GRR

Group B's Greatest: The Drivers – Part 1

23rd May 2016
David Evans

Thirty years after the fast, frightening and fabled era of Group B rallying came to an end, we asked David Evans to choose his 10 favourite drivers from the period. These are the first five…

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Markku Alén

A World Rally Champion in all but name. If anybody deserved the title, it was Markku Alén.

And he had it. At least, he had it for 11 days. The Finn finished the 1986 season at the top of the table, only to be demoted when the governing body scrubbed the results from the Sanremo Rally. Without that controversial win, which came following Peugeot’s exclusion from the Italian event, Alén’s tally was 14 points short of Juha Kankkunen’s.

In terms of points, that wasn’t the closest he would come to the title – he finished the 1987 season 12 down from the crown. But for Alén, 1986 was the closest he would ever come.

Three decades down the line, he’s moved on. Deep down, it still hurts.

Fortunately, he has 19 world rally wins that nobody can take away. And every one of those victories came at the wheel of something built and run out of northern Italy.

Alén signed for Fiat in 1974 and the only change between then and 1989 involved a dash across Turin from the Lingotto factory near the city’s centre to Chivasso just beyond the north-east suburbs: Fiat to Lancia. Peugeot tried to tempt him over the border – he tested a 205T16, but it wasn’t for him.

Such was Alén’s commitment to the Italians, he learned the language, embraced the Latin temperament and even mistakenly parked his Subaru Legacy RS at Lancia’s service point on his first rally with a new employer in 1990.

Despite being accepted as one of their own by the tifosi, Alén showed his true colours when it came to the 1,000 Lakes Rally. Alén was the master, be it in a 131 Abarth or a Delta of some flavour – both cars you’ll be able to see at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed.

In his backyard, he was a Finn’s Finn. In the heat of the battle, he was focused beyond belief and rarely had time for anything but the fight.

“Kiki, ask to Kiki…” was the answer to most questions, directing journalists in the direction of co-driver Ilkka Kivimäki.

Two things mark him out and lift him above some of his similarly competitive countrymen: he rarely crashed and he was lightening quick on asphalt; back-to-back Tour de Corse wins in 1983 and ’84 underlining that black-top pace.

Alén was a man made for Group B. Anybody who could light up a Delta S4 and keep it pinned down the fastest and most frightening stages in the world remains a genuine motorsport hero.

Further proof of the blend of steel and sisu from which Alén was carved comes in his response to the size of Lancia’s first Group B car, the 037. Struggling to get his six-foot-plus frame into the car, Alén ‘trimmed’ the top of his crash helmet and asked the mechanics to put a little dent in the roof above him.

So, his head was fractionally above the line of the roll cage…

“No problem, hey,” he says, “car was too small inside, but still beautiful: zero, three, seven. Fantastic car.”

And his favourite.

He adds: “When I come 1,000 Lakes in this car, I tell Kiki: ‘OK, we make new notes now. We braking 20 metres later for every corner’. Fantastic car.”

Fantastic man.

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Stig Blömqvist

There have been times when Stig Blömqvist has made his Top Gear namesake look verbose.

The real Stig’s not known as a talker. But he’s very well known as a driver.

Reckoned to be one of the sport’s most naturally gifted wheelmen, Blömqvist cut his teeth in Saabs, following in the footsteps of Sweden’s other rallying superhero, Erik Carlsson.

Blömqvist was a master of getting the most out of the V4. At best he had a shade over 150bhp to play with, which didn’t compare too favourably with the 200-plus that Ford’s Escort RS1600 had to offer.

But, if the Saab was a touch breathless on the way up hills, Blömqvist made up for it coming down the other side. The necessity to carry as much speed as possible made Stig both brave and ballsy and precise and efficient in equal measure.

Those attributes – as well as the ability to deal with understeer inherent in the front-drive 96 – served him well when his time with Saab came to an end and he found himself at the wheel of Audi’s awesome Quattro.

Another advantage Blömqvist had when Ingolstadt came calling was his experience with forced induction, having driven Saab’s 99 Turbo, the V4 replacement.

It’s fair to say the Audi wasn’t a natural fit for many drivers, such was its uniqueness when it arrived. Blömqvist, however, made it look like he’d been driving one for years when he stepped aboard in 1982. His first taste of four-wheel-drive competition came with an Audi Sport Sweden Quattro on the Swedish Rally.

