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Group B: the Golden Era of Rally too bright for this world

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

Rallying is a unique form of motorsports. There is very little wheel to wheel action, and the drivers have to be able to perform mechanical repairs to the cars they race. It is a unique motorsport where the drivers have to face the challenges of driving extremely fast over extremely loose surfaces on roads not much wider than their cars. The modern day rally cars are very impressive, capable of hitting speeds in excess of 160 mph on dirt, with the safety regulations being unbelievably strict, possibly more so than in any other form of motorsport. But what if you took away those safety regulations? What happens when the regulations for rally cars are only to make them fast, without any limits on drivetrain configuration, power, engine size and shape? Believe it or not, this was actually tried back in the 80s, and it was considered the golden era of rally, yet its legacy is marred by fatal accidents and the death of one of the greatest rally drivers to have ever lived. I am of course speaking about the infamous Group B, a time when rally cars were boosted beyond belief, and where triumph too often flirted with tragedy.

Rules and regulations

This is what made Group B so unique. The regulations were minimal, with no major safety requirements. The rules stated that weight be kept as low as possible in all cars, with the bare minimum of safety features. Other than that, there were no limits on engine size, layout, displacement, drivetrain, materials, hell, you could put whatever you wanted in the cars and it would still be legal, that is how damn free the regulations were. Even the homologation rules were lenient, with only 200 road cars needed to be built and, should the rally car receive a major update, only 20 new road cars needed to be made reflecting that update. The only real limits were to respect a minimum weight calculated by engine displacement and a maximum tyre width also calculated by engine displacement. But they were only minor inconveniences, and they did nothing to limit car design at all. This was the point of Group B, manufacturers were free to explore and design the car however they damn well wanted to for any performance gains they thought was there. This was beautiful in a chaotic way, with teams chasing design philosophies so different that each car had its own unique quirks and needed a different driving style to get the best out of them. Group B was very different from everything else, even other groups of the WRC, but one thing that was the same in all WRC events was the tracks. Yea I am now gonna talk about the dirt tracks these cars rocketed down, not the cars. They come later as I need time to prepare you for them.

The courses and how the events work

As I am sure you are aware, Rally racing is held on a mixture of public roads, dirt tracks, snow tracks and jungle roads depending on the country the race is held in. This makes it very different to other forms of motorsports because of fairly obvious reasons. One other issue I think people forget is that because of the nature of the courses, you cannot have 2 cars side by side, it is far too risky and dangerous for everyone. This means the events are held and organised in a completely different manner to all other motorsports, which should hopefully make sense after this next paragraph.

Technically there are 2 different forms of rallying, road and stage rallies, but I will focus on stage rallies as they are more relevant to Group B and they are more professional. The stages are divided into 2 different types of stages: Special and transport stages. Special stages are where the competition lies in rallying. These are timed stages that are up to about 50km(~31 miles) in length. The drivers have to go through these stages as fast as they can without crashing. The rules state that should a car suffer structural damage in a stage, it is to be immediately retired. However, drivers are allowed to perform minor repairs to the cars course side (should they crash) that allows them to continue and finish the stage or until a checkpoint, where teams will be waiting and can repair the car however much they can within the given time period. The other type of stage that I mentioned is the transport stage. These are stages where the cars must go to the next special stage under their own power in a given time. Should the drivers complete the stage too fast or too slow, they will receive time penalties. Yes, the drivers can be penalised for going too fast, but that is because the transport stages are stages where the speed limit on that particular road is applied, meaning that rally cars are probably the only race cars in the world that are capable of driving at normal speeds as well as the very fast race car speeds. That is no small feat, and makes the cars all impressive feats of engineering. But before we talk about the cars, we need to talk more about the rally tracks.

