Published on: Feb 10, 2017 @ 20:10 (C) Jay Auger - website owner & author Notice: Any form of duplication methods (including but not limited to copy/paste of text and screen capture) of the website's content is strictly forbidden.
RALLY GROUP B SHRINE – OWNER’S OPINION
The answer to the question is highly personal to each individual but some key elements always come back. While today’s popular culture is quite superficial in its appreciation of Group B, often falling into the same old tune of danger and death, the true hardcore fans know that it is more than skin deep – it’s carved in the soul of the 1980’s. After all, Group B is quite unanimously considered as the “Golden Era” of rallying. First, let’s begin with the obvious:
Other than with the Group 4 Lancia Stratos HF, Group B was the first time that purpose-built rally cars were designed and produced for the specific task of winning rallies: these cars simply had no other reason to exist. For purists, there can be nothing better!
While producing a minimum number of cars has almost always been synonymous with racing, Group B mandated that only 200 units be made to homologate the model for competition. This low number allowed for deeper bespoke designs that had an intricate and direct bloodline with the rally car version: something that you no longer find ever since the switch to the WRC (World Rally Car) regulations in 1997. As such, the Group B wild-looking homologation cars are super rare, special and very coveted. Owning one back in the day meant that you had a race car for the road: something that was previously only seen in the then emerging supercar scene.
In addition to the one-time batch of 200 homologation cars, Group B introduced a much improved feature that was called “Evolution / Termination” (ET). This would allow 10% of the total number of cars produced to receive special modifications specifically for racing. A new batch of 20 more evolution cars would be needed each subsequent year to homologate any major changes. As such, the evolution rules allowed for the car to be developed well beyond its original design expectations: something that was never seen before Group B.
Ironically, in 1982 Group B started out rather humbly with the power outputs not very much more than the previous Group 4 cars. However, things soon kicked into overdrive with the almost limitless potential of unrestricted turbochargers. By 1986, the Group B horsepower war had reached its peak; in four short years, the power output of the cars had doubled, passing from 250~300 BHP to 450~600 BHP, and most insiders agree that the claimed horsepower numbers of the manufacturers were in fact conservative.
The special and powerful cars were indeed the main attraction of Group B, but from here on out is when the purists and long-time loyal fans find deeper affection for the category.
Albeit they packed the latest automotive technology of the mid-1980s, Group B rally cars were primitive brutes; there were no high-tech electronic driving aids, four-wheel drive technology was closer to what you would find on a farm tractor, the suspensions were sluggish and prone to overheating, and more importantly the turbocharged powerbands were very narrow (high-RPM) with very average torque figures. Anti-lag measures involved mostly the use of LFB (Left-Foot Braking). In short, driveability was very poor and the cars a real challenge to drive to their full potential: this was confirmed by all modern WRC drivers who had the opportunity to also test drive a Group B car – all are in awe of the skill that was needed to go as fast as these cars went back in their heyday.
The Group B drivers had to heighten their level of anticipation to cope with the multiple performance increases of the cars. They also had to adapt to the addition of aerodynamic aids which provided even more traction as higher speeds were reached. Even rally ace Walter Röhrl stated that finding the perfect balance between outright speed and pace was a challenge in itself.
The rallies (much longer than today’s) were also very physically demanding for the drivers due to the unforgiving nature of the cars. The crews often had to undergo physical therapy such as massages or spine decompression in between stages. Group B was a pure blend of man (woman) and machine: it really tested the will and courage of the drivers. In the end there is no contest that Juha Kankkunen’s statement “WRC is for boys, Group B was for men” truly represents the different nature of the cars and the different challenges in driving them.
WINNING OR BUST
For the first time in rally history, the most well-funded teams employed an army of engineers and technicians to help develop and maintain the cars for the sole purpose of winning rallies; they made use of the best technologies, construction techniques, and wind tunnel testing – features that were previously reserved only for F1. In Group B, the need to win superseded everything else and became the benchmark for modern rally team management.
In the rally events themselves the action was no less frantic as each team could employ up to a hundred people; besides the drivers and co-drivers there were also engineers, spotters, mechanics, truck drivers, physical therapists, doctors, managers, public relations and even helicopter pilots! The era saw the birth of mid-stage tire change “pit stops”, mechanics racing alongside a parallel route to meet with the rally cars in between stages, “flying mechanics” carrying spare parts following the cars in helicopters, swooping down in the closest available space to rush and repair any broken-down cars, all the while managers were deciding on team orders and tactics.
