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THE BEGINNING OF THE SPORT
The motorsport of rallying can trace its roots nearly as far back as the invention of the automobile itself. At its inception, since most cars were owned by the wealthy, rallying was nothing more than “gentleman” events, with a simple goal to reach point A to B by using public roads. Long distance events were predominant and rewarded the most reliable cars. One of the most popular of the early era was the Rallye Monte Carlo that began in 1911. Since open public roads were used, the competitors had to obey all traffic laws, and as such could not exceed the average speed set by the officials. This type of event was what rallying was all about for over 70 years.
THE NEED FOR SPEED – BIRTH OF THE WRC
Before the 1960s, rally cars were privately owned, basic low-powered factory vehicles without roll cages, and with only minor modifications such as extra spare tire mounts and auxiliary lights. By then, many competitors felt like rallying shouldn’t be all about (slow) endurance, and even though the speeds were still limited, the trend slowly shifted towards using smaller more nimble cars in hopes to gain an edge in the corners and get back lost time. The car that best personified the new evolving rally culture of the period was the Mini Cooper. This “need for speed” eventually gave birth to the “special stage” rally format (closed public roads without speed limits) that rewarded performance over outright reliability. The new trend made the sport evolve very quickly in popularity. So much so that many automobile manufacturers now saw rallying as a very good opportunity to market their products. Many factory teams were created to compete in international sanctioned competitions.
This immense popularity led the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) to create the World Rally Championship (WRC) in 1973. The FIA transferred control of its new series to its Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) which was a self-governing committee in charge of all sporting codes in motor racing. The CSI used its existing sporting and homologation regulations to which all rally cars now had to abide to. The top rally class was “Group 4” (grand touring cars) which mandated the manufacturers to produce a minimum of 500 cars in 12 consecutive months (subsequently lowered to 400/24 in 1976) for the car to be accepted in competition. This was to ensure that rallying would remain a sport for widely available road cars as it had always been since its inception. As such, rally cars of the period were simply modified performance road cars.
THE GAME CHANGERS
One manufacturer would not let the homologation requirements get in the way of their vision of a true rally car: Lancia. They would design what is considered as the very first purpose built rally car: the Stratos HF. They had no concerns in producing the required amount of cars needed for Group 4 homologation as winning was more important to the image of the brand. The Stratos would dominate by winning the championship 3 years in a row (1974~76), prompting the CSI to change some rules to try and even out the field. However, the Lancia Stratos and its purposeful design gave ever more popularity to the sport, to which the CSI also took notice.
Another manufacturer would help shuffle the deck towards making purpose built rally cars a new benchmark: Renault. In the late 1970s, the French car maker had an idea to turn a basic front-engine front wheel drive economy car into a mid-engine rear wheel drive racer. The Renault 5 Turbo concept was born specifically to win rallies. Officially homologated for Group 4 in 1980, the car got much success in rally competition especially on the French tarmac. It is considered as the best value rally car of its day. After the R5 Turbo’s immediate success, many other manufacturers were contemplating the very same “recipe” for their future rally designs.
In the later half of the 1970s, motorsport was evidently becoming a very popular and very lucrative affair, especially after the emergence into stardom of F1 under the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA). In 1978, this led the CSI sporting code governing body to “flex its muscles” and appoint new members to its executive committees in hopes to retain full control of motor racing. One of these leading figures, albeit very controversial, was Jean-Marie Balestre; a founding member of the Fédération Française du Sport Automobile (FFSA), a French national motorsport organisation that debuted in 1950, and to which he was elected its president later in 1973. Five years later, Balestre was elected president to the CSI and wasted no time in immediately transforming it into the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA). Balestre was known for wanting things “his way” and, for good or bad, would totally change the world of motorsport forever.
In 1979, the newly formed FISA agreed to the proposal of a previously unknown brand to the world of rallying, Audi, and legalised four wheel drive for use in competition. The FISA technical advisers didn’t believe that the complexity and extra weight of four wheel drive could offset its traction advantage. However, not long after, Audi would surge to the forefront with their quattro four wheel drive rally car that dominated slippery events by a large margin. However, on tarmac the car achieved mitigated results since it was clunky and somewhat unreliable. Otherwise, the quattro was seen as a mundane road car that was capable in rallying only due to its traction advantage. Hence, four wheel drive, although it had shown its unmistakable superiority in some events, was not yet seen as the ultimate future of rallying.
THE GOLDEN ERA IS BORN… WITH FORCEPS
At the end of the 1970s, the FISA invited the Bureau Permanent International des Constructeurs d’Automobiles (BPICA – an organisation created to represent the interests of the car manufacturers in motorsport) to help negotiate new regulations for its famous “Appendix J” (which dictated the rules for the cars). The clear consensus was the need to for more freedom and less “red tape”. However, to allow this, major alterations to the rule-book would be needed. A total revamp of all previous road car based racing categories was proposed by regrouping them together into just 3 “groups”; A, B, and C. However, the FISA would make a last minute addition: Group N. This class was to allow all “normal” production cars to compete, to which manufacturers showed near zero interest for at the time. The new simpler “lettered” regulations were set to begin on January 1st 1982.
