Sandro Munari was known as ‘il drago’ – the dragon – and his following at home in Italy was such that his most devoted fans used to kiss the asphalt he had just driven on. Munari was everything a rally driver should be: insanely competitive, constantly on opposite lock, and in charge of some of the most fearsome competition cars ever made.
Munari made the twisty mountain roads of Sanremo his own: visit the old stages now, and you can still see the word ‘Munari’ daubed in fading paintwork on more than one crumbling wall. Surprisingly, Munari only won his home rally once, but this is Italy and he was driving a Lancia Stratos, so who’s counting?
He was also multi-talented, as accomplished on a race track as he was on a rally stage. In 1967 il drago won the Italian Rally Championship driving a Lancia Fulvia HF Coupé for the first time, and in the same year his employers decided to try him out on the epic Targa Florio in the same car. By 1972 he had won it (in a Ferrari 312PB) – despite the fact that the Targa is as far away from the area around Venice where young Sandro was brought up as it is possible to get in Italy.
But that’s not what he is most famous for. Instead, he’ll always be associated with the Lancia Stratos, the car with which he made his name. He may have only won Sanremo once, but he was a three-time winner on the most famous and arguably most challenging rally of them all: Monte-Carlos, at the wheel of the Lancia Stratos. The Stratos was the most beautiful rally car of all time – rivalled closely in this respect by the Lancia 037 – but it’s beauty went way beyond the skin as inside the shrink-wrapped Stratos beat the heart of a Ferrari. The sonorous V6 that powered it was lifted straight from the Ferrari Dino: the car that Enzo named after his beloved son, taken from him too soon. So on all sorts of levels, this was an incredibly special car that wrote history. Munari was among the first to drive – claiming its debut WRC victory on the 1974 Sanremo – but it also tasted success with all the top stars – ranging from Bjorn Waldegard (rallying’s first world drivers’ champion in 1979 when the title was inaugurated, the unofficial 1977 champion was Munari) to Michele Mouton. With seven wins in the unmistakeable wedge though, nobody was more successful in the Stratos than Munari. As well as his fearless talent, that success was also down to the astonishingly enduring strengths of the Marcello Gandini designed car. Here’s a remarkable fact that speaks volumes about its strengths: its last victory on the World Rally Championship, the 1981 Tour de Corse, came a full seven years after it was introduced. Quite literally, the Stratos was ahead of its time: a rally car that was designed for competition from the outset, rather than an adapted version of a road car – which is how most motorsport machines were at the time.
That innovation came at a cost though. The Lancia’s prodigious performance meant that it chewed up tyres, as the normal-road based tyres couldn’t cope with the performance that it was delivering. The solution was obviously to go for motorsport tyres used on circuits: but the conventional wisdom at the time dictated that racing tyres had to be cross-ply. These cross-ply tyres worked fine on circuits, but generated too much movement to be of any use on loose surfaces or during big slides – as was common in rallying. A much stiffer radial tyre was the perfect answer; the only problem was that nobody made radial tyres in that sort of size, capable of taming the Lancia’s power. That was because nobody thought it was possible. So the only thing that Pirelli could do was make them. And it was none other than Munari himself asking, on the phone to Pirelli in the middle of the night after it became clear in testing that the Stratos needed tyres that were as bespoke and unique as the car itself. The following day, Pirelli got to work. And the result was the very first low-profile radial tyre in rallying: something that’s taken for granted now, but was a true revelation at the time. Munari, who had been in despair during the lead up to the Rally delle Quattro Regioni in Italy before his new Pirelli tyres arrived, went on to win the event by more than a quarter of an hour. That didn’t escape the attention of Porsche, who then contacted Pirelli about supplying a road car tyre for another car that was really born to race: the (then) revolutionary 911 Turbo. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, so it fresh thinking was required when it came to supplying it with tyres. An agreement with Porsche was quickly concluded, and the result was the Cinturato P7: original equipment for the iconic Porsche 911 Turbo in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That was the first low-profile sports tyre for the road – but it all really started with Munari, rallying, and the gorgeous Stratos.
The final irony is that Munari – now aged 80 – eventually went on to run a safe driving school in association with Mercedes in northern Italy. Yet luckily, he never took his born-again safety crusade too seriously. “These days, I think racing drivers and rally drivers have it a lot easier,” he said a few years ago. “The risks are gone, but also the adventures. And events like the Monte Carlo Rally, Sanremo and Targa Florio were real adventures. There was no room for mistakes…”