Blömqvist lost two minutes with an ECU problem on the opening stage, but soon hauled himself back into second place before taking advantage of a rare Hannu Mikkola mistake to clinch a debut win. In 1982, Stig was blending his Audi outings with his existing Talbot commitments. But of the three WRC rounds he started in a Quattro, he won two and finished second on one.

In 1983, his first full year as an Audi driver, he was given a British Open as well as world programme. He won every gravel rally he started in the UK, taking the British title and ending the year on a high with Lombard RAC Rally success.

A year later and he would be on top of the world. Stig’s first and only world title was celebrated at the wheel of a Sport Quattro – much to the relief of Audi, who had struggled to make the short-wheelbase car work before that Ivory Coast win.

After a winless title defence in 1985, he moved to Ford to drive the RS200, a car that arrived just in time for the announcement of the end of Group B.

Blömqvist’s love of the sport burns just as brightly as it ever did. The passing of the years might have taken the edge off his outright speed, but victory on last year’s East African Safari at the wheel of a Porsche 911 shows he’s lost none of that ability to go quickly safely.

The victory speech in Kenya was, no doubt, as succinct as ever.

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Juha Kankkunen

On checking out from the hotel in Buenos Aires, the receptionist asked a perfectly reasonable question.

“Mr Kankkunen, did you have anything from the mini-bar last night?”

The winner of the 1993 Rally Argentina paused momentarily before smiling broadly.

“Yes,” he said. “But I think we left you the light bulb.”

Celebrations were never a problem for Juha Kankkunen. Partly because he was so used to them. At the start of his career, he won the Safari Rally at his first attempt. Such a feat was rarely heard of on any event in world rallying – but a debut victory in Kenya was fanciful in the extreme.

Kankkunen did it.

And he did it with Toyota, his first employer, in 1985. The Japanese firm’s absence of a singing-and-dancing Group B car made the decision to climb aboard Peugeot’s 205 T16 more straightforward for 1986.

His first season in the French supercar couldn’t have gone better: World Champion. Champion that is once FISA had stepped in and overruled the Sanremo organisers who had kicked the Peugeots out on trumped-up charges, helping clear the path for a Lancia victory in Italy.

How ironic then, that just a few weeks after snatching the drivers’ title from Lancia, Kankkunen would be lining up as a Delta driver.

His first event in Martini colours, the 1987 Rallye Monte-Carlo was one he wouldn’t forget. More than a minute in the lead, he was told to step aside and let Miki Biasion take the win. Given the paltry opposition in the first season of Group A, Lancia had the manufacturers’ award sewn up early and let their drivers fight for their championship. KKK won an RAC showdown against Markku Alén and became the first man ever to successfully defend his title.

But he’d had enough of the politics and went back to Toyota for 1988, his fourth change of team in as many seasons. The Celica GT-Four would go on to become a great car, but in the early days TTE struggled and Kankkunen’s frustration grew – particularly when a fire cost him the lead and a good chance of victory in Finland in 1989.

Sitting at home in the days following a miserable 1,000 Lakes, Kankkunen heard a knock at the door. He was surprised to see Lancia team manager Claudio Lombardi waiting. An Italian contingent had been dispatched to Tikkakoski in Fiat’s private jet – they were told to come back with his signature. Juha signed for three years. 

A third world title came in 1991, but 1992 was equally impressive – he finished every WRC round he started on the podium. Such a record was reflected in a sixth year of domination for Lancia in 1992. Toyota’s Ove Andersson had seen enough and asked his former driver to meet him.

“We will never win the championship if you are driving for Lancia…” said Andersson.

Kankkunen went back for a third stint in Cologne, won himself a fourth title and Toyota its first. 

Latterly, Kankkunen enjoyed success with Ford, Subaru and Hyundai in the twilight of his career. His need for speed remained, however, and he set a new record for driving on ice, when he registered an average speed of 205mph in a Bentley on the frozen Baltic Sea.

That was 2011 and the super-fast Finn wasted no time in bringing the very same Continental Supersports to Goodwood later that year.

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Hannu Mikkola

It’s late August 1985. Finland. Central Finland to be more precise. Ouninpohja to be exact.

An Audi has just completed the 24th of 50 stages and there’s a bit of a hullaballoo going on about the place. The Finn driving has just done something a bit special.

Ouninpohja’s an exquisite 15.59 miles of gravel – so good, in fact, that Colin McRae named his racehorse after this particular stretch of road.

It’s one for the big boys, a real hero maker.

In the days before supercars, 13 minutes was a very, very good run in a 131 Abarth or a growling Group 4 Escort.

