Published on: Dec 25, 2016 11:05 AM (replaces old page)
Originally Published in: 2015 (old website)
(C) Jay Auger - website owner & author
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Gabriele Cadringher

In September of 1985, as Group B rallying progressed well beyond original expectations, the FISA Technical Commission (then newly led by Gabriele Cadringher) would amend some rules to ‘try’ and limit further increase of the speed of the cars. The revised ‘1986’ Group B regulations simply imposed limitations on aerodynamic overhangs (i.e. spoilers) mainly in hopes to prevent further addition of downforce which should ‘naturally’ prevent higher cornering speeds. There were no provisions to otherwise limit the horsepower of the cars or raise their minimum weight. The focus of the announcement was instead put on the finalisation of a new ‘Group S’ category, which would be specific to rallying, as a future replacement to Group B in the sport.

The Group S proposal was originally put forward by FISA’s president Jean-Marie Balestre in late 1984 to alienate manufacturers from meddling in is court. To save face, the FISA announced that is was in direct response to the BPICA members (Bureau Permanent International des Constructeurs d’Automobiles – an organisation created to represent the interests of the car manufacturers in motorsport) which had complained that manufacturing, and especially selling, 200 purpose built cars under Group B rules was a difficult and expensive endeavour, so the new regulations would mandate that only 10 cars be built.


The 1985 draft of the Group S regulations was almost a duplicate of Group B, albeit serious talks of imposing horsepower and engine displacement limitations were put forward. Similarly to Group B’s ‘evolution’ (ET) rules, the cars would have to remain identical for a minimum of 12 months and 10 more cars (instead of 20) could subsequently be built in a yearly cycle to homologate any changes. Essentially a ‘prototype’ class for rallying, Group S was aimed to be cheaper for manufacturers to continue to showcase ground-breaking innovations in lightweight chassis design, exotic materials, aerodynamics and advanced electronics – thus creating a more level playing field between the most and lesser funded BPICA members.

Lancia ECV – technical view

As such, many manufacturers in the likes of Audi (albeit unofficially), Lancia, and Mazda, to name but a few, quickly jumped on board and started to create Group S designs even though the rules stated that the cars wouldn’t be eligible to score points in the championship for their first year. However, since the production costs would be much lower than before, manufacturers saw the category as a perfect opportunity to develop and test new technologies that could later be trickled down to production cars or other racing classes.

Group S was originally expected to begin on January 1st 1988 after the ‘five-year stability’ clause of Group B had expired. After this date, Group B cars in their evolution (ET) form would no longer be allowed to participate in sanctioned events. This made Opel and Toyota, whom already had new Group B projects in the works at the time of the announcement, to delay the new cars until the Group S regulations would take effect – also saving themselves from having to produce two hundred expensive cars for homologation.


Jean-Marie Balestre

In May of 1986, after the tragic deaths of Toivonen/Cresto in Corsica, FISA’s president Jean-Marie Balestre surprised everyone when he decided to totally ban Group B from WRC competition at the end of the year and also scrapped the Group S plans a day later. This created much anger and unrest with the rally teams so, after speaking with some of the BPICA members and their seeded drivers, the FISA created provisions to bring back the Group S proposal but with a much revised and stricter set of regulations to help control the speeds of the cars.

These revisions included emphasising on a strict 300 horsepower limit which was originally meant to be achieved by mandatory use of lower octane commercial petrol, outlawing all kinds of fuel additives, and limiting engine displacement (1200 cc for forced induction / 2400 cc for normal aspiration). Other alterations to the rules included aerodynamic aids limitations and prohibition of flammable lightweight materials in the cars’ construction.

Not everyone agreed with these initial propositions, both within the FISA and BPICA, but they were nonetheless generally received as keeping the high performance standards of Group B but in a much safer environment for both drivers and spectators. Most of the concerns came from the BPICA members who were not heavily invested in Formula 1: they feared that those who already were would begin using the smaller displacement Formula engines in their rally cars and give them an unfair advantage. As such, many months of negotiations between the FISA and BPICA would follow while these raw new guidelines nonetheless gave the manufacturers something to work with while the official regulations would be finalised.

The original proposition to allow all Group B cars to compete but only in their much less powerful factory homologation (road) form was amended to allowing only 1600cc and less, non-evolution versions of the lower displacement B/9 and B/10 class cars. These would also be prevented to score points towards international championships, up until the expiration of their respective homologations.


Example of an intake restrictor plate for a carburettor engine

In October of 1986, the FISA Executive Committee unveiled the official revised regulations for Group S. To appease the prior concerns of the lesser funded BPICA members, the issue was said to be ‘solved’ by compulsory use of intake restrictor plates for all normally aspirated engines beyond 2400cc, with a 3000cc limit, and for forced induction engines beyond 1200cc, with a 2000cc calculated limit. The multiplication factor for the latter would be increased from 1.4 to 2.0 thus placing turbochargers in a serious choke-hold.

The maximum exterior dimensions of the cars could no longer exceed 4500 mm in length and 1900 mm in width. Furthermore, the exterior shape of the cars now had to mimic a production model in overall shape and appearance. These rules were explicitly made to prevent manufacturers from creating extreme or purposeful ‘freak’ designs with large spoilers, appendages and bodywork overhangs. The minimum production required for homologation remained at 10 yearly units.

The minimum weight for the category was set at 1000 kg (2,200 lbs) to prevent overuse of lightweight (brittle and flammable) composite materials in the chassis and cabin’s main construction. All roll-cages would now have to be made in steel with compulsory front and side crash tests to ensure safety. For tarmac events, wheel diameters could not exceed 16″ and slick tires would be prohibited (such as in Corsica where Bettega, Toivonen and Cresto lost their lives) to help lower the overall and cornering speeds of the cars.

