GRR

Group B's Greatest: The Drivers – Part 2

01st June 2016
David Evans

Thirty years after the demise of Group B rallying, it’s these five drivers who complete David Evans’s 10 favourite drivers from that tantalising and terrifying period.

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Walter Röhrl

Malcolm Wilson’s no stranger to stars of the World Rally Championship stage. He’s seen them all. He’s had Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz on his team, and Sebastiens Loeb and Ogier against his team. He himself took on the best of the best in the shape of flying Finns Juha Kankkunen and Markku Alén.

So, after four decades at the top of the sport, who’s the one he would single out?

“Walter,” says Wilson, without the merest hint of hesitation. “He was like a computer. At times, he was totally unbeatable.”

Walter Röhrl was like a computer. He took in every ounce of information, processed it, shared it with those who could help him benefit further and then used it to deliver stage times to rock his rivals to their core.

Two rallies: Portugal, 1980 and Sanremo, 1985 bear testament.

Röhrl hadn’t won the Rally of Portugal before, but his Fiat team-mate Markku Alén had made the Estoril event his own with three wins in the proceeding years.

Typically, the weather was changeable on the event and Röhrl targeted one stage in particular for a big push: Arganil. He had driven the 42 kilometres countless times, adding ever more detail to his pace notes.

“I remember,” Röhrl says. “Preparing for that stage; I lay down on the bed in my hotel room and shut my eyes. I started the stopwatch and, in my mind, I began the drive. I listened to the notes and looked at the corners. I crossed the line and stopped the watch. The time was almost exactly what I would manage in the rally car. I was ready.”

In a stage nobody will ever forget, Röhrl delivered a hammer-blow to his rivals, taking five minutes out of everybody. He went on to win the event from Alén by 14 minutes.

Such a win is unlikely on Goodwood’s Forest Rally stage, but the sight and sound of the 131 Abarth will remain the same in June.

Five years on from his Arganil miracle and the attention to detail hasn’t changed a bit. He’s in his second season with Audi and his arrival in a four-wheel-drive Group B car’s not delivering the dominance some thought it would; the Quattro, even in its bewinged E2 form, is being bested by Peugeot.

When he first signed with Audi, Röhrl was concerned at the lack of testing. He insisted on the formation of a bespoke test team, with him somewhere near its epicentre. It’s that test team that he assembled around him for three weeks in Sanremo and Tuscany ahead of the 1985 Sanremo.

The Quattro was being readied for a straight scrap with Timo Salonen’s 205. The Finn and his French employer had lifted the season-long titles. Röhrl and Audi were in this one for pride.

No expense was spared at the test, with new parts built overnight and flown in from Germany by private plane. Steering, engine response, weight distribution and a new centre differential were at the heart of the changes.

And they worked. Oh, how they worked.

A Torsten-style centre diff finally eased the E2’s trademark understeer on asphalt, leaving Lancia scratching its head as its 037 was dropped by the five-cylinder monster on the opening Tarmac loop. Onto the Tuscan gravel and a 50:50 locked centre diff was fitted, giving the car the perfect balance.

Röhrl thrashed Salonen, taking 12 stages on the bounce on the road to Siena. Walter won by six-and-a-half minutes.

“We were incredibly motivated for that rally,” Röhrl admits. “Everything fell into place.”

The two-time world champion wasn’t wrong.

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Timo Salonen

Timo Salonen and Markku Alén were walking through Helsinki together a couple of years ago. Alén was stopped, regularly and often by fans of a certain age who recognised him. Salonen went entirely unmolested.

A mutual friend walking between the pair pulled Timo to one side as his fellow flying Finn posed for another picture.

“Don’t worry, Timo,” the friend said. “At least you have the title!”

Then as now, Salonen really didn’t look the part of a World Rally Champion.

As well as the temperament, Alén accepted all the elegance Turin and Milan had to offer – even today, he’s rarely seen without a pastel-coloured jumper over the shoulders and Ray Bans.

Salonen also wears glasses. But his help him see where he’s going. Style-wise they’re the squarer, bottle-bottom type usually associated with an overworked accountant.

Had he been driving today, it’s quite possible Salonen would have been backed by Red Bull, but he would certainly have stretched their definition of an athlete.

Marlboro backing worked a treat for Timo, who was even known to spark up in the middle of a long stage – Salonen didn’t always subscribe to the theory of his body being a temple.

But he could drive. Boy, could he drive.

A regular around the Finnish Rally Championship in the early 1970s, Salonen’s first extended WRC programme came with Team Datsun Europe in 1979 – his first for the team in New Zealand a year later at the wheel of a 160J.

Salonen remained a firm favourite with the Japanese manufacturer and regularly made more out of the agricultural Nissan 240 RS than anybody else could. The 240 RS was a bit of a brute, certainly light on luxuries, which made it a very good grounding for Salonen’s next ride: Peugeot’s 205 T16.

Come to Goodwood’s Festival of Speed in June and you’ll see for yourself just how basic cars like the 240 RS and Group B Peugeot are.

