The answer to this question is highly personal to each individual but some key elements always come back. After all, Group B is 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 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 very special production designs that had an intricate and direct bloodline with the rally car version: something you no longer find ever since the switch to the WRC 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 supercar scene.
In addition to the one-time batch of 200 homologation cars, Group B introduced a totally new feature that was called “evolution” (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 output not very much more than the previous Group 4 cars. However, things soon kicked into overdrive with the almost limitless potential of 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 HP to 450~600 HP, and most experts agree that the claimed horsepower numbers of the manufacturers were in fact conservative.
Albeit they packed the latest technology of the mid 1980s, Group B rally cars were primitive brutes; there was no high-tech electronic driving aids, differential technology was closer to what you would find on a farm tractor, the suspensions were prone to overheating and sluggish to respond, and the engine 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 poor and the cars a real challenge to drive fast: this was confirmed by all modern WRC drivers who had the opportunity to also test drive a Group B car.
Group B drivers had to heighten their level of anticipation to cope with the 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 (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, Juha Kankkunen’s statement that “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 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, publicists, 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 that would swoop 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, rallying went from a “backwoods” motorsport (guys building rally cars in their barns) to the forefront of automotive technological development to a level that rivaled 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 only added to the excitement of the already visually striking cars that the driving style needed to get the best stage times was nothing short of spectacular in itself.
For the first time in rally history, the gorgeous surroundings were be filled in an incessant cacophony of exhaust backfires fueled by flat out driving and left foot braking. Most will remember the majestic sound of the Audi 5 cylinder 20v maestro, of which has never seen an equal since:
In comparison, this makes today’s WRC size format and mandatory 1.6L four cylinder engines a bleak and depressing spectacle of generic looking and sounding cars full of angry bees stuck in a drum. Yes but they post better times today, some would argue, and I would reply 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!
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 10 manufacturers were running cars in the top B/12 class, albeit with varied levels of involvement. For 1987, this number was expected to be more than 15. When was the last time such excitement brought as many brands to the WRC playpen? Point 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 on 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. More and more unruly fans would line up the stages year after year in hopes of seeing – even touching – their favorite 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; there was reports of service crews finding blood, hair, and severed fingers stuck in the wings and ducts of the cars while performing repairs. The 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. This simply cannot be thought of today!
It was of course unbeknownst to the fans that their bad behavior would ultimately stack the deck against the very category of cars that they so loved…
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, excitement, anticipation, and passion from everyone; drivers and co-drivers, team managers, imaginative engineers, hardy mechanics, journalists, spectators, and the millions of fans 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. 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.
For me 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. As a kid it made me dream and with them comes imagination and ambition. It has shaped my life, influenced important decisions, and gave me 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 Group B possible. Although I wish that I could have been part of it myself, I sadly do not own a DeLorean time machine, hence why I created this website to help preserve its history instead!
For me, all of this is why Group B is so awesome! What’s yours?
(C) Article by Jay Auger – website owner & author
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