The time that went up on the board in 1985? 11m35s. And it went alongside the name Hannu Mikkola – the very same Hannu Mikkola who designed the Forest Rally Stage here at Goodwood.

More than 30 years on and Mikkola has never forgotten those 11 minutes and 35 seconds. Two years earlier he’d won with a Quattro and put his successful World Championship challenge firmly on track. Fifteen years before that and he’d scored his first win the 1,000 Lakes, aged 26 and just five years after starting in the sport of rallying.

The 1983 victory was Mikkola’s seventh success on his home nation’s biggest motorsport event. He was all-time Finn gold. Nothing to prove.

But Ouninpohja was the race within the race. A Finland win was good, but a stage record down that road was special. Still is.

Mikkola still tingles at the memory. His wasn’t any old motor for the monster, it was the full Quattro E2. The one with wings, 550bhp and water injected directly onto all four brake discs in the hope of keeping them cool enough to slow the men and their missile.

“I’ll remember that stage for the rest of my life,” Mikkola says. “That was the only time in my rally career that I got the sensation I was no longer sitting in the car. It was like being outside it all. Later on, when I was explaining it, I was told fighter pilots sometimes get a similar feeling.”

Incredibly, he smashed the record in a slightly lopsided Audi.

“I’d hit some logs and broken the rear suspension in the previous stage,” he recalls. “The mechanics told me they had to fit three titanium springs and one steel one because they didn’t have enough titanium. I didn’t give a damn. With the big wings, the harder you drove the Audi, the more it pushed you into the ground – but it was very hard to find the limit.”

There certainly wasn’t much left that day.

Mikkola was a household name, had been for years courtesy of his efforts in all sorts of Escorts, but it was what he did with Audi’s Quattro that really made people understand just what a sensation he was.

Targetted by Audi in 1980 as the man they wanted to drive the car, he wasn’t convinced and only flew to Munich to appease them. He was handed the keys to a road-going Quattro and told to take it out for 20 minutes. An hour later, he still hadn’t returned.

When he did, he had but one question: “Where do I sign?”

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Michele Mouton

For a driver who had taken the most extreme of Group B cars – Audi’s Quattro E2 – down some of the most fearsome stages in the world, Michele Mouton’s memory of her toughest time in the World Rally Championship is slightly surprising.

For four years, the French lady contested just two rounds of the world championship: Rallye Monte-Carlo and the Tour de Corse. Retained by Fiat France from mid-1978, three of those round-island races were done in a 131 Abarth. She finished fifth on each occasion.

“Oh my God,” she says, shaking her head. “The 131 was really an incredible car, but when it was so hot in Corsica and you have these wide, wide slick tyres with so much grip and no powersteering. Honestly, when I finish the event, I could not put on my bracelet – my wrists were so big!”

The big performances caught the eye of Ingolstadt and she was offered an Audi contract in 1981.

It had been a long time since Pat Moss and women drivers in the World Championship were something of a novelty. It’s fair to say, it took some of Mouton’s male counterparts longer than others to get used to competing against a female.

Novelty or not, Mouton couldn’t have cared less what anybody thought. She was in the sport for one reason and one reason only: to win. And win she did, four rounds of the WRC – and she remains the only lady driver ever to have done so.

Three of those wins came in the 1982 season, when she came closer than ever to lifting the world title. Second and 12 points down on Walter Röhrl, Mouton’s year was blighted by four retirements – half a result on a couple of those and she would have worn the crown.

By the time she was wheeling a flame-spitting Group B car across the world as quickly as anybody else, her male competitors treated her exactly the same.

Rally organisers weren’t always quite so quick to catch on to Mouton’s desire not to be singled out. On one occasion, she was left a bunch of flowers on the bonnet.

She picked them up and handed them back. “Why,” she asked, “had the organisers not left flowers on everybody’s bonnet?”

Then Austin Rover driver Malcolm Wilson well remembers Mouton in full flight.

“She could be fierce,” says Wilson, “she was a total, true competitor who gave absolutely everything.”

When the end of Group B came, Mouton was ready to call time on her career as a driver. She would, however, remain fully active in the world of rallying, organising the annual Race of Champions, which grew out of the memory of Henri Toivonen.

More recently, Mouton moved back into the WRC full time as the FIA’s series manager and now as safety delegate. Not one for looking back too often, a recent recollection of driving a Quattro down a stage near Bariloche, Argentina in full snow on completely unsuitable tyres reminded one precisely how the Grasse lady earned her place.

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