The revised Group S regulations were planned to take effect on January 1st 1987 as a full-fledged replacement to Group B, one year ahead of the original schedule set back in the 1985 draft.


The late confirmation of the rules left manufacturers less than 3 months to react. However, this was not seen as a problem for the FISA since most of the major works teams already had Group S projects going on for about a year. For the other manufacturers, who were already working on gaining Group B homologation at the time of the ban, the rules allowed for their current cars to be adapted to the new regulations. However, for some this mostly meant having to design new engines to adhere to the stringent displacement regulations. Here’s a list of such prototypes (click on the names to get detailed information about each car);


Audi Sport’s ‘Gruppe S’ is the embodiment of what the FISA ‘feared’

As history would unfold, shortly after the October announcement, FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre and the Executive Committee went back on their decision and annulled Group S once more. In a sort of mea culpa, the FISA admitted to not have foreseen the exploitation of Group B’s loose regulations by the manufacturers into purposely creating ‘fast and dangerous’ cars – a mistake that they feared would eventually repeat itself with Group S. This concern was also shared by the lesser funded BPICA members who felt that even the revised rules left too much room for exploitation and that the return of ‘freak cars’ was inevitable.

Toyota’s ‘222D’ Group S project was nearing completion

By that time, a few Group S projects were in their final phase, prompting the anger of many manufacturers (including Peugeot who actually sued the Federation over the bans) who saw the resuscitation as a diversion tactic and the quick re-ban as a political decision to squelch the continuing feud over the new regulations. Peugeot nonetheless tried to convince the FISA of their willingness to improve safety via citing their ‘E3’ drivetrain modifications in example. Meanwhile, Ford was frantically trying to reach an agreement with Cadringher with a proposal to impose Group A engines, instead of lower displacement rules, to meet the 300 BHP limit of Group S. However, everyone already knew that these units were already pushing well past this output in the WRC hence creating doubts of the ability to truly enforce this limit. Other manufacturers such as MG were willing to accept all sorts of extra restrictions to save their programmes set to lose millions.

For 1987 top rallying returned to using production cars

Ultimately, the never-ending discord led the FISA’s Executives to state that Group B’s lax rules and subsequent disasters were the result of too much influence by the BPICA members in sporting regulations – directly blaming the manufacturers for spiralling the category out of control. As such, Jean-Marie Balestre, which was known to be highly unpredictable, not to mention that in the same year also became FIA president, felt like Group S would continue this ‘manufacturer meddling’ issue and wanted to get his ‘full powers’ back. He unilaterally decided to make Group A (touring cars directly based on production models), 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. Although the Executive Committee would side with their president, thus making the decision final and without possibility of appeal, the cancellation of Group S is often regarded as a ‘one-man ban’: Jean-Marie Balestre’s.

In the end, it must be noted that no rally car was ever built to full and final Group S regulations since most prototypes used engines and materials that would have been ultimately outlawed by the rules, hence making the category truly stillborn.


Peugeot 306 Maxi F2 “Kit Car”

Later in 1987, due to a much poorer following of the WRC under Group A regulations and continuing unrest within the BPICA members, there was a short lived rumour that the FISA would revive Group S under the new moniker ‘Group X’ for 1991, albeit allowing only two-wheel drive prototype cars. It was seen as a futile and somewhat insulting gesture by FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre at ‘buying the peace’. However, after Balestre’s departure as president, this proposal later came to be recycled into the 1993 ‘F2 Kit Car‘ class: very nimble purpose-built front-wheel drive cars that eventually came to beat the ‘WRC’-class cars on tarmac in 1999 thus leading to its annulment.


Around the time of the Group B ban, the top Group A rally cars wearing nearing on 300 BHP but eventually came around to exceeding this horsepower limit in the mid-1990s – further aided by quick advances in electronics and overall technology. The cars subsequently started to beat the stage times set by the Group B supercars, thus prompting the Federation to once again review the rules. In 1997, this led the unified FIA/FISA, now led by Max Mosley, to resuscitate once again the Group S formula with the WRC (World Rally Car) class.

Subaru Impreza WRC – a poster child of the new World Rally Car class

While the 300 horsepower limit was the same, the WRC class was a bit more strict on the rules such as a higher 1230 kg minimum weight, smaller turbo restrictor plates, minimum (rather than maximum) exterior dimensions, and further limitations on aerodynamic overhangs. However, it did give birth to high tech purpose built rally machines once again. The new regulations stated that 20 ‘evolution’ cars needed to be built (instead of 10 for Group S) but this time based on an existing production chassis that was manufactured to at least 25,000 yearly units (thus effectively eliminating the possibility of extreme purposeful ‘freak’ designs – a loophole that was present in Group S). Technology, especially in electronics, had advanced so much that the sheer cost of the new WRC cars made Group B’s pale in comparison.

2009 Ford Focus WRC

However, this became a problem when the worldwide recession hit, so in 2006 and 2010 the FIA strongly tightened the rules of the WRC class due to many manufacturers leaving the series because costs were becoming prohibitive (nearly a million dollars per rally car), which was no longer justified in the economic context. Expensive high-tech features like exotic materials usage and complex electronically controlled differentials and traction controls that were tied into engine management were banned. Evolution model requirements dropped to 10 units (exactly like Group S).

2017 World Rally Car

In 2016, 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 BHP for the debut of the 2017 season. The cars will also be allowed to implement wider bodywork and aerodynamic features. These new regulations bring the sport back closer to what Group B and Group S had started more than 30 years before but will arguably never be the same.


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 Group B – The rise and fall of rallying’s wildest cars (English)

Gruppe B Gruppe B – Aufstieg und Fall der Rallye-Monster (German)

(C) Article by Jay Auger – website owner, main author & chief editor