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They say never meet your heroes - they're wrong, says Harris, after hanging out with rallying's greats
Tyre launches - they're like porous condoms, only a little less useful. Normally I take care to avoid them, but last week I made an exception. Pirelli was introducing its new P7 Corsa Classic tyre and, even for someone who swore he'd never do another one of these jobs again, it was too much to resist.
First up, Pirelli had sorted a San Remo stage. Then it had persuaded the owners of a Delta S4, a Stratos, a 037, a 131 Abarth, an Impreza WRC and a rather apologetic-looking Group A Lancia Delta to provide their cars for appraisal purposes. For driving duties it hired Markku Alen and Juha Kankkunen. In other words, if Carlsberg organised tyre launches, the recipe wouldn't get close to this.
There would be no chance to drive the cars or sample the product itself: even by Italian standards, this must be a world first - a product launch that doesn't allow journalists to report on the product. But who cares when you have a four-time world champion and a Delta S4?
The video tells the story of the day, but there was so much anecdote and information about the product that didn't make the edit.
First, the product. Anyone who fondly remembers the P Zero-C will be ecstatic about this new arrival. The asymmetrical tread pattern looks almost identical and there are two different compounds, D3 and D5, and currently they work on 15in and 16in rims. Further enhancing the event's genius credentials, Pirelli didn't have a Porsche 911 present (I kind of understand that it would have upset the aesthetic of those Italian machines) but admitted that the Porsche will easily be the biggest market for this car.
As someone who spent months looking for a decent tyre to run on 8in and 9in Fuchs a few years back, the P7 Classic would have been the answer to all my prayers. The soft compound D5 is really a qualifier, with all the cars munching through them very quickly on the abrasive Tarmac of San Remo, the harder D3 wasn't available on the day. I know, don't say it.
I never knew that Markku Alen had once signed for Peugeot. He casually told us over dinner how he did the deal, spent a month testing with Jean Todt's team, then was phoned by Luca De Montezemelo who told him that he would not be leaving the Fiat family. Soon after he went for dinner in Turin and Luca persuaded him with pasta and lire. His relationship with the president of the FIA remains frosty to this day. Markku is engaging, generous with his time and possessed of a genuinely impish sense of humour.
Of the dozens of frankly cool things he did over those 30 hours we spent with him, undoubtedly the coolest was walking past the Group A Delta and being offered the keys. "No thank you, I never liked it very much." A few seconds later he was snuggled down in the Stratos again.
These boys really did see it all. The last time he drove a Delta S4 on a World Championship event, he said it had a genuine 620hp. At the end of '86, with Group B banned, he was testing the baby-Delta with 220hp. "It was nothing." His words, not mine.
As for the ECV - well, it's plainly nuts. You'll see it in the video with the certifiable, and six times Italian Rally Champion, Paolo Andreucci trying to make sense of a claimed 800hp. When you see the thing lurch and shudder in the middle of an Italian village, it does bring clarity to the messy end of Group B. The cars were immense, but completely unhinged. After my first run in the Delta S4 I was genuinely shocked at the thought of such a car being driven within inches of spectators. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt didn't help.
They were great times, but they couldn't continue.
I've watched the final edit a few times now and I find these cars - these drivers - utterly compelling. I feel privileged to now have a video memento of what will always be one of the best days of my working life. And I didn't even drive a car.