GRR

Group B: Rallying's Fast And Fearsome Formula

11th May 2016
David Evans

Markku Alén chuckles at the memory. The madness. He’s gone back three decades. It’s 1986 again and he’s sitting in a chattering, chirruping Martini-striped Lancia. The Delta. S4.

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“That car,” smiles the Finn, “that wasn’t a car. That was a rocket.”

Group B.

Just say it, Group B. It’s special. Thirty years on, the combination of one word and one letter still sends us weak at the knees.

Group B really was that good. Don’t just take my word for it, come along to the Goodwood Festival of Speed in June, collect your own evidence. The verdict won’t change.

Sure, the modern day equivalent World Rally Cars are faster (and not just by a bit, by a good couple of seconds per mile – more in the twisty stuff), but today’s WRC machinery just doesn’t have the same charisma. And nothing like the drama. Good and bad.

Four years truly define Group B, from 1983 to 1986. The class was actually in use in 1982, when it ran alongside Group 4, the preceding category that was being phased out by the sport’s governing body.

The change of rules really changed the game for the manufacturers. By the end of Group 4, car firms had to build 400 examples to satisfy homologation. These were the days of tuned production cars, only Lancia made the bold move of producing a one-off Group 4 special. Remember the Stratos?

New rules dictated the delivery of 200 cars, marginally more easy to justify to the Board. It was no surprise that Lancia led the way again, with the first Group B car: the all-Turinese 037.

Lancia’s new motor was flawed. Yes, this lightweight, supercharged racer won six times at world level and was good enough to land the Italians a manufacturers’ title in 1983, but the lack of drive to the front wheels left it impotent against supercar opposition.

And that opposition started in Ingolstadt in the late 1970s. Audi eased its way onto rallying’s world stage almost unnoticed in 1979. And why would anybody notice an ignominious, front-wheel-drive Group 2 Audi 80 developing around 150bhp? Audi was gathering competition experience.

Nobody was any the wiser when Audi competitions manager Jurgen Stockmar asked a manufacturers’ meeting if there were any objections to four-wheel-drive cars being permitted into the World Championship? That was September, 1979.

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Slightly bemused, the other manufacturers raised eyebrows, but no objections. The assumption was that this had something to do with Audi using its Iltis military vehicle on the Paris-Dakar rally (where they finished one-two four months later).

The 1980 Geneva motorshow gave the game away when the Quattro was officially launched. That October Hannu Mikkola drove a Quattro as a course car on the Algarve Rally in Portugal. Had he been competing, he would have won 24 from 30 stages. Antonio Zanini’s Ford Escort RS1800, would have been more than half an hour down on the Finn.

Rallying’s first true supercar was born.

Lancia knew immediately it was on the wrong road, Ford canned its rear-drive RS1700T. Four-wheel-drive was the only way forward.

The revolution didn’t come without its teething troubles. Audi took the makes title in 1982, by which time the car was becoming a dependable and regular winner on gravel. Mikkola and Stig Blömqvist underlined the car’s ability with back-to-back drivers’ crowns in 1983 and ’84.

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By which time Audi’s game was well and truly up. Peugeot stepped in to raise the bar, mid-mounting a 1775cc complete with a whopping turbo. Once Ari Vatanen gave the 205 T16 its maiden victory at the 1984 1,000 Lakes, Audi would only win two more rounds of the world championship.

The French dominated the second half of Group B’s four years, taking all four titles in 1985 and ’86. Having been blindsided early doors, Lancia and Ford caught up with the Delta S4 and RS200 respectively. Lancia challenged in 1986 and the Blue Oval would undoubtedly have found its feet and got them under the table with time.

Essex wasn’t the only birthplace for a British Group B car, with Austin Rover developing the MG Metro 6R4. Arguably the best-sounding supercar, courtesy of its naturally-aspirated three-litre engine, the visually stunning ARG machine would never better Tony Pond’s debut podium third place on the 1985 RAC Rally.

That RAC Rally was better remembered for Henri Toivonen’s win in the S4, also the Lancia’s first world championship outing. Those who witnessed five days’ commitment up and down Britain would never forget what they’d seen.

The drivers were, however, growing increasingly uneasy. An exhausted Toivonen talked of the need for rule change; day and night on the limit through corners at speeds quicker than a Formula 1 car wasn’t sensible.

But it was astonishingly popular. Group B had caught the public’s imagination and more and more fans lined the roads.

The 1985 Monte Carlo Rally had served notice of the potential consequences, when Vatanen’s 205 slid into a crowd near St Bonnet le Froid. A broken leg was the worst injury, but the sport was lucky. The same couldn’t be said 14 months later, when Joaquim Santos lost control of his RS200 in Portugal. Four died.

When the series reached Corsica in May 1986, Lancia paused to remember Attilio Bettega, its driver who had died on that event 12 months earlier. A couple of days later, tragedy revisited the team when Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto crashed out of the lead and perished in the fire that engulfed their Delta.

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FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre called a press conference on the final day of the Tour de Corse to announce the end of Group B.

The cars had grown too fast, the rallies too long, the stakes too high. With not untypical haste, Balestre made his judgement.

From January 1987, the world championship was for Group A cars – back to standard production vehicles with less than 300bhp. To call these things tame by comparison, certainly in that first season, was an understatement.

And it’s that night-and-day difference which adds to the aura of Group B. It was special. Very special.

“Don’t forget, hey,” says Alen, “we were sitting on the fuel tanks... Group B, hey, crazy days.”

Crazy days indeed.

  • WRC

  • FoS

  • FoS 2016

  • Group B

  • Lancia

  • 037

  • Delta

  • Audi

  • Quattro

  • Peugeot

  • 205

  • Ford

  • RS200

  • 2016

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