The way a rally is held is that 100s if not thousands of kms of public roads are closed for a couple of days for the cars. Each rally is different, classified by the most common type of road surface the drivers will face. There are some broad categories like tarmac, gravel, and snow, with each one playing to the advantages of different cars and drivetrains. For example, the Tour de Course, held on the island of Corsica is considered a tarmac rally because almost all the stages are held on tarmac roads. This favours the cars that have a RWD (rear-wheel drive) drivetrain, as they are light and agile, especially when compared to FWDs and 4WDs (FWD = front wheel drive & 4WD = 4 wheel drive) The drivetrain setup refers to which wheels on the car the power and torque of the engine is sent, just so you are aware. A snow and ice rally like the Swedish Rally would favour the cars with a 4WD drivetrain because of the low grip conditions. Each rally is unique and the cars and drivers are challenged in unique ways, with the balance of power shifting from rally to rally. Every car could be

ridiculously fast in one rally and horribly slow in another depending on a multitude of factors like surface, drivetrain and body style to name but a few. Speaking about the cars... yea I have put this off for long enough, its time we spoke about the legendary Group B rally cars.

The cars; The Killer B's

I have already mentioned the wild variation in design of the cars, to the point that I cannot actually talk about them generically. So what I am going to do (rather painfully) is talk about each car major manufacturers in Group B ran in the final year of the class, and talk about the changes in design philosophy or the design philosophy in general. I will only talk about the cars that contested all the rallies in at least one season. This means I will omit brands like Mazda and Opel because they didn't contest all Group B rallies in one season, ever. But regardless, brace yourselves, there were still a lot of Group B cars. But keep in mind that these were all death traps, to the point that they received the nickname Killer B's.

Audi and the Legendary Quattro S1 E2

This is honestly a car that doesn't need an introduction. Its one of the most iconic and influential cars of the 80s, to the point that Audi still uses an updated version of the car's innovative Quattro 4 wheel drive system to this day! The S1 E2 retained the front-engined, 4WD layout of all it's predecessors, but featured minor updates to the 2.1L 5-cylinder turbo up front to produce around 500-600 horsepower, giving the car a 0 - 60 time of 3.1 seconds. It also featured a redesigned front and rear wing to increase downforce over the S1 Quattro. But in truth, the car was starting to get a little old, and therefore fundamentally limited in performance.

Peugeot's fiesty little 205 Turbo 16 E2

This was a great little hatchback, with a unique design that very few teams implemented well. This was also 4WD like the Audi, but where it differed was the engine type and the placement of the engine. While the Audi had a 5-cylinder turbo engine up front, the 205 had a rear mounted 4-cylinder turbo, producing around 400-500 horsepower. While yes, this was less than the Audi, the Peugeot was much lighter thanks to it's being a hatchback and therefore much more agile, allowing it to be the most competitive car on the field under the leadership of Jean Todt. Yes, the same Todt who led Ferrari's domination of F1 in the early 2000s. On a personal note, I also think the 205 Turbo 16 looked a hell of a lot better than the Quattro S1 E2, as it looks less crowded and more organised design wise.

Ford's brilliant but unsuccessful RS200

This is a very iconic but sadly unsuccessful car. Another car from the legendary Ford-Cosworth partnership, the 1.8L Inline-4 turbocharged BDT engine produced ~450 hp and a beautiful noise. While certainly fast, the RS200 suffered from a poor power-to-weight ratio and low rpm turbo lag. Turbo lag is where the exhaust pressure in the turbocharger is insufficient to spin the turbine inside it fast enough and create the extra power. This manifests itself as a gap between putting your foot down and the car accelerating. This, combined with the bad power-to-weight ratio of the RS200 made it rather uncompetitive despite having everything else needed to make it seriously competitive. It took a lot of time and development for the car to be competitive in non-FISA sanctioned events and well after the end of Group B.

Citroën's good looking but uncompetitive BX 4TC

This was actually a very good looking car in my opinion, but it suffered a multitude of problems rendering it laughably slow in Group B. Firstly, it was rather heavy by Group B standards, and not as powerful as it could be. While the 2.1L inline-4 turbocharged 380hp engine doesn't sound bad, the Citroën 4TC had a bad power-to weight ratio due to the steel body and the 4WD system. Most other teams were using high-tech materials like kevlar and carbon fibre for the bodywork, and therefore all the other cars were MUCH lighter than the 4TC. But I think that if the 4TC had bodywork more similar to the rest of the Group B field, it could have been competitive. However, the car couldn't be developed properly before Group B was banned, and it never finished higher than 6th.

