Group B: The Golden Age of Rallying
Group B was a set of regulations introduced in 1982 for competition vehicles in sportscar and rally racing which was regulated by the FIA. These regulations fostered the development and competition of some of the quickest, most powerful and sophisticated rally cars ever built and is commonly referred to as the golden era of rallying. However, a series of major accidents, some of them fatal, were blamed on their outright speed and lack of crowd control. After the death of Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto in the 1986 Tour de Corse, the FIA disestablished the class, which was replaced as the top-line formula by Group A. Despite (or perhaps because of?) the Group’s tragic and ignoble end, the era has acquired legendary status among rally fans.
Now, some history: Although the Audi Quattro was still in essence a Group 4 car, it carried Hannu Mikkola to the driver’s title in 1983. Lancia had designed a new car to Group B specifications, but the 037 still had rear wheel drive and was thus less consistent than the Audi over different surfaces (generally the Lancia had the upper hand on tarmac, with the Audi having an advantage on looser surfaces such as snow and gravel. thanks to its Quattro system). Nevertheless, the 037 performed well enough for Lancia to capture the manufacturers title with a rally to spare, which was generally considered more prestigious at the time. In fact, so low was Lancia’s regard for the Drivers Championship, they did not enter a single car into the season finale RAC Rally, despite the fact that driver Walter Röhrl was still in the hunt for the title. In 1984, Audi’s Stig Blomquist beat Lancia to the driver’s title, although the victory was bittersweet: Midway through the year Peugeot had joined the rallying scene with its Group B 205 16T. The T16 also had four wheel drive and was smaller and lighter than the Audi Quattro. At the wheel was the 1981 driver’s champion Ari Vatanen, with future Ferrari Formula One team manager and FIA President Jean Todt overseeing the operation. A crash prevented the T16 from winning its first rally, but it was clear that Audi’s supremacy was quickly drawing to a close.The low homologation requirements quickly attracted manufacturers to Group B. Opel replaced their production-derived Ascona with the Group B Manta 400, and Toyota built a new car based on their Celica. Like the Lancia 037, both cars were rear drive, but, while successful in national rallying in various countries, they were less so at World Championship level, although Toyota won the 1983 Ivory Coast Rally after hiring Swedish desert driving specialist Björn Waldegard.
Vatanen’s crash was a sign that Group B cars had already become dangerously quick, despite his record of crashing out while leading. Nevertheless, a number of new Group B cars entered the rallying world in 1985: Despite massive revisions to the Quattro, including a shorter wheelbase, Peugeot dominated the 1985 season, although the championship was not entirely without mishap: Vatanen plunged off the road in Argentina and was gravely injured when his seat mountings broke in the ensuing crash.
- Late in the year, Lancia replaced their outclassed 037 with the Delta S4 , which featured both a turbocharger and a supercharger for optimum power output.
- Ford returned after several years away with the RS200
- Citroen developed and entered the BX 4TC, which ultimately was too heavy and cumbersome to be successful.
- Rover created the distinctive Metro 6R4, which featured boxy bodywork and a large spoiler mounted on the front of the car.
The stage was set for 1986 to be a very exciting season. Defending champion Timo Salonen had the new Evolution 2 version of Peugeot’s T16 with ex Toyota driver, Juha Kankkunen. Audi’s new Sport Quattro S1 boasted over 600 hp (450 kW) and a huge snowplow-like front end. Lancia’s Delta S4 would be in the hands of the Finnish prodigy Henri Toivonen and Markku Alen, and Ford was ready with its high tech RS200, piloted by Stig Blomquist and Kalle Grundel.
On the “Lagoa Azul” stage of the Portuguese Rally near Sintra, however, everything began to to tragically wrong for Group B. Portuguese national champion Joachim Santos crested a rise, turning to his right to avoid a small group of spectators. This caused him to lose control of his RS200. The car veered to the right and slid off the road into the spectators. Thirty-one people were injured and three were killed. All the top teams immediately pulled out of the rally and Group B was placed in jeopardy.
The crash came a year after Lancia driver Attilio Bettega had crashed and died in his 037. While that fatality was largely blamed on the unforgiving Corsican scenery (and bad luck, as his co-driver, Maurizio Perissinot was uninjured), Toivonen and Cresto’s spectacular and tragic death, combined with the Portugal tragedy and televised accident of F1 driver Marc Surer in another RS200 which killed his co-driver, compelled the FIA to act: Group B cars were immediately banned for 1987.
Audi decided to quit Group B entirely after Corsica. Disaster struck again in early May at the Tour de Corse. Lancia’s Toivonen was a championship favorite, and once the rally got underway he was the pace setter. Seven kilometers into the 18th stage, Toivonen’s S4 flew off the unguarded edge of a tightening left hand bend and plunged down a steep wooded hillside. The car landed inverted with the fuel tanks ruptured by the impact. The combination of red hot turbocharger, Kevlar bodywork, and ruptured fuel tank ignited the car and set fire to the dry undergrowth. Only a cloud of smoke and the lack of Toivonen’s car at the finish indicated that something was very wrong. By the time rescue workers made it to the remote spot (some 30 minutes, by some accounts) all that remained of the car was a blackened frame with the bones of Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto inside. With no witnesses to the accident it was impossible to determine what caused the crash other than Toivonen had left the road at high speed. Some cite Toivonen’s ill health at the time (he reportedly was suffering from flu); others suggest mechanical failure, or it could have been quite simply the difficulty of piloting such a powerful machine, although Toivonen did have a career-long tendency of crashing out while leading rallies. Up until that stage he was taking stage win after stage win and leading the rally by a large margin with no other driver challenging him. Sadly, simply using a racing fuel cell in place of the fuel tank may have saved them.
The final days of Group B would also be controversial. The Peugeots were disqualified from the Rally San Remo by the Italian scrutineers as the ‘skirts’ around the bottom of the car were deemed to be illegal. Peugeot immediately accused the Italians of favoring the Lancias. Their case was strengthened at the next event, the RAC Rally, when the British scrutineers passed the Peugeots as legal in identical trim. FISA annulled the result of the San Remo Rally eleven days after the final round in America. As a result, the championship title was passed from Lancia’s Markku Alen to Peugeot’s Juha Kankkunen.
It is difficult to deny that the cars and the crowds were far too unregulated for driver or spectator safety, but, in spite of that, without the volatile mixture of brave drivers, wildly powerful machines, and foolhardy spectators (and photographers!) sportscar and rally racing would not have the same luster and attraction that it has today, and we would not have such glorious documentation from the “Golden Era” of rallying.
In no small way, every Scandinavian flick, every rolling shot, every auto- and rally- cross event, every J-turn on a wet parking lot, is ultimately an homage to this boisterous and fleeting era in sport.