Group B Circuit Racing – Why it Never Came to Be

Published on: Jan 14, 2017 @ 01:12
(C) Jay Auger - website owner & author
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INTRODUCTION

In 1982, the FISA (former ruling committee of the FIA) introduced its totally revamped regulations to replace all previous road racing and rallying classes into only 4 groups; N (normal cars), 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 it 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 Group 4 grand tourers and to some extent the super-fast “silhouette” Group 5 prototypes. However, it is not quite clear why FISA Group B circuit racing never really took off, especially in the World Sportscar Championship (WSC), hence this mystery will be largely debunked here.


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GROUP 5: The Silhouette Formula – Group B’s Lax Predecessor

group-5

Also known as the “Special Production Cars” class from 1976 to 1982, Group 5 was in fact a prototype category but directly based on road cars; the regulations demanded only that the car model was duly homologated in either Group 1 through 4 and that it retained the bonnet (hood), doors and roof of the road model – everything else could be made bespoke to achieve maximum performance on the track. As such most Group 5 cars were often of spaceframe (tubular) construction with the mandated body parts simply bolted-on.

In very similar regulations to FISA’s Group 5, which was mostly run around the WSC circuit, Japan also had the Fuji Super Silhouette series and the USA had the IMSA GTX class; these gave birth to a myriad of bespoke and wild looking race cars. The era also introduced the use of unrestricted turbochargers with most cars developing around 500 horsepower or more. If this sounds familiar to what comes to mind when rally fans think of Group B then you are not mistaken: Group 5 was a formula very indicative to its Group B successor but aimed strictly at circuit racing. Most will remember the prowess of the Porsche 935s in this era.

The Porsche 935 – the poster child of the Group 5 era

GROUP B: How it Cursed Silhouette Circuit Racing

After the 1982 transition year, the new FISA “lettered” regulations came into full force; Group A continued on the touring competition of the previous regulations both on and off the asphalt without much fracas, while Group B completely revolutionised the world of rallying with the possibility of bespoke machines, with Group C providing a serious shadow on the track.

Group C prototypes in battle at Monza 1983

In 1983, Group C took over the world of prototypes, albeit the new category introduced harsh fuel consumption limitations as an attempt at leashing the outlandish engine and turbocharger development as seen in Group 5. These limits now also applied to dedicated sports-prototypes such as the ones used in the Group 6 era. The biggest rule change came with elimination of road car homologation needed to participate in the merged category thus making Group C upshift towards pure prototypes while circuit racing based on homologated road cars downshifted towards the cheaper to run, yet very competitive, Group A touring car series.

Group A touring cars in fierce battle

The change effectively brought the disappearance of bespoke production machines such as the ones seen in Group 5 the previous years – cars that could however have been made again possible under Group B “evolution” (ET) regulations. The main reason for this immediate fall from grace was that the new homologation rules for Group B required 200 road cars to be produced in a twelve month period – cars that now had to share most of their homologation features with the racing “evolution” (ET) model.

In contrast, the previous Group 5 cars were allowed to freely compete while their mostly pedestrian and cheaper to produce counterparts were homologated and sold in the showrooms. With Group B rules, such brutal and bespoke homologation machines would make no financial sense for manufacturers to attempt selling them as usable road cars.

BMW M1 at the 24H of Le Mans in 1985

This is probably when the connoisseurs of racing history will cry foul as they will state that the WSC did see Group B cars grace its venues from 1983 to 1986. Indeed, a handful of cars with valid Group B homologation did compete such as in the 24 Hours of Le Mans albeit it remained a battle concentrated between the BMW M1 (ex-Procar) and the Porsche 930 Turbo. This is however when the purists will also cry foul as these cars were but Group 4 transfers with refreshed homologation and a far cry from the flamboyant Group 5 racers they replaced. As such it is commonplace not to consider these carryover cars as genuine and bespoke Group B circuit machines. In simpler terms: it doesn’t count!


SUPERCARS: A Glimmer of Hope

After Group B’s official debut in 1983, some “exotic” car manufacturers did however see the humble production numbers required for Group B homologation as a perfect opportunity to fabricate and market low-volume and high-end sports cars to potential customers – cars that could make full use of the evolution (ET) feature and be modified into full-blown bespoke racers much like their rally counterparts.

FERRARI

This was the case for the famed Italian company from Maranello when creating the 288 GTO, based on the 308 GTB and GT/M prototype, which was evidently way more suited to circuit racing than rallying. The 288 GTO was indeed produced in sufficient numbers and officially homologated in Group B on June 1st 1985.

