the Dino 246 engine made its debut at the 1971 Turin Motor Show. The car is somewhat less futuristic than the initial concept but – in the words of Nuccio Bertone – “it fits the driver and the co-driver tightly, like an overall for a single athlete, practically showing off their muscles”.
The Lancia Stratos became the star of the rally world: the car everyone wanted to beat. It enabled Lancia and its official drivers to triumph in numerous Championships, later continuing to win in the hands of private teams after the official baton had passed to the Fiat 131 Abarth.
Once its production had begun, the Stratos was immediately put to its first racing tests... even before obtaining official homologation. Its potential was immediately obvious, and its teething problems – especially the rear suspension – were solved after the first two outings in international races: in late 1972, the car participated in the Tour de Corse and the Costa del Sol Rally. Its first victory came a few months later in Spain, at the Firestone Rally in April 1973, driven by Sandro Munari and Mario Mannucci, who had previously conquered numerous important successes with the Lancia Fulvia 1,6 HF.
Its long-awaited homologation for Group 4 races took place on the first of October 1974, when FIA delegates counted the required number of Lancia Stratos cars produced, parked in different locations. Now the racing points obtained by the Lancia Stratos HF could be added to those of the glorious Fulvia HF and the Lancia Beta Coupé models used in some races. The official Lancia Stratos HF driven by Munari and Mannucci won the Sanremo Rally, followed by the Rideau Lakes Rally in Canada. Munaro, with Sodano navigating, also won the gruelling RAC Rally in England. Thanks to Andruet’s victory” in the Tour de Corse, also in a Stratos HF, Lancia accumulated enough points to win the 1974 World Rally Championship, the first in a long list of victories.
Over the years, the Lancia Racing Team used 26 official cars... initially equipped with 12-valve cylinder heads, which were subsequently increased to 24. Initially, the cars flaunted the white and red livery of the sponsor, Marlboro. As from the 1975 season, this was replaced by the white and green colours of Alitalia. Two years later, the Italian airline sponsor changed its graphics, which became even more iconic, featuring the three colours of the Italian flag, split and harmonised with the wedge shape of the car. To this day, the Stratos Alitalia livery is considered among the most beautiful in the entire history of motorsport.
The Stratos HF Gr.4 collected one victory after another, becoming the "ultimate weapon" of rally battlefields. This Lancia legend became practically unbeatable in competitions: it won the Monte Carlo Rally three times in a row and two more titles in the World Rally Constructors Championship (in 1975 and 1976), and likewise in the European Drivers' Championship, followed by the victory of Sandro Munari in the FIA Rally Drivers World Cup in 1977.
The passing of the baton between the Lancia Stratos and the Fiat 131 Abarth Rally took place like a slow cinematic cross-fade. In 1978, Stratos models were chosen to compete in some races, and 131 Abarth models in others, with the latter entrusted with the task of officially competing for the World Championship, and the Lancia competing for the European Championship. The sports teams of both brands were coordinated by the ASA (Automotive Sports Activities) body, headed by Daniele Audetto. In races valid for both championships, the Stratos showed off a new black-red-white livery, sponsored by Pirelli. An unforgettable victory by the Stratos HF in the Pirelli colours, driven by Alèn-Kivimaki, just in front of Verini-Bernacchini's 131 Abarth Alitalia, was the crowning moment of the 1978 Sanremo Rally.
Stratos cars continued to win even when they were driven exclusively by private owners, until the end of 1982. French driver Bernard Darniche was certainly one of the best performers in the non-official Stratos: he brought the rally icon into racing for another three years, with the blue colours of the French Lancia dealerships. He won important victories, including the Monte Carlo Rally, the Tour de France and the Tour de Corse in 1979, plus the Costa Smeralda Rally and the Tour de France in 1980.
The Stratos fittingly won a glorious farewell at the Monza Rally on November 28, 1982, taking all three of the first three places: 1st Ormezzano, 2nd Cazzaniga and 3rd Verini.
Two racing Lancia Stratos HFs are jealously preserved in the Heritage HUB: one proudly sports the iconic Alitalia livery and is on display in The Rally Era thematic area, the other flaunts its Pirelli colours.