The specific intentions for Group B (which would directly replace Group 4 and 5) were to help lure more car manufacturers into motorsport (including rallying) by promising quicker car development, subsequent publicity opportunities, all without the need for an existing production model. In fact, only 200 homologation cars would now be needed to be manufactured for it to be accepted in competition. Hence effectively cutting in half the previous requirements of Group 4. In short, this lower number was to favour top levels of performance at a much lower production cost.
In October of 1980, Group B was officially approved, but there was dissension within the FISA as to if the new category was to be allowed in the WRC and other international rally series. The first vote was not in favour (9 to 3). The main reason cited was that many countries whom hosted WRC events did not want “race cars” on their public roads. This decision sparked vivid reactions within the BPICA members and they urged the FISA to reconsider. This was particularly true for Ford and Fiat (Lancia) since both had already started to develop new rally cars for the category. Then came an event, from the unlikeliest of places, that would help shuffle the deck in favour of Group B rallying: the “FISA-FOCA war”.
The infamous battle between FISA’s Jean-Marie Balestre and FOCA’s Bernie Ecclestone revolved around the commercial aspects of Formula One and it had shown no sign of a quick resolution. This feud was a big concern for the FISA since F1 was the most popular and most investment heavy motorsport series worldwide. If the war would persist for a long time it would seriously put the FISA’s very financial survival at risk. Then someone within the FISA remembered the big success story that the WRC had become in the previous years. The manufacturers that were already heavily invested in rallying were mostly different from those in F1 and convincing them to invest even more could be the FISA’s salvation. The matter was put back to a vote and Group B was accepted in all rallying competitions.
Hence, if not for the FISA-FOCA war, it is easy to argue that Group B in rallying would never have been made possible in the first place.
In May of 1981, some of the finer details of the Group B rallying category were still not yet set in stone, making members of the FISA doubt that there would be enough of a field of cars for its planned debut which was less than seven months away. As such, it was voted to let the previous Group 2 and 4 cars compete for the various 1982 rally championships and allow time for manufacturers to develop a car under the new regulations while still having a model that could compete in the interim. This transition feature also allowed privateers to continue competing with the cars they already owned. However, the FISA was adamant that by 1983 manufacturers would have to run Group B homologated cars with their seeded drivers to be able to score points.
However, most manufacturers were still not ready to fully embrace the new regulations and invest large sums of money to design new rally cars without some sort of guarantee that the FISA wouldn’t just change the rules again. To put that fear to rest, the FISA added a 5-year “stability” clause to ensure that the regulations would not change until December 31st 1987, and would not be cancelled unless a 2-year notice. Furthermore, manufacturers with Group 4 homologated cars of which the expiration date was not yet reached would be allowed to apply for a “transfer” into Group B (even if their rally cars would be identical to the previous version) and be eligible for points. These additions were able to put everyone’s minds at ease and Group B rallying was officially alive, again.
This all meant that, in less than two decades, special stage rallying went from mundane low-powered factory road cars to purpose built high performance racing machines with manufacturer “works” teams now backed by millions of dollars. Thus, set for glory, Group B would change the world of rallying forever.
More information about the Group 4 transfers can be found HERE (bottom of page).
It is also note to mention that Group B wasn’t created exclusively for rallying. In fact, the FISA had hoped that it would be used in circuit racing to replace the “silhouette” Group 5 racers. More information about why FISA Group B circuit racing did not really take off can be found HERE!
Much more frequently asked questions about Group B can be quickly answered in this F.A.Q. page!
THE GROUP B RALLY CARS – SUMMARY
Group B had no restrictions on car design, exterior or interior dimensions, material composition of chassis or bodywork, drivetrain layout, engine type or size, or power output, but these general rules applied;
- The cabin had to fit two seats (side by side) and could not be open roofed.
- A minimum race weight calculated via engine displacement.
- A maximum tire width combination calculated via engine displacement.
- All of the rest was mostly free minus very basic safety requirements.
Group B cars would then be divided into 4 different classes pertaining to their “final” engine displacement;
- B-12: 2000 cc +
- B-11: 1600~1999 cc
- B-10: 1300~1599 cc
- B-9: 1299 cc or less
The FISA mandated that forced induction engines (with a turbo or supercharger) would get a multiplication factor of 1.4 to calculate their adjusted engine displacement position. This would directly determine how little the car could weight and the width of tires it could run.
To learn much more about the full rules and regulations that governed Group B car conception, CLICK HERE!
As such, when building the cars, Group B engineers had to approximate the race weight of their designs in harmony with the engine choice to properly set the cars up for the specific weight and tire classes. The best way to maximise a Group B car was to run the largest displacement engine possible (taking into account the 1.4 forced induction multiplier) and make the weight as close to the minimum requirement of that particular class. The rest of the chassis and suspension could therefore be set up to run the properly sized tires within the class limits. Not doing this correctly would handicap the car in one way or the other.