GTO
1984 Ferrari 288 GTO

After building the required road cars, Ferrari went on, with the help of long time partners Michelotto and Pininfarina, to start conception and production of the 20 “evolution” (ET) cars aimed directly for competition: the Evoluzione. It sported advanced and lightweight aerodynamic bodywork features paired with a dedicated tubular chassis, netting a dry weight of only 940 kg. The engine was also vastly improved and the boost on the turbochargers cranked up a few notches: a combination that could provide up to 650 BHP and therefore cutting in half the power to weight ratio of the road car – a feat reminiscent of what Group 5 used to be.

1986 Ferrari 288 GTO Evoluzione

Ferrari had no official rallying ambitions for the car: that aspiration died with the similar yet unsuccessful 308 GT/M project. It is quite a common mistake in modern popular culture to pretend that all Group B machinery was strictly intended for rallying, especially when it comes to cars like the 288 GTO. Ultimately, the Evoluzione never saw competition but it would serve as a direct test bed to develop the now legendary Ferrari F40 – a supercar originally aimed at dominating Group B circuit racing.

1987-ferrari-f40
1987 Ferrari F40

PORSCHE

The famous German rear-engine sports car maker from Stuttgart was also working on its own Group B contender ever since the introduction of the new regulations: the “Gruppe B” – later known as the 959. Based on the 911, the 959 was to be Porsche’s flagship offering in technology and driving dynamics.

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 off-road usage such as 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’s former glory days in Group 5.

1986 Porsche 961

The 961’s engine was tweaked to produce a hefty 640 BHP and carried over most of the 959’s advanced technical specifications such as computer-controlled four-wheel drive. 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 Le Mans. 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 victory is often considered as the first “Group B circuit win” since the 961 evidently was an evolution version of the 959 – a car designed and built especially for the category.

LAMBORGHINI

The well established exotic car maker with the raging bull emblem ended up producing a special version of their venerable Countach for Group B homologation: better known as the LP5000 Quattrovalvole “Downdraft”.

1986 Lamborghini Countach 5000 QV “Downdraft”

Since the original design of the car far predates the Golden Era and was arguably quite dated, Lamborghini’s actual intentions at competing with the car on the race tracks were foggy at best and maybe more aimed as a client offering. A lightweight composite Evoluzione (evolution) prototype was built in 1987 albeit its high production costs makes it unlikely to have theoretically reached the required units for homologation.

JAGUAR

At around the same time as the others, Jaguar was also toying with the idea of producing a car especially for Group B and the high-speed World Sportscar Championship: this very special car was the XJ220.

Jaguar XJ220 Concept

The original plans for the XJ220 would make use of a V12 engine paired with four-wheel drive. However, this soon changed to using a heavily reworked version of the V64V engine from the recently launched MG Metro 6R4 Group B rally car paired with only rear-wheel drive. However, the XJ220’s development took way longer than expected at Jaguar – far overshooting into the early 1990s.

RALLY CARS ADAPTED

Another aspect to consider is that some Group B rally cars might have been suited to be modified for circuit racing. Lancia already had done something similar for Group 5 with its Beta Montecarlo model in 1979, which ended up being very closely related to the Rallye 037 Group B offering, hence a pure circuit-clad 037 wouldn’t have been a far-off idea!

Lancia Beta Montecarlo “Turbo” – Group 5 Version

This kind of circuit racing conversion did actually happen with the Ford RS200 when a few cars were imported and modified to compete in the USA’s IMSA series, featuring a modified 750 BHP “BDT-E” Cosworth Evolution engine. However, the cars unfortunately ended up being too unreliable to achieve any real success in the series.

Ford RS200 IMSA

THE NAIL IN THE COFFIN: Group B’s Infamous Ban

Even though it was not a matter of if but in fact when Group B circuit racing would eventually take off, the entire category was abolished in 1986 due to multiple unfortunate incidents that cost the lives of drivers and spectators in the World Rally Championship. Rally fans already know this part very well albeit the full story of the actual ban is highly political (click here for more details).

The charred remains of Henri Toivonen’s Lancia Delta S4

While the ban effectively killed most racing ambitions for the upcoming supercars of the time, a few manufacturers would still apply for post-ban Group B homologations of their cars. That is the case for the Lamborghini Countach QV “Downdraft” and the Ferrari F40, both produced in sufficient numbers and homologated in Group B in 1988 and 1989, respectively. Such homologations later came to be “recycled” into the new FIA “GT” categories.

Porsche decided not to apply for the official documentation papers even though the 959 would also subsequently be produced over the 200 required units. The reason probably being that Porsche saw no point in performing the tedious task of homologation since the project had already busted its budget and the category banned. However, this decision can be criticised since the 959 was the company’s flagship model widely synonymous with Group B from its very beginning. However, the Porsche 959 is credited with reviving the supercar craze alongside the Ferrari 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 using your imagination and picturing in your head a Porsche 961 battling 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… It’s certainly something to dream about!


REFERENCES

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


This page’s article (abridged / edited) was proudly featured in the May 2018 issue of Octane Magazine:

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