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 “silhouette” Group 5 racers. However, it is not quite clear why FISA Group B circuit racing never really took off. This mystery will be largely debunked here.


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GROUP 5: The Silhouette Formula

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. These cars were wild, fast, and highly popular with the fans. Most will remember the exploits of the Porsche 935. As such, Group 5 was a formula very similar to its Group B successor but aimed strictly at circuit racing.


GROUP B: How it Cursed Silhouette Circuit Racing

In 1983, Group 5 was officially replaced by Group B: now bringing the same wild liberties to the world of rallying. It is widely known how these new regulations propelled rallying into a fan craze which brought its popularity to a level exceeding Formula 1. However, Group B unfortunately seriously jinxed its equivalent in circuit racing.

The main reason for this immediate fall from grace was that the new homologation rules for Group B competition required 200 road cars to be produced in a 12 month period – cars that had to share most of their homologation features with the racing “evolution” model; engine, aspiration, drivetrain layout, etc. In contrast, Group 5 racing cars were allowed to freely compete while their mostly pedestrian counterparts were sold in the showrooms. In Group B, such brutal homologation machines would make no financial sense for manufacturers to attempt selling them as road cars.

After 1982, the only category which did not require direct 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 upshift towards pure prototypes while homologation circuit racing based on road cars downshifted towards the cheaper to run, yet very competitive, Group A touring car series.


SUPERCARS: A Glimmer of Hope

After Group B’s official debut in 1983, some “exotic” car manufacturers did however saw the humble production numbers required for Group B homologation as a perfect opportunity to market low-volume and high-end sports cars to potential customers.

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, 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.

The Evoluzione 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, therefore cutting in half the power to weight ratio of the road car – a feat in every aspect.

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 of any kind, but it would serve as a direct test bed to develop the now legendary Ferrari F40:

1987-ferrari-f40
1987 Ferrari F40

PORSCHE

Porsche, the famous German sports car maker from Stuttgart, was also working on its own Group B contender 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 glory days.

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. 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 victory is often considered as the first “Group B circuit win” since the 961 evidently was an evolution version of the 959.

LAMBORGHINI

Lamborghini, the well established exotic car maker, produced a special version of their venerable Countach specifically for Group B homologation: better known as the “Downdraft” version.

1986 Lamborghini Countach 5000 QV “Downdraft”

Lamborghini’s actual intentions at competing with the car on the race tracks were unclear, albeit an Evoluzione prototype was built in 1987.

JAGUAR

At around the same time as the others, Jaguar was also toying with the idea of producing a car especially for Group B circuit racing. This very special car ended up being the Jaguar XJ220.

1988 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 the V64V engine from the recently launched MG Metro 6R4 Group B rally car, albeit twin-turbocharged and with only rear wheel drive. However, its development took way longer than expected.

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 with its Beta Montecarlo model in 1979, which ended up being very closely related to the Rallye 037 Group B offering – hence a circuit-clad 037 isn’t quite a far-off idea!

Lancia Beta Montecarlo “Turbo” – Group 5 Version

This circuit racing conversion did actually happen with the Ford RS200. A few were imported and modified to compete in the USA’s IMSA series, featuring a 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 if many clues pointed to Group B circuit racing eventually taking off thanks to the then 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 albeit the full story of the actual ban is highly political (click here for more details).

While the ban effectively killed most racing ambitions for the 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 “Downdraft”, homologated in 1988, and for the Ferrari F40, homologated in 1989; both models produced in sufficient numbers. These 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 cost too much money 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 re-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. Or 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… It’s certainly something to dream about.

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


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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