MG's box called the Metro 6R4

This is one of the most iconic cars of its era. Its square body and crazy handling are now legendary in the world of rally and truly one of a kind. What is unique about this car is that it was rear-engined, making it more prone to oversteer, which became a trademark characteristic of the car. I think one reason it was so great was that is was developed with the aid of Williams Grand Prix Engineering, the parent company of the Williams F1 team that was so successful in the 80s. One final thing I wanna mention: it was using a naturally aspirated 3L V6 that made 400+ hp. It was immune to the problems inherent to turbochargers while producing comparable(ish) amounts of power. The main problem this car faced was the engine actually, which suffered teething issues and basically meant the car rarely finished.

Toyota's surprisingly competitive Celica TCT

I genuinely have no damn clue how this car won races. It was a 4WD 1.8L turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine that made only 320 hp. It didnt have a lot of power by Group B standards and the car was fairly big and looked pretty heavy. Yet this thing won the Rallye Cote d'Ivoire and the Marlboro Safari Rally 3 times, both gravel and notoriously harsh on the cars. I suppose that means the Toyota was basically indestructible, but that still doesn't explain how it beat AUDIs and PEUGEOTs. It really is an incredible car, and hats off to Toyota for making it.

Lancia's beautiful and legendary Delta S4

I saved my favourite for last. The Delta S4 is widely regarded as one of the greatest rally cars in history, and with good reason. It was very competitive, beautiful and technologically advanced. This car's engine was very different from everything else, and really took advantage of the very unrestrictive rules of Group B. It was a 1.8L inline 4-cylinder engine which doesn't sound too impressive at first. But what made this engine so unique was the unique aspiration, known as twin-charging. This isn't twin-turbocharged, it is twin-charged. This is where the engine has both a supercharger and a turbocharger attached to it. Superchargers work by force-feeding the engine air to produce more power. They improve the power of the engine at low rpms, but don't increase the high rpm power all that much. Compare that to a turbocharger which force-feeds the engine high pressure air and increases the high rpm power significantly but only slightly increases the low rpm power. They both do the same thing, but the effects are different because of the way they do it. Turbos take their power from the exhaust gases to drive a turbine which feeds the engine high pressure air, whereas superchargers are driven by the crankshaft, in this case by a belt. All of this meant that the power and torque the engine delivered was massively improved across the entire rev range, greatly improving performance.

The system exploited the advantages of both the turbocharger and the supercharger and also mitigated their weaknesses. At lower revs, the supercharger was top dog, increasing power and torque while the turbo spooled up. At higher rpms, the turbo had fully spooled up and took over from the supercharger, and produced lots more power and torque than normal. This completely eliminated turbo lag and gave the 1.8L engine 500 hp in the lowest tune. In fact, the engine was rumoured to produce over 750 hp in some tunes! This mid mounted engine, coupled with the Delta S4's 4WD system, meant it was capable of doing 0-60mph in 2.5 seconds. On gravel. In 1986. I don't think I need to explain why that is crazy right? This car was amazing, and possibly the fastest car ever in Group B. But this car is also the reason why Group B died, as it was involved in one of the darkest moments of the WRC's history. I suppose now is a good time to talk about Group B's short but legendary history.

A tragic backstory

I gave you the entire premise of Group B, a near lawless class of rally cars that was technically introduced in 1982, but wasn't really official till 1983. It was the new top class of rallying, dethroning Group A and setting the stage for truly remarkable feats of driving. Group A was extremely strict on engine size, power output, weight and many more things about the cars that all manufacturers were able to do was modify their production cars for rallying. They had to build 2500 road variants of the rally car and if the rally car was slightly modified, 2500 more new road models had to be made to reflect that. Those rules are very restrictive, and it took a while before teams saw just how limitless Group B's evolutionary potential was. Once that happened, it opened the floodgates for all hell to break loose.

1983 was the first year cars were officially entered in Group B. Audi did little to change the Quattro from its Group 4 set up, and they still won the driver's championship that year. Lancia created a purpose built rear-wheel drive car called the 037, and they used many tricks to win the constructors championship that year, and created one hell of an underdog story.