For a Group B car to be accepted in official competition, manufacturers had to produce a minimum of 200 units within a 12 month period. After completion, FISA officials would then be invited to physically count the cars. However, there was rumours that many manufacturers used various double counting schemes to fool the inspectors.
In addition to the one-time batch of 200 homologation cars, the FISA introduced a totally new feature that was called “evolution” (ET). This would allow an additional 10% of the total number of cars produced to receive special modifications specifically for racing. If this was something the manufacturer was interested in doing they needed to build a minimum of 20 more cars to homologate any “evolution” models into competition. A new batch of 20 more evolution cars would be needed each subsequent year to homologate any major changes.
The new evolution rules were meant to somewhat replace the old “VF/VO” (parts manufacturer variant / parts option variant) rules that the manufacturers exploited in Group 4 to greatly enhance the performance of a normal production road car. It had allowed them to produce special racing parts and use them on the rally cars by masquerading them as dealership “optional parts”. In Group B, this was still permitted but the big change was that if these parts were used the car automatically became an “evolution” model, to which the regulations stated that the production of the car model used for homologation had to be terminated.
For the FISA, this “termination” was seen as enough of a dissuasive measure for the manufacturers to reconsider using the evolution feature. However, it turned out that the FISA was deadly wrong as most manufacturers simply worked around it by producing 200 homologation cars that were branded as a different model than the normal production car. For the most well funded teams, this meant designing and producing a car built entirely from scratch to win rallies, and they exploited the loophole to the maximum – something that the FISA had not quite planned for…
For the complete Group B homologation list, CLICK HERE!
In 1980 (2 years before Group B), Audi had come along with the quattro and its revolutionary four wheel drive system (4WD). However most rally teams, even if the quattro had gotten decent success, still preferred the classic rear wheel drive (RWD) drivetrain layout. For Audi, the quattro was nonetheless their weapon of choice to tackle the new Group B competition.
4WD was thought to be too heavy, cumbersome, and unreliable. The 4WD system did turn out to be predominantly slower than RWD in tarmac rallies especially under dry conditions. In fact, this fault was what Lancia was betting on exploiting when launching the very first car built entirely to Group B specifications: the rear wheel drive Rallye 037.
For the 1982 competition year, Group B cars started out rather humbly: except for the Audi, they were all RWD Group 4 cars that were simply carried over intact into the new regulations. Yet that year saw a very close battle between the Audi quattro and the Opel Ascona B 400, proving that conventional RWD platforms still had potential at the current design level. At the time of the transition, most top rally cars “only” produced around 250~300 HP; tire, suspension, and limited slip differential technologies were not as advanced as today, so there was no need for more power since the cars simply couldn’t put it to the ground efficiently enough. That is when four wheel drive really had the potential to shuffle the deck.
1983 saw the homologation of multiple Group B cars, like the Toyota Celica TCT and Opel Manta B 400, yet most of them remained only upgraded versions of the previous Group 4 cars that were still in production. The main difference between these older cars and their upgraded counterparts was with the use of lightweight composite materials. Otherwise, the cars remained mostly identical in their specifications. However, by this time, the models clinging to their conventional design became less and less competitive on the international scene.
Meanwhile, the Audi quattro got updated by use of composites panels (less weight), a wider track, and now produced over 350 HP. Besides these improvements, the quattro’s four wheel drive was not able to truly dominate its rear wheel drive opponents but that was only a matter of refining the system further to increase reliability… and making more power. By then, many manufacturers realized how deep the Group B regulations could be exploited and started frantically developing specialized rally machines.
1984 would bring the game up a notch when Audi, in response to the fierce opposition in the works, launched the Sport quattro as their proper Group B car. It was a short wheelbase version that featured an upgraded engine putting out 450 HP (much more than any other competitor of the time). It was somewhat seen as a desperate attempt to push the quattro beyond its design limits and was not well received by the drivers. Audi Sport knew that the quattro’s days in Group B were numbered but were constrained to continue on this route by the company’s top executives.
Audi’s dominance in rallying effectively came to an end when Peugeot launched the turbocharged, 350 HP, mid-engine, 4WD 205 T16 mid-season. A car that proved instantly superior to the more powerful quattro thanks to its purposeful design. By the end of 1984, the little Peugeot became the benchmark and seemed unbeatable. Its turbocharged mid-engine four wheel drive design came to be known as “Group B’s winning formula”.
In 1985, even if Lancia did their best with the 037, rear wheel drive rally cars were rendered obsolete in top-class international special stage rallying. The war for domination was fully concentrated between the four wheel drive machines. Peugeot would soon answer with an even more powerful and aerodynamic version of their 205 T16 (E2). Audi responded by bumping the horsepower of their Sport quattro to nearly 600 HP and adding wild aerodynamic enhancements (S1 E2).
At the end of the year, Lancia launched the long awaited twin-charged 450 HP Delta S4 to replace the now outclassed Rallye 037. It was immediately considered as the most technically advanced spaceframe (tubular chassis) and “function over form” rally car, and instantly became a major threat to Peugeot’s dominance.
