GROUP S HISTORY

In September of 1985, as Group B rallying progressed well beyond original 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 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 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. It is note to mention that Group S was a category specific to rallying unlike Group B which was inclusive of all racing cars.

The new Group S regulations proposal would require only 10 cars for homologation instead of the 200 cars for Group B. The cars had to remain identical for a minimum of 12 months, and similarly to Group B’s “evolution” rules, 10 more cars could subsequently be built in a yearly cycle to homologate any changes. Essentially a “prototype” class for rallying, Group S was aimed to be even cheaper for manufacturers to continue to showcase ground-breaking innovations in lightweight chassis design, exotic materials, aerodynamics, and advanced electronics.

The first draft of the regulations did not include horsepower limitations. Many manufacturers in the likes of Audi (albeit unofficially), Lancia, Mazda, and Toyota 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 expected to begin on January 1st 1988, after the “5-year stability” clause of Group B had expired.

In May of 1986, after the tragic deaths of Toivonen/Cresto in Corsica, FISA’s president Jean-Marie Balestre surprised everyone and decided to totally ban Group B from WRC competition at the end of the year. This created much anger and unrest with the rally teams so, after speaking with some manufacturers and their seeded drivers, the FISA created provisions to replace Group B with Group S but with a much revised and stricter set of regulations to help control the speeds of the cars. The new mandatory horsepower was set at 300. This figure was originally meant to be achieved by limiting forced induction engine displacement to 1200 cc and by mandatory use of lower octane commercial petrol. Further measures included aerodynamic aids limitations and prohibition of flammable lightweight materials in the cars’ construction. While not everyone agreed with these propositions, 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.

In October of 1986, the FISA Executive Committee unveiled the official revised regulations for Group S. The list included; compulsory use of intake restrictor plates for all naturally aspirated engines of more than 2400 cc and for all forced induction engines of more than 1200 cc (the 1200cc limit was actually lifted). The maximum exterior dimensions of the cars could not exceed 4500 mm in length and 1900 mm in width. Furthermore, the exterior of the car now had to mimic a production model in overall appearance and shape. This was to prevent manufacturers from creating extreme unique designs with large spoilers and bodywork overhangs. The minimum weight was set at 1000 kg (2200 lbs) to prevent overuse of lightweight (brittle and flammable) composite materials in the chassis’ main construction. All roll-cages would 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 Toivonen/Cresto lost their lives).

There was also a rumor that Group B cars would be allowed to compete but only in their much less powerful factory homologation (road) form although this was never confirmed.

The new rules were to take effect on January 1st 1987 which would give manufacturers less than 3 months to react. For the FISA, this was not seen as a problem since most of the major works teams already had Group S projects going on. For the other manufacturers, who didn’t have them, or that 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 since only 10 examples would need be built. This was the case for Ford (RS200S), Lada (EVA/S-Proto), Lancia (ECV/SE042), Mazda (RX7S), MG (Metro 6R4), Mitsubishi (Starion 4WD), Moskovich (2141-KR), Peugeot (205/405 T16), SEAT (Ibiza Bi-Motor), Skoda (160 RS MTX), Toyota (222D), and Opel (Kadett E4S). By this time, Audi had already quit their WRC program for good.

However, by the end of 1986, the horrific incidents were still fresh with the members of the FISA and went back on their decision; they admitted to not have foreseen how fast Group B had actually become in just a few years, and their failure to control it, a mistake that they feared could repeat itself with Group S. By that time, a few prototypes had already been completed, prompting the anger of many manufacturers (including Peugeot who actually sued the Federation over the bans). This discord led the FISA’s top brass to believe that Group B’s original lax rules also gave the manufacturers too much influence in sporting regulations. FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre, which was known to be controlling, felt like Group S would continue this meddling issue and wanted to get his “full powers” back. As such, he decided to make Group A (touring cars directly based on production models), but 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.

In 1987, there was a short lived rumor that the FISA would revive Group S under the new moniker “Group X” for 1991, albeit allowing only two wheel drive cars, but it was never implemented. Around the time of the Group B ban, the top Group A rally cars made around 250~300 HP but eventually came around to producing nearly 400 HP in the early 1990s (and subsequently started to beat some Group B stage times), thus prompting the Federation to impose stricter rules. In 1997, this led the FIA to resuscitate the Group S idea with the WRC (World Rally Car) class. While again a bit more strict on the rules (such as a higher minimum weight, smaller restrictor plates, and further 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 that the sheer cost of the new WRC cars made Group B pale in comparison.

However, this became a problem when the worldwide recession hit, so in 2007 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 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). 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 HP 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.


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