1984 saw new additions to the class, with brands like Toyota and Opel entering with RWD cars. But the most important manufacturer that entered in 1984 was Peugeot and the 205. This car entered halfway through the 84 season, but the writing on the wall was clear right from the off, as the Audis struggled to keep up with the Peugeots. Audi still won both titles, with Lancia finishing in a close second in the 037, but Peugeot was only about 50 points behind despite not contesting the full season. More importantly, Peugeots won 3 of the last 4 races, showing just how damn fast the car was.

1985 was peak Group B madness. Peugeot dominated the season, but all the other legendary Group B cars started to appear here. The Audi received a lot of aerodynamic and powertrain upgrades to give it over 500hp and the giant goddamn snowplough at the front. Lancia eventually replaced the outclassed 037 with the Delta S4, and MG entered the boxy Metro 6R4. These cars all became iconic very quickly due to the craziness of Group B and the time period honestly. Everything that made Group B great was exemplified in 1985, and we saw cars with different engines, powertrains and design philosophies and technology compete on the same stages and dirt roads. It was a beautiful scene for all and was truly the golden era of rallying. It was slightly marred by the death of Attilio Bettega, but that was blamed mostly on the unforgiving Corsican scenery and bad luck as his co-driver was uninjured. While the death did dim the halo around Group B a little, 1985 was undoubtedly the single brightest year of Group B. But, as Icarus discovered, if you fly too close to the sun, your wings melt and you fall to your death. Group B's fate was no different; they flew amazingly high in 1985, which made their 1986 fall hurt that much more.

1986 was dark, because in just 2 short months, the class of Group B was killed. 2 fatal accidents in 2 rallies was the death knell for not only Group B, but one of rally racing's brightest stars. The year was set to be a drag out fight between Lancia's Delta S4 and the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 E2. The Lancias were the favourite for the title by the first round due to the domination of the rally by Henri Toivonen. He was a rising star, always getting faster. In fact, his speeds was rising to such an absurd degree, it was only a matter of time before something went wrong. He'll be back later.

For now, we move to the Rallye de Portugal, where the national driver was involved in one of the sport's darkest moments. Joaquim Santos was driving his Ford-Cosworth RS200 in the Lagoa Azul stage when he lost control after cresting a hill. I should mention that there were no barriers so fans flooded the tracks in front of the drivers. Santos swerved to avoid some of those fans but the swerve sent him into a larger crowd. He couldn't control the car and 31 people were injured with 3 dead. This lead to all the biggest teams withdrawing, with the race not being contested by any of the Group B teams, so it was won by a Group 3-spec Renault 5 Turbo. This tragedy caused the FISA some major concern and they immediately began writing rules for a safer version of Group B called Group S, which limited the maximum power to about 300hp. But another tragedy forced them to scrap both Group S and B, and end rallying's golden era. At the Tour de Corse in France, Henri Toivonen was leading the pack by a ridiculous amount when he got ready for the 18th stage. The timer gave him the go ahead, and the Delta S4 blasted off, hitting 60mph in 2.4 seconds on the tarmac surface.

But 7km into the stage, the Martini-branded Delta S4 flew off the unguarded left turn and crashed into the trees below. The Lancia team began to get nervous when he didn't get to the end of the stage on schedule. It was only when some fans and the drivers who went after Toivonen reported a huge plume of smoke did people start to panic. By the time the rescuers arrived, almost a 1/2 hour after the crash, they only pulled the charred space frame of the Delta from the wreckage. Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto both burned to death in their seats, Toivonen left behind a wife and 2 children. Cresto was single. To this day, nobody knows the reason why Toivonen crashed. Some suspect that he missed his braking point, but the lack of skid marks on the road suggests otherwise. What many drivers suspect is that he blacked out. He had been suffering from the flu, as confirmed by Walter Röhrl, and a previous accident had caused Toivonen to have random blackouts according to fellow driver Malcolm Wilson. Could Toivonen have backed out behind the wheel? Maybe, but it is impossible to say. While camera footage does exist, Lancia themselves stated they couldn't tell what caused the crash based on the footage. Regardless, this is probably the single darkest moment in WRC history, and his death killed Group B and Group S. FISA decided that the speeds the cars in the 2 groups could achieve was too high, and banned both classes from competing beyond the 1986 season. Teams were outraged, and Jean Todt, Peugeot's team principal, took legal action against FISA, but it amounted to nothing. The rest of the season was a fight between Lancia and Peugeot, with the latter coming out victorious. But in truth, the 1986 season never outgrew the death of Toivonen and Cresto. Group B flew too close to the sun, and it plummeted into the sea, never to rise again.

