x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Original Stig, Audi quattro, and an ice lake make for a Swede sensation

The rally legend Lennart "Stig" Blomqvist takes Kyle Fortune on a spin around snow-covered Jarpen in two 4WD Audis, the S1 and new A1.

The DNA link between the Audi A1 quattro and its rallying relative is evident, though the A1 comes fully loaded with equipment, to help justify its sizeable price tag. Photos courtesy of Picture Service
The DNA link between the Audi A1 quattro and its rallying relative is evident, though the A1 comes fully loaded with equipment, to help justify its sizeable price tag. Photos courtesy of Picture Service

Chattering away I can hear myself in the headphones of the tight-fitting helmet, but my driver is ignoring me. Perhaps my banter's boring him, or he's focusing on the task in hand. Nope, he reaches for one of the numerous toggle switches and fires up the intercom in his lid. I fire out a few questions. "Yup" and a nod are about all I get initially. Clearly Lennart "Stig" Blomqvist isn't much of a conversationalist.

Not that I could blame him at the moment. We're on a short ice and snow-covered track and he's at the wheel of one of Group B's most iconic rally cars - the Audi quattro. It's one of the Sport S1 (short-wheelbase) cars, one of the racers I watched, captivated, on television as a kid. I still have it in Scalextric form, though its four-wheel-drive system is a bit more rudimentary than this car's, as there's but a simple rubber band between the front and rear axles.

This S1 quattro is not Blomqvist's; Walter Röhrl's name and blood group are on the front wing beside a German flag, so Stig's Swedish flag is absent. We're on his home ground though, or more specifically home water, as we're on a frozen lake - where better to exploit a quattro four-wheel drive?

Rally car aside, we're in Jarpen, Sweden, to test Audi's new A1 quattro. Just 333 A1 quattros will be built for wealthy completists looking for a rapid runaround to park alongside the R8 in the garage. That, or perhaps a car to leave in the underground, heated car park of a ski chalet, the A1's compact dimensions perfect for such a role. Compact by today's standards mind, as despite being Audi's smallest current offering, it looks surprisingly large alongside the shape of its four-wheel-drive forebearer from the 1980s. For all the A1's pent-up aggression with its black-on-white details, big rear wing and deep and low front air intakes, it looks extremely subtle alongside the quattro, but then comparing a heated-up supermini to a bona-fide rally weapon is something of an unfair fight.

The A1 quattro is seriously outgunned under the bonnet, too. Two hundred and fifty-six horsepower come from a turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder unit, while the rally car pushes out around 550hp from its 2.1L turbocharged five-cylinder engine. The rally car is significantly lighter, too, but then the A1 comes absolutely fully loaded with equipment to help justify its sizeable price tag. The S1 quattro comes with seats, pedals, a gear stick, a steering wheel, a roll cage and an intercom.

Stig's a bit more animated now, and it's me who's gone quiet. We've left the lake, headed up to the woods and the quiet Swede is giving me a demonstration of how to drive. For a car that's around 20 years old the S1 feels stupidly rapid, though Blomqvist admits that it's on the wrong rubber - "it's on Monte Carlo spec rather than Swedish tyres". I wouldn't have noticed, as, despite nothing but snow on road, the Sport quattro is accelerating at a ridiculous rate. I remember reading as a kid that these rally monsters could accelerate as quickly as their Formula One contemporaries and, as Stig fires through another gear, I've little reason to doubt that.

It's not his favourite car though; he reserves that for the longer wheelbase version, saying: "They were more controllable and less nervous." Not that the shorter cars didn't suit him, as in 1984 Stig won the World Rally Championship in a Sport quattro, its 550hp somewhat greater than the 55hp Saab 96 he first rallied in 20 years earlier.

As he is clearly enjoying being reacquainted with a car that helped him achieve greatness, I shut up and watch him as he makes the quattro slide effortlessly around corners at eye-widening pace, somehow managing to keep it straight between the snow banks despite the road and car doing its best to chuck us off into the winter scenery.

He looks very calm and composed until I look at his feet. The effortlessness of his inputs at the wheel and gearshift are in stark contrast to his feet dancing across the three pedals. Rarely does the right one move from its position planted firmly on the accelerator but the left one is busy as it balances braking and manages the clutch. His feet really are spectacularly busy down there as the quattro requires plenty of wrestling to get it to turn in; the famously nose-heavy machine has its engine positioned way out over the front wheels.

That ability to adapt driving techniques is something perhaps lost on many of the newer breed of drivers, but Stig has nothing but respect for them. Even so, he does admit that it's a different discipline nowadays, with rallying now being a series of sprints rather than an endurance event. He's still rallying, taking part in four or five classic events annually. He enjoys the old-school rear-wheel-drive cars like Ford Escorts for kicks, but still has regular opportunities to drive quattros when Audi phones needing someone to demonstrate its abilities properly. Outside rallying Stig's helping his son Tom Blomqvist develop his career in single-seater racing. He's also busy promoting road safety by encouraging the use of the "alco lock" breathalyser immobiliser on public service vehicles and lorries in Sweden and abroad.

In the A1 quattro now and Stig's clearly enjoying himself, happy, like me, that Audi has given it a proper manual gearbox rather than a paddle-shifted DSG automatic. It's fun, he admits, but suggests, as enjoyable as it is, that it's not quite big enough for his dog. The DNA link between it and its rallying relative is evident, though; the short wheelbase four-wheel-drive machine needing a good bit of input to get it to turn in. The quattro drivetrain can deliver as much as 100 per cent of its torque to the rear wheels, while its XDS differential system and torque vectoring deliver power to the wheel it can be best used at. Switch off the stability systems and the A1 can be driven everywhere like Stig might - looking out the side rather than front window - but you need an icy lake to do so.

On the road it'll be fast, the 5.7-second 0-to-100kph time exhibiting that, but it's likely that quattro four-wheel-drive system will ultimately hinder the ultimate fun factor, even if it enables greater speed. The changes to squeeze all that four-wheel-drive hardware into the A1 are extensive, with the shell needing strengthening, the rear spare wheel being lost to the differential, the fuel tank needing a notch taking out of it to clear the drivetrain and multi-link suspension derived from the TTS being fitted.

More than 600 changes in all, which does rather suggest that this rapid four-wheel-drive machine will be joined by more models in time. We like the idea of a Sportback-based "all-road" version. Not only would it be perfect for Swedish roads (and ice lakes), but it would also solve Stig's problem of where to put his dog.