When Salonen signed for Peugeot, Ari Vatanen was flying high for the French firm. AV’s purple patch continued into early ’85 and a lesser man might have struggled to find his feet in a new team. Not Salonen. He won in Portugal and was rarely beaten for the remainder of the season. Elevated to the role of team leader following Vatanen’s horrific crash in Argentina, Salonen coped perfectly with the pressure. He was World Champion with a rally to spare.

Group A brought a move to Mazda and Mitsubishi, but nothing like the success he enjoyed at the height of his and Peugeot’s power.

It’s testament to Salonen’s astonishing natural ability as a driver that he was able to conquer the sport when it was at its most physically demanding. The cars were anything-but easy to drive (especially the 205 with it’s mid-mounted engine regularly nudging cockpit temperatures into the seventies) and the rallies went on for days on end. But through it all, Salonen coped with a fag and a drop of something to keep the cold out and the eyes open.

A superhero from another era.

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Henri Toivonen

Peugeot or Porsche? That was the choice Henri Toivonen faced for the 1984 season. In the end, he went with David Richards and the promise that a game-changing 959 was on its way.

Ultimately, the game did change, but courtesy of Peugeot rather than Porsche.

For Toivonen, 1984 would be another season of frustration.

After struggling in the face of four-wheel drive yet again, mid-way through the year, Toivonen turned to the waiting media and asked one question: “My turn, when will it come?”

Winning the 1980 RAC Rally (driving a Talbot Sunbeam Lotus of the flavour you’ll see at the Festival of Speed), he became the youngest driver ever to succeed at rallying’s highest level. And he did so with a Group 2 Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, facing down the might of any number of snarling RS1800s from Boreham.

That victory set the scene for Toivonen in the coming years, always fighting the fight from the underdog’s seat. He revelled in rallying against the odds.

When it started raining in Finland, Henri warmed to the challenge and wound an Opel Ascona 400 up to take time out of Audi’s Quattro down the sodden, central-Finnish roads.

Such speed made no sense, no sense to anybody but Toivonen.

A full-time move to Lancia brought more disappointment initially when the Delta S4 suffered delay after delay through the early part of the season. Toivonen ruled himself out of action for a couple of months when he broke his back crashing a 037 at the Costa Smeralda Rally. Forced to wear a frame around his head to make sure he couldn’t move and further damage the vertebrae, a frustrated Henri soon found being in one place a bit tedious and decided to play tennis. The doctor hadn’t told him not to play tennis…

When his moment came, he was ready and waiting. And very, very quickly he was winning. From the outside, the RAC looked like a dream debut for the new car. It was a different story on the inside as Lancia dealt with significant transmission and engine – supercharger in particular – issues to keep the new car on the road.

After almost 600 competitive miles, Toivonen arrived at the Nottingham finish exhausted but exuberant. Five years on from what should have been his breakthrough win, he really had broken through.

The WRC stood at his feet. Such opinion was reaffirmed with a fantastic Monte Carlo victory just a couple of months later, starting the 1986 season in the perfect fashion. Toivonen, Lancia and Pirelli had taken Salonen, Peugeot and Michelin to the cleaners in a splashing dash through a damp final night in the Alps.

A dropped valve ruled him out of Sweden and he joined his fellow factory drivers on the list of withdrawals following the death of three fans at the scene of Joaquim Santos’ crash in Portugal.

Then came Corsica. Toivonen was on ruthless form, even if he was feeling decidedly under the weather with the flu. He tore into a three-minute lead and appeared to have the rally in the palm of his hand when he crashed inexplicably.

Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto perished in the fire that engulfed their Lancia.

The end of Group B had begun. More pertinently, the light had been extinguished on a career surely poised to deliver silverware for years to come.

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Ari Vatanen

It’s early in the 1981 RAC Rally. Hannu Mikkola passes Ari Vatanen’s Ford Escort RS1800. It’s in a ditch. The more senior of the two flying Finns waits anxiously at the end of the stage. Much to his relief, Vatanen emerges.

“You’ll never win the world championship if you carry on like that,” Mikkola told his countryman, who needed a top-five finish to take the title.

Vatanen heard him. And, unusually for that point in his career, listened. Five days later, Ari and co-driver David Richards were World Champions.

Such a measured, sensible approach might have netted second on the RAC and a first world title, but it wasn’t exactly what the world had come to expect of Vatanen.

He was much more the hard-charging, all-or-nothing kind of driver. And it’s that that has endeared him to millions of fans the world over.

Here was a man who beat Walter Röhrl to victory on the 1985 Monte Carlo Rally by five minutes… and that was after being hit by an eight-minute timing penalty.

Ari could do things with a car that few others would even dare dream of. Talking to him about the RS1800, AV stops you in mid flow.

“Look,” he says. “Look at the hairs on my arm…”

They had indeed risen.

“The MkII Escort,” Vatanen smiles. “Was the glove on my hand.”

There will be plenty such gloves going up the hill and around the Forest Rally Stage at June’s Goodwood Festival of Speed.

