Chasing rally dreams in a reborn Stratos
Contributor Sudhir Matai jetted off to Italy to learn about a very special, limited-edition supercar
“This is not good; not good at all,” runs through my head repeatedly as I watch the test driver wrestle with oversteer in 3rd and sometimes 4th gear …
It took me several hours by planes, trains and automobiles to make my way to Turin to sample a limited-edition supercar. When I eventually arrive I am greeted by a Cape winter in the middle of an Italian summer. Bugger.
Those familiar with rallying will immediately peg the car pictured. It looks very much like the triple world-championship-winning Lancia Stratos … except it isn’t. What it is, is a 21st century re-imagination of the iconic rally machine.
A few years ago Michael Stoschek wanted to build a modern-day interpretation of his favourite rally car. As any wealthy car collector would, he enlisted the services of Pininfarina. The famed coachbuilders created a modernised version of the Stratos, even using its name, as Lancia hadn’t trademarked it.
Stoschek’s car was supposed to be a one-off, but demand eventually led him to grant production rights, for just 25 units, to a manufacturer in Turin called MAT.
MAT starts with a Ferrari F430 and skins it of all its metal panels. It then chops 200mm out of the wheelbase. For good measure an FIA-spec roll cage is welded in to replace rigidity lost by removing the roof. Braces bolted between the bulkhead and rear shock towers also help to create a platform that is torsionally stiffer than the donor. As F430s were produced in left- and right-hand drive the new Stratos can be built for the SA market, too.
While the rebuilt shell is being clothed in carbon fibre, the 4.3l naturally aspirated V8 is massaged for more power. A bespoke intake and exhaust are fitted, and the ECU is reprogrammed. The result is 400kW at 8,200rpm and 520Nm of torque sent to the rear axle via Ferrari’s six-speed manual or automated F1 transmission.
Couple that power with a mass that is up to 100kg lighter (depending on options) than an F430, at roughly 1,250kg, and you have the recipe for a very quick car. The engine is then dropped into the car that now wears a completely new, but retro-looking suit.
The new car’s lines are unmistakably Stratos in lineage, from the wedge profile to the hoop-like roof spoiler, and circular tail lamps. Tight dimensions make it a compact package but the appearance ripples with muscularity and demands attention.
Back on the roads outside Torino I note the cabin is purely functional. There’s no touchscreen, satnav or Bluetooth connectivity. In fact, the dials are all analogue with a large rev-counter taking centre stage. I also note that the ride quality is far more supple than I expect. MAT fits new suspension retuned for the lower mass.
Through the wraparound screen I watch the glistening path ahead and the scenery in the distance. We’ve been driving uphill and I glimpse traces of blue sky, “Maybe it’ll dry out” is my new, wishful mantra.
Stones showering the large wheel wells mean that the driver’s antics have managed to generate some heat in the Michelin semi-slick rubber. We pull over and a few minutes later I am strapped behind the wheel, held in place by a racing harness, which creates a sense of security.
I set off gingerly testing the brakes and clicking the steering paddle for second gear.
I head back down the tree-lined mountain pass we’ve just ascended which, in this rally-fed fantasy, I imagine to be part of the Italian National Rally Championship.
At the bottom I turn around and head for the summit. I don’t crack the throttle wide open from standstill, but once rolling I delve deeper into its travel. In third gear this car feels proper quick. In fact, the first time I try to nail the loud pedal to the floor I feel the tortured 305mm rears squirm for grip.
The free-revving motor swings the needle up to 4,000rpm with verve, then it comes alive with a second explosion of power. For a moment it feels like an old-school turbo setup. I “short shift” at 6,500rpm as I am still getting the hang of the conditions. The rev-counter is marked to 10 and the redline is at 8,500 so there is plenty more fun to be had.
The road ahead isn’t long enough, so rather than unleash 400kW I concentrate on the way it steers and handles, both of which are extremely impressive, even in these tricky conditions. The shortened wheelbase makes it agile with a hyper-alert personality. Gigabytes of information bristle though the hydraulically assisted helm. I can almost feel the tread blocks moving on the road surface and can therefore exploit all available grip.
But it is the power delivery that draws me back. I see the one straight long enough for full power and blat the throttle wide open. The bent eight responds with a hard-edge yowl. It hits 8,400rpm in second … then third gear and we’re blasting down the road at triple digits.
I grab fourth just before braking for a medium speed left. This is life-affirming, and I relish every second. It may be worth several million rand but the Stratos is so exploitable and just plain fun to drive, that its price seems secondary.
Now I am the one dealing with third and fourth gear oversteer, but it’s all gathered up with ease. We make a few more passes through this "rally stage" and the Stratos never unravels. It feels as though the car is elbowing me in the ribs to go quicker. I’ve driven several sports and supercars over the years, and the closest parallel I can draw is with the legendary Ferrari F40. Its rarity, sense of purpose and presence make it, for me, an instant classic.