At the same time as the Lancia, MG launched the very diminutive, normally aspirated, 380 HP Metro 6R4. The engineers had preferred a super compact design paired with a non-turbo setup to keep engine response high for tight roads. A decision that was later highly criticized. Yet it remained one of the more affordable high-end Group B cars, especially for privateers.
Early in 1986, sister PSA company Citroën launched their own top tier Group B effort with the 380 HP BX 4TC. However, the car turned out to be an immediate disappointment due to its larger size, heavier weight, horrid understeer issues, and overall poor performance. Records show that it had difficulty even matching the pace of some Group A cars in a few rallies.
Ford would closely follow suit with the 450 HP RS200. While the car was very promising for Ford, featuring advanced aluminum honeycomb construction techniques, it suffered from a “parts bin” design while not truly exploiting Group B’s lax rules to the maximum. This criticism came from the fact that, since the RS200 didn’t have to emulate an actual road going model, it could have been made even more purposeful. However, some insiders claim that the car had a potential greater than any of its competitors if enough development had been put in.
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.
Even more power was rumoured to be in the works; it was unofficially reported that in early 1986 Henri Toivonen drove 2 test laps on the F1 circuit of Estoril in Portugal with a 800 HP version of the twincharged engine and came within a few seconds of the pole position time made by the Formula One cars (which would have placed him in the top 10). The well known myth had some recent backing when Ninni Russo, Lancia’s rally team manager of the time, somewhat confirmed the rumours. However, he stressed on the fact that Toivonen, which had some prior Formula experience, was no ordinary driver and seemed to be the only person able to fully exploit the Delta S4’s potential. Audi was also reportedly working on a 1,000 HP version of the Sport quattro for use in specific rallies.
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 rivalled any other type of racing. Group B car development, especially turbocharger output, had reached levels beyond any expectations from the FISA. The wild looking, high flying, fire-spitting Group B cars had earned their legendary status; they became to be regarded as the “off road Formula 1s” with technology, engineering, horsepower, and aerodynamics to match. Multiple unfortunate events made the cars receive the nickname of “The Killer B’s”, which only added to the mythical status that still exists to this day. Sadly, 1986 would be the last and final season for the amazing WRC Group B cars. The period later came to be known as the “golden era of rallying” and has struck an undying fascination for these cars.
While the fire-breathing Group B/12 cars gathered most of the attention and are responsible for the legendary fame behind Group B, they actually are but a small portion of the cars that got homologated! In fact, some lesser Group B classes actually were of lower performance than Group A cars.
It is a common oversight to forget the more humble B9-10-11 classes that provided the low-powered, cheap to buy, entry level cars with the same liberties for improvement as the “big boys”. These classes featured mostly privateer or dealership entries.
DETAILED INFO ON EACH CAR CAN BE FOUND HERE!
While some say that the cars made Group B legendary, do not forget that you needed drivers capable of handling such raw machines. Compared with today, 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 powerbands were very narrow (high RPM) with very average torque figures.
Yet, the drivers were able to adapt in a very short amount of time to these much more powerful and very difficult to drive cars. It was a pure blend of man and machine. The rallies were also much longer than today’s, making going physically through them in such unforgiving machinery a true feat. Group B really tested the will and courage of the drivers. Unlike today, the marketing potential of a person was not considered when teams signed up their drivers; it was a time when only their passion for the sport, their pure talents, and determination was in play. In one word: legends.
DETAILED INFO ON MANY DRIVERS CAN BE FOUND HERE!
PS: The use of the masculine is not quite truly inclusive when talking about how “manly” the Group B drivers were. In fact, the Group B era also featured the best female rally driver to date: Michèle Mouton. The era also saw an earnest attempt by some manufacturers to attract women to the sport with various “Women Trophies (Trophé Féminin)” award opportunities.
All of Group B wouldn’t have happened without the rally teams themselves. 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 the rally events themselves, 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 land in the closest available space to rush and repair any broken-down cars, and managers deciding on team orders and tactics.
DETAILED INFO ON MANY WORKS TEAMS CAN BE FOUND HERE!
In Group B, the madness did not stop with just the cars. Did you know that Audi had once planned on using a similar method that the military uses to refuel planes in mid-flight? Indeed, for the lengthy Safari Rally in Africa, they started to devise a special plane whom would meet with the quattro in a straight and smooth section. The co-driver would extend a special perch to connect the fuel systems and refuel the car without stopping. I’m not sure how far they got into the idea but I’m sure that the FISA wouldn’t have allowed it for long!
The Group B competition era of the WRC turned out to be one of the most eventful and fierce consecutive years of rallying history. From almost crowning the first female champion to stripping the title from another due to partisan mischievousness and feudal internal politics – Group B competition had drama from start to finish to a level equal to its eventual fate.
A QUICK WRC COMPETITION SUMMARY (1982-1986) IS AVAILABLE HERE!