In but a few years, the top echelons of rallying went from a “backwoods” motorsport to the forefront of automotive technological development to a level that rivalled any other type of racing. Group B can be compared with the sport evolving from Karting to F1 in a very short amount of time: again, something never seen before in motorsport.
MAXIMUM (SENSORY) ATTACK!
The Group B evolution rules gave birth to a wide array of enhancements and spoilers to help keep the cars glued to the ground and go even faster around the corners. It added to the excitement of the already visually striking cars. But more importantly, the driving style needed to squeeze the maximum performance out of the cars and get the best stage times was nothing short of spectacular in itself.
For the first time in rally history, the gorgeous natural surroundings were filled in an incessant cacophony of exhaust backfires fuelled by flat-out driving and left-foot braking. Most will remember the majestic sounds of the Audi five-cylinder maestro and its twenty valves turbocharged symphony – a composition without equal since:
In comparison, this makes today’s WRC engine size format and mandatory 1.6L four-cylinder motors a bleak and depressing spectacle of generic-looking and sounding cars full of angry bees stuck in a drum. But they post better times today and the 2017-up cars are once again fully-winged, some would argue, and to this I respond that it simply doesn’t matter: it is quite true that the show must go on but that doesn’t mean one cannot prefer old reruns better! The “magic” is forever lost and lives only in the past.
Group B regulations permitted almost any type of car, engine and drivetrain layout, thus making for a very varied array of wild-looking cars and mechanical symphonies. In 1986, at the peak of Golden Era, no less than ten manufacturers were running cars in the top B/12 class, albeit with varied levels of involvement. For 1987, the number was expected to be more than fifteen. When was the last time such excitement brought as many brands and style of cars to the WRC playpen? Point long made, but let’s go on anyway!
A SHOW FOR MAD MEN
All of what was previously mentioned made spectators flock by the ten of thousands onto the rally stages. Group B was the first time that the sport had such notoriety and worldwide popularity. In fact, it is commonly accepted that, in the short period of its existence, Group B propelled rallying in front of Formula One in terms of following. More and more unruly fans would line up the stages year after year in hopes of seeing – even touching – their favourite high-flying and fire-spitting rally car.
This was particularly true in Portugal; the “mass effect”, the closeness to the action, the feeling of freedom of movement and the lack of proper crowd control gave too many opportunities for unruly spectators to do shenanigans. The cars getting more powerful and faster only accentuated the existing problem.
Here’s when we must fall back into the pop culture hype and mention that there were unconfirmed reports of service crews finding blood, hair and severed fingers stuck in the wings and ducts of the cars while performing repairs. Notwithstanding, rally drivers had reported many spectator problems over the years; having rocks and snowballs thrown at their cars, fans purposely putting obstacles in the road or powdering a tarmac corner with gravel or sand, possibly to try and induce a crash for the spectacle and/or to “help” the car back on the road.
It was of course unbeknownst to the fans of the time that their bad behaviour would ultimately stack the deck against the very category of cars that they so loved and cherished.
I believe that the most beautiful aspect of Group B is that the sport of rallying still had its “innocence” at the time. There was ambition, anticipation, excitement and passion from everyone; drivers and co-drivers, team managers, imaginative engineers, hardy mechanics, journalists, spectators and the millions of fans on-site or abroad. For a while, everything was truly all fun and games – a true testament to the 1980’s decade.
The saying goes that “all good things must come to an end”. The innocence of the world itself was coming to a close and Group B would sadly not escape this fate. Nothing need be repeated here as to what happened – a quick glance at most Group B fan pages will quickly plaster it for you. Nonetheless, amidst all the tragedies, very few people involved in the making of Group B have regrets and most are proud of the opportunity of having being part of it. Nothing even close to Group B will ever be seen again – the innocence was lost, forever.
Personally, as I was actually alive when it took place, Group B is directly responsible for my undying love for cars and the motorsport of rallying. With dreams comes imagination and ambition; it has shaped my life, influenced important decisions, brought friendships, and gave me lasting skills that I wouldn’t have developed otherwise. As such, it goes far beyond normal fandom, and I owe much to the men and women that made the Legend of Group B possible. Although I wish that I could then have been part of it, I sadly do not own a DeLorean time machine, hence why I created this website to help preserve its history and spread the word, instead.
For me, all of this is why Group B was, still is, and will forever be so awesome!
P.S.: Oh, and by the way, did you know that Group B wasn’t exclusive to rallying? It was to be used in racing as well but sort of never took off. That is however another story, one that you can read with a simple click – HERE!
(C) Article by Jay Auger – website owner, chief editor & author
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