Group B Circuit Racing – Why it Never Came to Be

In 1982, the FISA (former ruling committee of the FIA) introduced its totally revamped regulations to replace all previous racing and rallying classes into only 3 groups; A (touring cars), B (grand touring cars), and C (prototypes). For most people, Group B is strictly synonymous with the high flying and fire spitting rally cars of the Golden Era, but did you know that Group B wasn’t created exclusively for rallying? In fact, the FISA had hoped that the new Group B category would also be used in circuit racing to replace the previous “silhouette” Group 5 racers. To most people, it is not quite clear why FISA Group B circuit racing never really took off.  This mystery will be largely debunked here.

GROUP 5: The silhouette formula before Group B even existed!

group-5

Also known as the “Special Production Cars” class from 1976 to 1982, Group 5 was in fact a sort of prototype category but directly based on road cars; the regulations demanded only that the car model was previously homologated in Group 1 through 4 and that it retained the hood, doors, and roof of the homologated model. As such, most Group 5 cars were often of full spaceframe (tubular) construction with the required body parts simply bolted on.

In very similar regulations to FISA Group 5 (which was mostly run around European endurance circuits), Japan also had the Fuji Super Silhouette series, and the USA had the IMSA GTX class. All of which gave birth to a myriad of very large widebodied race cars that sported wild aerodynamic enhancements. The classes also introduced the wide use of unrestricted turbochargers, with most cars developing about 500 horsepower or more. As such, Group 5 was a formula very similar to Group B but aimed strictly at circuit racing. These cars were wild, fast, and highly popular with the fans. Most will remember the exploits of the Porsche 935.

GROUP B: How it actually killed silhouette circuit racing.

In 1982, Group 5 was officially replaced by Group B, which brought the same wild liberties that Group 5 had to the world of rallying. We all know how these new regulations propelled rallying into a fan craze which brought its popularity to a level exceeding Formula 1. However, Group B unfortunately spelled doom for its equivalent in circuit racing. The main reason for this fall was that the new homologation rules for Group B competition required 200 road cars to be produced in a 12 month period. In contrast, Group 5 did not require any direct homologation features of the race car to be reflected in a road version, less its mandatory use of some factory panels. After 1982, the only class which did not require road car homologation was Group C. As such, Group C created too much of a blur between the old Groups 5 and 6, making this type of racing shift towards pure prototypes while road car homologation-based circuit racing shifted towards the cheaper to run, yet very competitive, Group A touring series.

THE SUPERCARS – A GLIMMER OF HOPE

A few years after Group B’s debut, some manufacturers saw the humble production numbers required for Group B homologation as a perfect opportunity to market low volume high-end sports cars to customers. This was the case for Ferrari when creating the 288 GTO, based on the 308 GTB, which was evidently way more suited to circuit racing than rallying. The car was officially homologated in Group B on June 1st 1985.

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1984 Ferrari 288 GTO

After building the required 200 homologation units, Ferrari went on, with the help of long time partners Michelotto and Pininfarina, to start conception / production of the 20 “evolution” cars for competition: the Evoluzione.

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1986 Ferrari 288 GTO Evoluzione

The Evoluzione sported advanced lightweight aerodynamic bodywork features that netted a dry weight of only 940 kgs. The engine was also improved and the boost on the turbochargers cranked up a notch. A combination that could provide up to 650 HP, therefore cutting in half the power to weight ratio of the road car. A feat in every aspect.

Ferrari, since it was then part of the FIAT group, had no official rallying ambitions for the car (that focus was with Lancia instead). In the end, the 288 GTO Evoluzione’s production was cancelled but would serve as a direct test bed to develop the now legendary Ferrari F40:

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1987 Ferrari F40

Porsche, since the beginning, was also working on its own Group B contender, the “Gruppe B”, later known as the 959.

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1984 Porsche 959 “Gruppe B” prototype

Arguably, the 959 can be considered as a circuit oriented car although it was built around a very versatile chassis that could also be adapted to rallying. Confirmation of Porsche’s intentions of eventually participating in Group B circuit racing came when they developed the 961 endurance race car derivative, surely in hopes to revive the 935 glory days.

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1986 Porsche 961

The 961’s engine was tweaked to produce a hefty 640 bhp and carried over most of the 959’s technical specifications. In 1986, although the 959 was not ready for Group B homologation, the 961 was entered as a prototype in the GTX category at the 24 hours of LeMans. The car won its class, also finishing an incredible 7th overall, and was the first four wheel drive car to race at Le Mans. Although not official by any means, this can be considered as the first spiritual “Group B circuit win” since the 961 evidently was an “evolution” version of the 959.

Lamborghini, the well established exotic car maker, even produced a special version of their venerable Countach specifically for Group B homologation, better known as the “Downdraft” version. Albeit Lamborghini’s actual intentions at competing with the car were unclear.

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1986 Lamborghini Countach 5000 QV “Downdraft”

At around the same time, Jaguar was also toying with the idea of producing a car especially for Group B. The original plan for the car would make use of a V12 engine paired with four wheel drive. However, this soon changed to using the V64V engine from the recently launched MG Metro 6R4 Group B rally car, albeit twin-turbocharged and with rear wheel drive. This very special car was the Jaguar XJ220.

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1988 Jaguar XJ220 Concept

Another aspect to consider was that some Group B rally cars might have been suited to be modified for circuit racing. Lancia already had done something similar with its Beta Montecarlo model, which was very closely related to the Rallye 037. A few Ford RS200s were actually converted to compete in the IMSA series, featuring a 750 hp BDT-E Cosworth Evolution engine.

THE UNFORTUNATE END OF GROUP B

Even if many clues pointed to Group B circuit racing eventually taking off thanks to the new “supercar” trend, the entire category was abolished in 1986 due to major safety concerns after multiple unfortunate incidents cost the lives of drivers and spectators in the World Rally Championship. Rally fans already know this part very well and need no further details.

While this effectively killed most racing ambitions for the supercars of the time, a few manufacturers would still get post ban Group B homologations for their cars. That is the case for the Lamborghini Countach “Downdraft”, homologated in 1988, and for the Ferrari F40 LM, homologated in 1989, both produced in sufficient numbers. Porsche, even though the 959 would also subsequently be produced over the 200 required units, decided not to apply for the official documentation papers. The reason probably being that Porsche saw no point in performing the tedious task of homologation since the project had already cost too much money and the category was banned. However, this decision can be criticized since the 959 was THE company’s flagship model widely synonymous with Group B from the very beginning. However, the 959 is credited with reviving the supercar craze alongside the F40, a trend that continues to this very day.

F40 & 959.png

For the fans of the period that would have liked seeing Group B cars battle it out on the circuits, some consolation can be found by watching Japan’s Fuji Super Silhouette series which ran up to 1984, and the IMSA GTX & GTP series which ran up to the early 1990s, both featuring similar lax rules as Group 5 / Group B. You can also use your imagination and picture in your head a Porsche 961 battle it out alongside a Ferrari F40, joined by a Jaguar XJ220 in a long straight, and pushed to the side by a Ford RS200 in a tight corner… or whichever Group B car you would have liked seeing burning 1980s asphalt!

In the end, Group B homologation regulations killed its own circuit racing ambitions, and the lax rules eventually put an end on the most exciting of times in rallying, both of which are one the saddest outcomes in motorsport history.


(C) Article by Jay Auger – website owner & author
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