DETAILED EVENT STATISTICS CAN BE FOUND HERE!
DETAILED EVENT REPORTS CAN BE FOUND HERE!
THE FALL OF GROUP B
The saying goes that “all good things must come to an end” but in Group B’s case a better saying would be “what is born in controversy will die in controversy”. Group B rallying would not escape this fate. However, there is much more to it than what you think you already know! Let’s start with the most commonly accepted facts…
THE SPECTATOR PROBLEM
“We all know that Europeans are crazy… for the motorsport of rally, that is! The passion Europeans show for the sport has no equal elsewhere. As such, it is of no coincidence that most international rally teams are based in Europe. Sadly, this level of popularity sometimes has negative impacts: you can’t imagine having people instead of curbs, ditches, or fences delimiting the road, right? Yet, it happened a lot in the Group B era!”
While the sport had a growing popularity in the previous Group 4 days, the speed and fame of the new Group B cars launched the world of rallying into a fan craze. In a short amount of time, the sport became even more popular than Formula 1, which is quite an achievement. While this success was good for publicity, it was less so for spectator safety. More and more unruly fans would line up the stages year after year, creating very hazardous situations that could lead to disaster. This problem was mostly seen in Portugal, Argentina, and to lesser extent other countries. While some blatantly dismissed the issue as something that Group B had no influence on, the increasing speeds of the cars could exponentially accentuate the problem out of proportions.
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. Dodging rally cars became a sort of extreme sport. The rally fandom in Portugal evolved into trying to touch the cars while they sped by. One who would achieve this feat would become some sort of hero to his peers. 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 legendary status of Group B cars made any collision injury as a “badge of honour”, as was reported by the pride of a spectator whom had his leg broken by a speeding Walter Röhrl.
The rally drivers had reported many other 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. The safety organisers pleaded that they just couldn’t control the entire length of a stage. The cars getting more powerful and faster only accentuated the existing spectator problem.
However, some would argue that they didn’t try hard enough! You can even say that the FISA was responsible for letting this happen: they could easily have forced the rally organisers to fix the problem with threats of cancelling the venues. They didn’t even try. Maybe because for a while the “fun” seemed harmless enough, but it was about to really get out of control. You just can’t imagine the emotional detachment the drivers must have had to drive flat out so close to people. The drivers certainly didn’t want this. In fact, they all hated it. Their complaints fell on deaf ears. Even when the worse did eventually happen, no one listened.
BLOOD, STEEL, AND SPEED
Up until 1985, the safety record of Group B cars had been decent, with very few major incidents reported in all competition series. However, things would take a turn for the worst in the Tour de Corse rally. On the first day of the rally, May 2nd, at the first kilometre of the fourth special stage Zérubia – Santa Giulia, the Lancia 037 driven by Attilio Bettega took a right hand corner after the long straight, then entered into a tight left-hander. At the exit of the turn, Bettega skidded off the road into a ditch and hit a tree. The impact was so severe that the roof was partly torn from the Lancia. Co-driver Maurizio Perissinot did not suffer any injuries and went to flag down the following cars. Miki Biasion, Bernard Béguin, and François Chatriot stopped at the scene of the accident. The ambulance took 20 minutes to arrive, but even if the delay would have been shorter, the doctors later said that Bettega had died from the impact.
That event put the Group B cars’ safety under review by the FISA. It was determined that, even though the Lancia 037 was designed to be very lightweight, there was sufficient protection from the aluminium roll cage albeit it was weakest at its sides and front (exactly where Bettega’s car hit the tree). It was the FISA’s conclusion that not even a Group N car would have saved Bettega’s life in the circumstances. However, it seriously put in question the use of light aluminium roll cages in rally cars. Ari Vatanen also crashed out of the same event but had walked away unscathed.
Three rallies later, ever fearless Vatanen had another major accident in Argentina while speeding down a long straight road in top gear when his 205 T16 flipped end-over-front over a jump resulting in a severe crash. The flimsy exterior of the car shattered but the steel rollcage absorbed most of the impact. The car crew was airlifted to the hospital by Peugeot’s own helicopter. Vatanen’s injuries were severe and deemed life-threatening; broken legs, ribs, and punctured lung. Thankfully, Vatanen would survive his injuries but that would be his last Group B drive in the WRC. His career would never return to the same level of success afterwards.
Crashes and occasional fatalities have been part of rallying (and motorsport in general) from its inception, and no amount of safety rules or regulations will ever void the risks entirely. These accidents were no different, but the “innocence” of the world was also coming to an end…
ACTION PLAGUED BY INACTION
By then, some drivers had already complained that the cars were becoming very hard to handle and that the performance level exceeded their abilities to counter the “tunnel vision syndrome” it created in some situations. Co-drivers had a tougher time keeping up with pace notes as gear changes and corners just came and gone too quickly. As such, most 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 Walter Röhrl stated that finding the perfect balance between outright speed and pace was a challenge in itself. The rallies 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.