The poor handling of the class

FISA handled this very poorly. While the fans loved the speed of the Group B cars, it was evident the teams, drivers and even the commentators didn't. Drivers regularly complained about the cars being so quick that by the final years of the class, they just couldn't process the information fast enough, and they were often exalted by the end of the rally. Teams even had psychologists on retainer. The reason was the fans. They had a game where in the fans would see if they could touch the cars as they wizzed by. Horrifyingly, team mechanics found things like severed fingers inside the cars when they worked on them, and suffered some serious trauma, resulting in teams having psychologists on retainer. There were no barriers between the tracks and the fans, so the drivers would have to go at top speed through hordes of fans, hoping they would get out of the way in time. It was horrifying for the drivers and commentators, who regularly spoke out against the class on live TV, yet FISA did nothing. They turned a blind eye to all of the complaints levelled at the class until Santos' and Toivonen's crash.

After Toivonen's death, FISA received severe criticism for their almost instinctual reaction to the crash, and the poor decisions they made. The problem was the cars, yes, but FISA's rulebook clearly stated that there were no restrictions on the materials that could be used to make the cars. This meant that FISA allowed the cars to be made of fast-burning kevlar and carbon fibre, and then they acted shocked when it resulted in something fatal. Look, any smart person would have done their research before making crazy rules like Group B. FISA should have expected these dangerous cars to come about after a couple of years of unrestricted development, and maybe put a stop to it before it could ever happen. But no, they decided to turn a blind eye until it the worst possible outcome happened. And then they banned the class.

The backlash they received for banning both Group B and Group S was severe, and even resulted Peugeot team boss Jean Todt taking legal action against FISA. It didn't amount to anything however, and the classes remained outlawed after the 1986 season. I honestly cannot blame Todt for pursuing that action, as teams had spent millions developing these cars, and then to have it amount to nothing so suddenly must have hurt.

Overall, FISA managed Group B pretty pathetically to be honest. They turned a blind eye to the dangers until the worst happened and then they reacted in a way that no-body liked. But now, there are more level heads in charge of the FIA (evolved FISA), so could Group B rise from its ashes?

Could Group B exist in the modern WRC world?

I don't think so. Group B just doesn't work in principle with the modern world. Group B is a product of the time, a time when motorsports was less concerned with safety, and caution was almost always thrown to the wind. Motorsports in the 80s were all dangerous, and Group B fit right in, both conceptually and practically. It is a child of the 80s, and I think we should keep it there.

In modern times, there is a HUGE emphasis on safety. And I am writing this after Romain Grosjean's horrifying inferno at the 2020 Bahrain GP. This is the scariest crash in recent memory, as you can see how his car split in 2 and caught fire.

While this crash may have influenced my opinion a little, I don't think the crash changed it that much, because modern motorsports have the number one priority as safety, something Group B flies in the face of. Group B was not about safety... at all honestly. The rules were so unrestrictive that engineers went berserk. When they go berserk, you get fast, but not safe. There is no way around it.

And honestly, I don't think Group B should exist in the modern world. I don't want to put drivers in death traps and then tell them go on some of the most dangerous roads in the world at high speeds. I can't do that in good conscience, because I am asking the drivers to take unthinkable risks. Sports do have an element of risk involved, yes, but I'm not comfortable asking drivers to take the risk of dying to entertain me.

Group B was great, a time of pure ecstasy for all rally fans, watching drivers and cars pushed to superhuman levels. This truly was the Golden Era of rallying, a time when drivers defied death on the regular, and the cars were true rallying monsters. They pushed beyond the limits of technology through dangerous jungle roads, snowy mountains and the deserts of the world. But the viewers at home had no idea that they were drinking fine wine from a poisoned chalice. The very speed and danger that made Group B so glorious, the core of the appeal of Group B, was the very reason it died so quickly.

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