If you'd were to ask someone which rally car was the most successful, chances are they'd mention pop culture legends like the Impreza or Lancer, maybe the word Integrale would crop up, but none of them fits the bill. VW wins this one with the Polo R WRC. While VW isn't renown for their rally pedigree, there is more than their monstrous 4 year stint.
The inaugural season of the International Championship for Manufacturers (IMC), the predecessor to the WRC was in 1970. Porsche Salzburg, the Austria based VW importer who acted more or less as the VW motor sport division decided to take part in the IMC. But they had a problem, at the time cars like the Alpine, 911 or Fulvia were battling it out amongst them. What did VW have to offer? The Käfer 1302S. To be fair the wheeled anachronism was used in rallies since the mid sixties, but making it competitive would be a hard task.
The so called Salzburg Käfer was homolgated in Group 2, which allowed for less modifications than Group 4 but overall wins were still possible from time to time. Being a pre war design the Käfer had an ace up its sleeve, it used 15 inch wheels at a time were most cars had 13 inch wheels, other than that the Käfer lacked any real potential. Regardless, engine tuner Paul Schwartz managed to extract about 125HP out of the old boxer, thanks in large to his hand grinded camshafts. To get every last bit of power out of the engine, air filters were not even used on the dusty Acropolis. Of course the overstressed engine rarely survived more than one event, in fact the whole car wasn't all that reliable. But the professional team lead by Gerhard Strasser managed to change parts in record time and keep the cars running. The first IMC outing at the Österreichische Alpenfahrt (Austrian Alpine Rally) in 1971 was positive as works cars finished third, fourth and sixth. A year later on the same event Günther Janger/Harald Gottlieb achieved the cars best IMC result by finishing second. When the IMC became the WRC in 1973 the team used the ''new'' 1303S on three rallies, but thanks to the oil crisis the team didn't enter in 1974 and the first official VW rally team was gone.
A 1302S variant of the Salzburg Käfer. (https://en.wheelsage.org/volkswagen/beetle/i/pictures/521430/)
In the seventies VW finally arrived in the post war era with the Golf. The sporty GTI variant seemed perfect for motor sport and was homologated in Group 2, but VW Motorsport in Hannover never committed to a proper international works program. One car that deserves a mention from this time is the ''Rheila Golf''. In 1982 VW wanted a 16V Golf for the German Rally Championship. To achieve this, 400 Golf I GTI 16S with Öttinger 16V engines were sold and the car became the last Group 4 car to be homologated before Group B took over for good. The only outing in the WRC was at the 1982 San Remo Rally but Per Eklund/Ragnar Spjuth retired.
The ''Rheila Golf'' at its only WRC outing, the 1982 Rally San Remo. (https://www.pinterest.dk/pin/412994228319407100/)
As Group 4 wasn't eligible any more, VW moved to the secondary Group A class and entered selected rounds with a Golf I GTI 1.8 in 1983 and 1984. Kalle Grundel (co driven by Rolf Melleroth/Peter Diekmann) managed three class wins, before he gave the new Group A Golf II GTI its debut at the 1984 1000 Lakes. In 1985 VW Motorsport entered two cars for the first time with Franz Wittmann/Ferdinand Hinterleitner and Jochi Kleint/Werner Hohenadel. Wittmann/Hinterleitner were victorious twice, at the Acropolis and 1000 Lakes Rally. When the FIA offered a Group A drivers title for the first time in 1986, new VW signing Kenneth Eriksson (co driven by Diekmann) won it driving both the old eight valve GTI and the new GTI 16V.
Eight Valve Group A Golf II GTI at the 1986 Rally Monte Carlo. (https://en.wheelsage.org/volkswagen/golf/21398/pictures/kpwkk3/)
When the regulations changed for 1987 the Golf II GTI 16V was competing for overall wins, but as the level of competition changed as well, victories wouldn't come easy. Wittmann was replaced by Erwin Weber (co driven by Matthias Feltz) while lead driver Eriksson was retained. The season wasn't bad, Eriksson/Diekmann won the Cote d'Ivore Rally which was the first overall WRC win for VW. In the manufacturers championship VW finished 4th and Eriksson was only bettered by the three main Lancia drivers across the season, but it was clear that this was all you could hope for with a naturally aspirated 2WD car and only two events were entered across the 1988 and 1989 seasons.
Speaking of driven wheels, a 4WD homologation special called Rallye Golf went on sale in 1989. It was a peculiar car, instead of a turbocharger it used a so called G-Lader, a scroll type supercharger and didn't utilize the available 16V head. Furthermore it used the standard Syncro system, an early form of part time 4WD that engaged the rear axle via a viscous coupling when the front started to slip. Good enough as a traction aid, but inadequate for a rally car. VW tried to rectify this by homologating a rear differential without the viscous coupling in 1991, but by then the WRC campaign was already abandoned, as VW only entered three events in 1990. The pairing Weber/Feltz was chosen for the single entry on all three occasions and achieved a 3rd place finish in New Zealand. In 1991 VW won the German Rally Championship, apart from this near perfect season the Rallye Golf proved both uncompetitive and unreliable. It was even joked at the time that the G-Lader was changed more often than the tyres.
The appearance of the Rallye Golf differed greatly from the more civil variants. (https://en.wheelsage.org/volkswagen/golf/57950/pictures/e15cfb/)
After the unsuccessful Rallye Golf, VW stayed away from the WRC as a works team for a long time, but offered customer cars for the popular Kit Car class in the nineties. Both the Golf III and Golf IV Kit Car iterations were also available with TDI engines, but VW probably doesn't want to remember this so I better move on.
In 2011 VW announced that they would enter the WRC with the Polo R WRC. While a heavy development program was carried out by drivers such as Carlos Sainz, VW Motorsport entered the WRC in 2012 with the Skoda Fabia S2000. This was mainly done to gather knowledge about the championship and give the new team under the leadership of Jost Capito some experience. The Polo R WRC was renowned for its long suspension travel that was made possible by inclining the struts and mounting them as low as possible at the uprights. Such an approach wasn't entirely new, in fact the manner in which it was done would indicate that the engineers at VW Motorsport had pretty good look at the Fabia S2000.
Originally the Polo R WRC was due to debut at the 2012 Rally Sardegna, but it was decided against it in favour of more development time. When the car made its debut in 2013, Sebastian Ogier/Julien Ingrassia, Jari Matti Latvala/Mikka Anttila were contesting the full season, while a third Polo R WRC was added later in the season for Andreas Mikkelsen (co driven by Mikko Markkula/Paul Nagle). The team kept this driver line up for the entirety of the program. The first win came on only the second outing in Sweden courtesy of Ogier/Ingrassia. Across the next four season, 42 wins should follow for VW Motorsport on its way to four manufacturer titles while Ogier secured four drivers titles with the Polo R WRC. The championship went from being dominated by Citroën to being utterly dominated by VW.
Polo R WRC at the 2014 Rally Sweden, note the impressive suspension travel.(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2014_rally_sweden_by_2eight_dsc1018.jpg)
In the wake of the diesel scandal VW made the surprise announcement to withdraw from the championship at the end of 2016 even though the Polo WRC that was built for the upcoming 2017 regulation changes, was ready for homologation. If the new Polo WRC would have followed in the footsteps of his largely unsuccessful ancestors or the dominant Polo R WRC will never be known, although it's safe to say the latter seems much more likely.