Lancia

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In May 1973 Georges Filipinetti died and his son, who was not interested in motor racing, decided to wind down the racing team and sell up.  Thus Mike had to find himself a new job.  This was one of the turning points when Mike might have decided to move back to the U.K.  However in this period the British motor industry was in decline: it had failed to modernize in the face of overseas competition and was beset by problems of industrial unrest.  Many of the smaller motor manufacturers were going out of business or being taken over by large conglomerates such as British Leyland.  Most of the high-tech companies specialized in producing racing cars which are now so successful did not yet exist.  Thus from a professional point of view it was hardly the most promising time to move back to the UK.   In addition to this Mike had got used to life in Italy, enjoying the warmth and spontaneity of the people, the climate and the lifestyle.

He was offered another job under the Fiat umbrella.  Early in 1974 he moved to Lancia (which had been taken over by Fiat in 1969) as principal development engineer for the new Ferrari-engined Stratos rally car.  In his book on the Stratos Graham Robson commented: “Mike brought British practicality, and great skill and know-how to this project.  Not only that, but his experience and calm demeanour did much to keep the project on course.  It would not be too much to suggest that Mike was the most important single character to turn a great idea into a great car”.  His engineering and testing skills were crucial in making the car very successful and his driving experience made for a good relationship with the rally drivers.  Piero Sodano, one of the team’s drivers commented: “He had a great understanding of the drivers and they in turn respected him very much because he was a kind of legend.”

The Stratos was designed specifically to win rallies; in fact, Lancia manufactured for sale only the minimum number required to gain homologation.  The first prototype cars were made in 1972 and the car was finally homologated in October 1974 after two years of development and running in non-homologated events.  Even after that further changes were made to improve its performance and adapt it to different rally conditions.  As a rally car it was immensely successful.  In 1974 the Stratos won the Targa Florio, the San Remo Rally, the Giro d’Italia, the Rideau Lakes Rally (Canada), the Press-on-regardless Rally (USA) and the Tour de Corse.  In 1975 it won the Monte Carlo Rally, the Swedish Rally and the San Remo Rally.  In 1976 it won the Monte Carlo Rally, the Portugal Rally, the San Remo Rally, the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de Corse.  In 1977 it won the Monte Carlo Rally and the Total Rally (South Africa).  Sadly, it failed to win the Safari Rally (East Africa) and the British RAC Rally.  Given the wide variety of conditions in which the car competed, from the ice and snow of the Swedish and Monte Carlo Rallies to the heat, dust and heavy rainfall of the Safari Rally a lot of work went into preparing the cars to cope with different conditions.  One of Mike’s achievements was to make the engine almost dustproof and waterproof in Safari conditions – although even this did not ensure a victory.

Although they were both financed by the Fiat group, until the end of 1976 the Lancia and Fiat rally teams were run as two distinct operations, with separate workshops in separate sites.  Towards the end of 1976 Fiat decided to merge them under one roof and the Lancia workshop was moved to the same site as the Fiat Abarth team in the Corso Marche complex.  From 1977 onwards priority was given to the Fiat 131 Abarth team, with the result that Fiat won the World Makes Championship for that year.  The Lancia Stratos racing programme was scaled down and full team entries with the Stratos were made in four events only (Monte Carlo, Safari, San Remo and Tour de Corse), although the car continued to achieve successes.  In 1978 the Alitalia sponsorship deal was switched from Lancia to Fiat and the Fiat team was allocated the bulk of the racing budget.  This meant that the Stratos racing programme was scaled back and limited to European events.  From 1979 onwards there was no works Stratos team.  This changed situation would inevitably have led to yet another job move for Mike.

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