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 (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, which would be specific to rallying, as a future replacement to Group B in that sport.

The proposal was also 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 rally cars was a difficult and expensive endeavour, so the new regulations would mandate that only 10 cars be built.


Even though Group S was mascaraed as a “fix” to Group B’s increasing dangers, the first 1985 draft of the regulations was almost a duplicate of Group B, as both did not include horsepower limitations. 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 even cheaper for manufacturers to continue to showcase ground-breaking innovations in lightweight chassis design, exotic materials, aerodynamics, and advanced electronics.

Mazda’s RX7 Group S prototype

As such, many manufacturers in the likes of Audi (albeit unofficially), Lancia, and Mazda 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 “5-year stability” clause of Group B had expired. This made Opel and Toyota, whom already had new Group B projects in the works at the time of the announcement, to delay them until the Group S regulations would take effect, hence saving themselves from having to produce 200 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 on the spot. This created much anger and unrest with the rally teams so, after speaking with some 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 mainly a mandatory 300 horsepower limit which was originally meant to be achieved by mandatory use of lower octane commercial petrol 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. These raw new guidelines would give the manufacturers something to work with while the official regulations would be finalised.


Example of an intake restrictor plate

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 (with a 3000 cc limit) and for all forced induction engines of more than 1200 cc (with a 1800 cc limit). However, this made BPICA members who were not heavily invested in Formula 1 fear that those who already were would begin using the smaller displacement Formula engines to circumvent the power output limit and give them an unfair advantage.

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 “freak” designs with large spoilers and bodywork overhangs. The minimum weight 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 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).

The revised Group S regulations were planned to take effect on January 1st 1987.

The late confirmation of the rules left manufacturers less than 3 months to react. However, 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 E 4S). By this time, Audi’s management had already “dismantled” their Gruppe S project. However, for some this mostly meant having to design new engines to adhere to the new regulations.

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


Audi’s “Gruppe S” prototype could be considered what the FISA “feared”

Shortly after the October announcement, FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre and the executive members went back on their decision and annulled Group S once more. They admitted to not have foreseen how fast and dangerous Group B had actually become in just a few years and their failure to control it: a mistake that they feared would eventually repeat itself with Group S. This was a concern also shared by the lesser funded BPICA members which felt that the 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) which 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.

For 1987 top rallying returned to using production cars

In reality, this discord led the FISA’s top brass 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. As such, Jean-Marie Balestre, which was known to be highly unpredictable and controlling, 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. This decision came to be final and without possibility of appeal.


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 obviously never implemented and was seen as a futile and somewhat insulting gesture by FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre at “buying the peace”. However, 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.


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 mid-1990s, plus further aided by quick advances in electronics and overall technology. The cars subsequently started to beat Group B stage times, 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). 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 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 but will arguably never be the same.


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