In September of 1985, as Group B progressed into “madness for speed” well beyond expectations, the FISA technical commission (now led by Gabriele Cadringher) would amend some rules to “try” and limit further increase of the speed of the cars. The new 1986 regulations simply imposed limitations on aerodynamic overhangs (i.e. spoilers) mainly in hope to prevent further addition of downforce which should “naturally” prevent higher corner speeds. There were no provisions to otherwise limit the horsepower of the cars or raise their minimum weight. The focus was instead put on the draft of a new “Group S” category as a possible replacement to Group B but left the latter largely open to its continuing excess for outright speed. The new class was expected to begin on January 1st 1988, after the “5-year stability clause” of Group B had expired. However, nothing was brought up about trying to enforce spectator safety.
In early 1986, even though the use of spoilers now was regulated, the speeds of the cars kept increasing thanks to ever more raw horsepower, making some fear that the worse was only a matter of time. History sadly proved them right; at the Portugal rally, local driver Joaquim Santos crashed his Ford RS200 into a crowd of people, killing 3 (a woman and two children) and injuring 30 more (disregard the count stated in the following video):
It is still debated if Santos simply lost control of his machine at the wrong place or if he truly had spun out while trying to avoid spectators on the road as his co-driver stated to the officials. It needs be mentioned that Santos had no prior experience with the RS200 and this was his first rally with the powerful supercar. As such, most claim his inadequate training as the true cause of the crash. However, most insiders agree on the fact that the constant coming and going from the fields to the road had made spectators bring sand and dirt onto the stage with their shoes, thus creating unpredictable patches of slippery surfaces that could have surprised any driver.
At the end of the day, all the factory team drivers decided to “strike” and withdraw from the rally, and signed a letter which was delivered to the FISA. In this letter, the drivers stated that the spectators were responsible for the accident and that the blame should not be put on the cars. This decision was not approved by the factory team managements to which some threatened their drivers with sanctions if they did not immediately return to competition. The drivers would unite against this and would not obey. It was their hope to be able to force a change in the organisation of the events to prevent such accidents from happening again. After the event, Audi decided to retire from Group B competition outright unless the safety problems were fixed, putting even more pressure on the FISA to act.
However, this had done nothing to sway FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre: he wrote a letter to the Portugal officials praising them for continuing the rally despite the driver strike, all without a single mention of the grave spectator problem in their event. This was a defiant move to clearly show that HE was in charge and that the commercial aspect of the sport was paramount to anything else.
The coup de grace was made two rallies later at the 1986 Tour de Corse when driver Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto crashed in their Lancia Delta S4 on a somewhat mundane left-hand corner of a stage. The car inexplicably flipped over the stone wall, rolled down the rocky embankment through some bushes, got hanged in some trees, and caught fire. Toivonen and Cresto reportedly died while still strapped in their seats. The accident had no witnesses close enough to clearly see the event but some reported hearing an explosion and seeing a huge ball of fire shooting up from the treeline. The main theory was that, when the Delta S4 hit the parapet, something pierced the thin aluminium fuel tank which most likely made the fuel spill out and come into contact with a hot mechanical part that ignited it. The crew had little to no chance of escape.
Since some people already considered Group B cars to be blatantly unsafe, the FISA would focused its investigation on the car itself and ignored other possible factors. In the incident report, although the true cause could not be determined, they attributed many contributing factors; such that the car was running the thin homologated fuel tank which was dangerously placed partly underneath the front seats and that the team had removed the skid-plates to make the car lighter for increased performance.
Ironically, Henri Toivonen was considered to be the only person truly able to tame the Delta S4 and exploit its full potential, as if the car had been designed for him. However, it must be noted that Toivonen reported that he was not feeling well the morning before the incident and showed some symptoms of flu to which he reportedly took some sort of medication. However, this did not prevent him from continuing to post fastest stage times and lead the rally by a large margin until the nefarious accident. Toivonen had too much talent to be taken agape by such a mundane corner so one can only wonder if he had some sort of dizziness just before the crash.
THE INFAMOUS BAN
Mere hours after the deaths of Toivonen and Cresto, FISA’s president Jean-Marie Balestre (which coincidentally was in Corsica) reportedly had a private meeting with Lancia Martini team boss Cesare Fiorio. Balestre told Fiorio that “things can’t go on like this” and that “Group B has to stop”, to which Fiorio reportedly agreed with even though that meant the demise of his newly launched Delta S4 rally car. For Fiorio, the death of two of his drivers at the same event in yearly succession surely must have weighed heavily on his mind. Shortly afterwards, Balestre organised a press conference and announced the immediate freeze on further development of Group B cars and of their outright ban from competition for the end of the year. They were to be replaced by Group A, which had a good safety record since it replaced Group 1, 2, and 3 in 1982, as the new top class in the WRC, effective January 1st 1987. This took everyone by surprise since, until now, Balestre had been a strong defender of the commercial aspects of the sport, to which Group B had a major role in its success.