After winning the 1981 title in a private Escort run by David Sutton, the car struggled against more prominent Group 4 machinery the following season, devoid of any factory Ford involvement. Vatanen moved to Opel at the end of 1982, winning the Safari in his final outing in an Ascona 400 the following season. Later in 1983, AV delivered one of the most astonishing saves ever captured on film, collecting a fifth-gear slide to tuck Terry Harryman’s side of the car in, inches before they go through a gate on the Manx.

Vatanen stories can go on forever, but it was only when he joined Peugeot that they went into fast-forward. Group B had been waiting for a driver like Ari, a driver brave enough to tackle one of these monsters head-on. Vatanen tamed Peugeot’s 205 T16 in a way few could ever dream.

He won on his third outing in the car and then won five on the bounce between 1984 and 1985: 1,000 Lakes, Sanremo, RAC, Monte Carlo and Swedish.

Vatanen’s hopes of a second world title in four years were derailed, however, by the four consecutive retirements that followed. When he reached the finish in New Zealand, 1985, he was over the moon, even if he was second to team-mate Timo Salonen.

A third-placed Röhrl pulled Vatanen to one side following the champagne in Auckland. Vatanen recalls: “Walter told me: ‘The important thing, Ari, is to finish in one piece’. He was right.”

The following month, Vatanen didn’t finish. Both he and the 205 were in pieces. On July 31, 1985 Vatanen’s 205 rolled out of Rally Argentina. His seat broke, leaving AV bouncing around the inside of the car until it came to rest.

Forgetting the crushed leg and all manner of superficial injuries, any one of a fractured cervical vertebra, crushed rib cage with eight broken ribs, punctured lung or damaged lumbar vertebrae could have killed him.

His biggest fight had begun. To be followed, more than a year later, by his biggest win. He celebrated his recovery by flying a Dakar-spec 205 through the Saharan sand dunes.

Asked to sign his autobiography, Vatanen rarely leaves just his name. It’s usually accompanied by a simple sentence: “The life in beautiful.”

He knows.

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Malcolm Wilson

Malcolm Wilson’s career is in danger of stalling. It’s the end of 1983, but he’s been here before.

Three years earlier he was knocking on the door of a regular World Rally Championship programme when his right ankle met a bridge parapet via the wheel arch of his Ford Escort RS1800 on the Scottish Rally. His leg was shattered, but he wouldn’t lie down and let the same thing happen to his hopes and dreams.

He fought back then and dug deep again in ’83. And dug deep, that is into his bank account. He found the necessary to buy an ex-Stig Blömqvist Audi Quattro A1 and set about the British Championship.

A year or so earlier, things had been looking good. He had been charged with testing Ford’s RS1700T, Boreham’s answer to the Group B question. It was around that time the world was familiarising itself with the Italian word for four: Quattro.

Stuart Turner arrived and promptly – and understandably – canned the project for being due not quattro.

So, where now for Wilson?

“It was a very big gamble,” says Malcolm. “At the time my business was really getting going and could probably have done with the investment. Or we could have used the money – the money I’d earned from driving – to safeguard the family. But I thought of this as an investment in my career. I needed to re-establish myself.”

It worked. The results were coming and interest in the Cumbrian followed. Austin Rover boss John Davenport pestered him and Ford’s Turner joined the queue.

It was Ford. Had to be, Wilson had been a Ford man pretty much his whole career. He started working on the RS200 – and, in a nod to a life after driving, sold his A1 for the same money he’d paid for it. 

But Davenport wouldn’t give in. Wilson had two contracts on the table, one with Ford and one with Austin Rover. In the end, he went with the 6R4 – ARG offered slightly more events and, of course, the car was good to go. So good, in fact, that Davenport offered Wilson a seat for the 1985 RAC.

The times were in the ballpark on his debut in the team and the car’s debut in the World Championship. Then the engine failed in Dyfi.

The following season didn’t quite pan out as planned. Early doors, he wasn’t overly concerned at the issues that stopped him getting to the end of rallies. This was year one, the learning year. And there were definite highlights on and off the stage; being within earshot of Jean Todt when he heard the Frenchman asking for more detail about “This Malcolm Wilson…” was a real shot in the arm for the Cumbrian.

But then everything went south. Years two and three of Wilson’s Group B dream went down the drain with the rest of the fated formula.

Wilson was left, along with the rest of the service park, to hastily put something together for the following year. He was taken on by GM Euro Sport, but a front-drive Astra GTE (even in 16-valve form…) was no match for the barking V6 that had followed Wilson everywhere 12 months earlier.

A podium on the 1989 Rally New Zealand was the highlight for the Wilson-GM partnership. He returned to Ford in 1990 to develop the Ford Sierra RS Cosworth 4x4.

The Sierra became the Escort and Wilson finally lifted his British title in 1994. The world, however, would have to wait until he was the boss – when he won back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007.  

Ford’s complete rally history will be on show in some shape or form at June’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, ranging from the early 1970s RS1600s to the latest, greatest and quickest Fiestas coming out of M-Sport.

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