World Rally Championship history was made on December 14, 1979 when Mercedes, a manufacturer not hitherto associated with rallying on any level, let alone the top tier, took its maiden series win – in Africa’s Ivory Coast Rally – with the unlikely five-litre V8 450 SLC. And not only that, the German machines dominated, taking a 1-2-3-4.
Mercedes had recruited two of the sport’s big-hitters – Finn Hannu Mikkola and Swede Björn Waldegaard – for its maiden foray in the WRC as a works entry. Both drivers had already won events that season in Ford’s venerable Escort RS1800 – Mikkola in Portugal, New Zealand and Britain, and Waldegaard in Greece and Canada – but with the Blue Oval not making the trip to Africa, the drivers were free to bolster the three-pointed star’s effort.
It would be a crucial event in the outcome of the inaugural Drivers’ World Championship, too. For seven seasons the manufacturers had scrapped over their own title, but the championship for drivers had been established for ’79.
Waldegaard led the rally early on but a broken brake line handed the initiative to Mikkola. Having lost time to repairs, Waldegaard was assigned to a catch-up mission, knowing that if he finished second to the Finn, he’d take the title by a solitary point.
And that’s how it played out. Despite a fourth win of the year, Mikkola had won the battle but lost the war. Waldegaard came home second, more than half an hour adrift, but was crowned 1979 World Rally Champion, kickstarting an accolade to which the world’s best rally drivers still aspire.
The other two 450s entered in the last WRC event of the decade secured the team’s whitewash with third and fourth places, for Scot Andrew Cowan and African ace Vic Preston Jr respectively.
Ivory Coast Rally, 1979
1 Hannu Mikkola (FIN)/Arne Hertz (S) – Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC, 3h23m
2 Björn Waldegaard (S)/Hans Thorszelius (S) – Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC, +35m
3 Andrew Cowan (GB)/Klaus Kaiser (D) – Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC, +47m