Right away, this was highly seen as a “political” decision to quickly quench the hysteria that the sport was now facing. This unilateral decision outraged Peugeot Talbot Sport’s boss Jean Todt, claiming that the decision was rushed, without proper discussion with the rally teams, and without the two year notice set in the regulations themselves. However, in Balestre’s opinion, this clause could be disregarded when safety was in play. What is less known outside the closely-knit motorsport world is that Jean-Marie Balestre was a highly unpredictable and power-hungry person, often characterised by his peers with such terms as pompous, ignorant, impudent, snobby, hypocritical, and loutish, among other well-earned degoratories, so what Balestre actually meant is that he could do what he wanted. Balestre’s demeanour wasn’t helped by the fact that he also became FIA president earlier that year.
It was speculated that Balestre never liked the manufacturers’ involvement in the making of the new “lettered” regulations. He had supposedly only agreed to them because of the FISA-FOCA war to ensure the Federation’s financial survival. Since, Group B had made rallying surpass Formula One in popularity across the globe and was now the leader in technological developments. These facts greatly displeased some very influential members of the Federation who felt that these were F1’s prerogatives. Since the dispute in F1 was long resolved, they had no further need for Group B nor for the manufacturers “meddling” in the rules. In brief, Balestre wanted to regain full control and kick the “undesirables” out.
There was much unrest within the manufacturers, including the works drivers, so they all came to the FISA with pleas for another resolution to Group B’s unilateral ban. In October of 1986, in response to these concerns, a somewhat reluctant Balestre and the FISA Executive Committee created provisions to replace Group B with Group S but with a much revised and stricter set of regulations to truly help control the speeds of the cars. The new Group S regulations, which were seen as keeping the high performance standards of Group B but in a much safer environment for both drivers and spectators, were planned to take effect on January 1st 1987, one year ahead of the original schedule.
However, mere days after this announcement, Balestre and his Committee went back on their decision and annulled Group S on the spot. They admitted to not have foreseen how fast Group B had actually become in just a few years, and their utter failure to control it, a mistake that they feared could repeat itself with Group S. That was the “official” story but insiders suspected that it was all a masquerade in the grand ballet of motorsport politics. The Group A replacement formula was once again made official and this time was permanent.
For much more information about Group S, please CLICK HERE!
This subsequently led Peugeot to pursue legal action against the Federation claiming that the bans would bring immense financial losses for the company. However, most argue that the real reason for the lawsuit was that Peugeot didn’t have anything close to a four wheel drive Group A car and as such would no longer be able to compete. Nonetheless, the damages claimed by Peugeot were in the millions of dollars, money that the FISA didn’t want to lose in court.
Balestre saw an opportunity to strike a deal with Peugeot since the manufacturer had been disqualified by the officials at the 1986 Sanremo rally (which gave the driver championship to Lancia’s Markku Alén in lieu of Peugeot’s Juha Kankkunen): the FISA decided to annul the results of the rally thus subsequently stripping the title from Alén, giving it to Kankkunen instead, which officially gave Peugeot their second double title victory in a row. Insiders highly suspected that this was once more a political decision to make Peugeot drop the lawsuit (which they did shortly after).
Here’s a very interesting Top Gear report of the Group B cancellation and proposed replacement Group S rules:
I can kind of understand the whole situation with the spectator problems, crashes, and deaths, but to me it seems that the decision to cancel Group B outright was wrong; crashes and occasional fatalities have been part of rallying (and motorsport in general). In fact, even after the ban of Group B, Portugal still had its spectators problems up to 1988, and even though Group A cars were deemed much safer, the WRC experienced its historical peak in driver/co-driver deaths in the 1989 season with 5 fatalities in 3 months. Since Group A was not put back in question after these events, it is more weight for the argument that Group B’s ban was a purely political decision. The wrong people were in charge at the wrong time and were plagued with inaction; i.e. not forcing rally organisers to enforce spectator safety and not revising the regulations to enforce a horsepower limit. The wrong men with the wrong politics killed the best era of rallying.
AN INFLUENCE FOR THE FUTURE
The Group B rally cars did not die out instantly with the FISA cancellation of the class. While they were banned from official WRC competition and direct manufacturer involvement had stopped, most national rally series allowed the less powerful Group B cars designed directly from production cars to continue competing. A few countries also allowed the top tier “silhouette” Group B supercars to roar along rally stages but this was mostly the case in Africa and Eastern Europe where the FISA had little control. Spain, since it allowed prototypes to be run in its events, was also a niche for the banned cars to compete.
One particular exemption from the FISA’s Group B ban was achieved by tough negotiations between Austin Rover Motorsport and Britain’s authorities to allow the MG Metro 6R4 in their national series. However, one requirement was that the power had to be reduced to 300 HP, leading to the creation of the well known “Clubman 300”. This version of the car still competes favourably in Britain to this very day.
AUTOCROSS / SLALOM
The rising popularity of autocross / slalom events in Europe at the time led some more fortunate competitors to make use of Group B cars. The Lancia Delta S4 in particular was said to excel in these types of events.
Many ex-works WRC cars were subsequently bought by privateers and “recycled” into European Rallycross where they enjoyed much success and cheers from the crowds until their phasing out at the end of 1992.
For detailed Group B era rallycross information, CLICK HERE!
Some other works cars got a final and ultimate “evolution” into hill climb monster machines, conquering the likes of Pikes Peak for a few years more. The “winning formula” of Group B cars held the record at Pikes Peak up until 1994 and became the benchmark for all other future contenders.
At the amateur and semi-pro levels, many Group B variants still compete in various hill climb venues around the world to this very day.
For detailed post Group B hill climb evolutions information, CLICK HERE!
ENDURANCE / RALLY RAID
The only other remaining niche for Group B cars with direct manufacturer involvement was in endurance rally raids such as the Paris-Dakar rally where variations of Group B cars competed favourably well into the 1990s. This was especially the case for Peugeot’s 1983 “Turbo 16” design which evolved from the 205, through the 405, and ultimately ended with the Citroën ZX. The “T16” design outright won the Paris-Dakar event 8 times from 1987 through 1996, officially retiring in 1997 (not to mention winning the WRC in 1985 & 1986). This means that the “Group B formula” was engineering that came to be competitive for nearly 15 years: an achievement that is seldom seen in motorsport and a testament to Group B’s influence.
For detailed post Group B rally raid evolutions information, CLICK HERE (bottom of page)!
In 1997, the FIA would officially revive the Group S idea with the WRC (World Rally Car) class. While a bit more strict on the rules (such as a higher minimum weight, smaller restrictor plates, and limitations on aerodynamic overhangs), it did give birth to high tech purpose built rally machines once again. The new WRC regulations stated that 20 “evolution” cars needed to be built (instead of 10 for Group S) but this time on an existing production chassis that was manufactured to at least 25,000 units. Technology had advanced so much in the previous 10 years that the sheer cost of the new WRC cars made Group B pale in comparison. In 2006 and 2010, million dollar machines paired with a bad economic context led the FIA to strangle the rules once more.
For 2017, with high technology now available at a cheaper cost, the FIA has announced the return of the electronic controls and more importantly a power gain up to 380 HP thanks to an increase in turbo restrictor size to 36 mm. The cars will also be allowed to implement 55 mm wider bodywork, greater overhangs, extra aerodynamic features such as canards, and shed 25 kg of weight. These new regulations bring the sport back closer to what Group B and Group S had started more than 30 years before.
“However, it is worth to mention that FWD to AWD conversions are still sadly allowed for the WRC class which means that manufacturers do not have to build “true” turbo AWD road versions to be sold to the public. For me, this lack of proper homologation has killed any sense of relating to the WRC cars for the common folk… at least for those who have a brain and a dream of owning a “true” street version of their favourite WRC rally car!”
AN IMMORTAL LEGACY
KIT CAR REPLICAS
As time passes, the nostalgia felt for the Group B cars is ever growing and not forgotten; the undying fame and mythical status have since prompted some companies to design kit cars to build your own replica of certain models. While genuine Group B cars are too rare and expensive for the average enthusiast, replicas normally cost in a range of $/€ 10,000 for “do-it-yourselfers” and up to $/€ 100,000+ for professional shop builds.
RETRO / VINTAGE RACING
Thanks to more recent softer rules, some competitors still own and use Group B cars in vintage/retro racing, rallycross, and hill climb events.
Some national rally series have also since relaxed the rules for their “Open” and vintage / historic classes which now allows use of Group B cars (and replicas thereof) in actual competitive rallies, although the cars have to run a turbo inlet restrictor which effectively chokes their power down to the 300~400 HP range. This makes them hardly competitive versus the more modern and much easier to drive rally cars. However, it is a delight for the fans of the period.
To this day, genuine Group B rally cars with the actual power of their golden years can only be seen in non-competitive exhibition rallies such as the Eifel Rallye Festival or Rally Legend. Many owners are part of clubs such as Slowly Sideways or model specific groups to make it easier to find social gatherings and venues to display and run the cars. After all, genuine Group B vehicles are now priceless pieces of machinery very dear to the people that own them. In a way, even multiple decades later, they can be considered as “too fast to race”.
A FINAL THOUGHT
While Group B rally cars have since been surpassed in overall performance by their more modern counterparts, the era has nonetheless been a major pillar of what rallying is today and will always remain in the heart of the fans as the very pinnacle of the sport. When asked about the era, everyone involved in Group B has the same answer to the question “would you have done it again?”: a resounding “YES”. I am certain that even Henri Toivonen agrees from beyond. An unmistakable amount of passion and excitement that will never be seen again, including for yours truly – the sport had officially lost its innocence.
May the legendary 1980s Group B machines continue to live on in automobile museums, in vintage races, and in our minds. More importantly, may the exploits and sacrifice of the courageous drivers and co-drivers, imaginative engineers, hardy mechanics, and everyone involved in making what Group B was be remembered forever…
Rally Group B Shrine owner & author
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