Tom Richards is back with the first in a new series of ‘ill informed histories’. First up, the brilliant Group B rallying. Don’t forget to follow Tom on Twitter at @teorichards.
A distant hum, the sound of an angry swarm of bees fast approaching. The crowds lining the road turn their heads at first, then push forward as they realise what’s coming. The crackle of an exhaust on overrun, followed immediately by a pumped-up, testosterone-fuelled metal leviathan screaming around the corner, spitting flames, stone chips and violent, loud waves of sound into the baying audience.
Yes, it could only be rallying, and never was it more exciting than during the 1982-86 Group B era, a period in the World Rally Championship’s history which was marked by excessive speeds, ever more exotic silhouettes, and, crucially, four-wheel drive.
In 1979, the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) took the decision to allow all-wheel drive in rallying for the first time, but – to their immediate detriment – many teams considered this new-fangled technology too heavy and complex to be used successfully.
Audi, however, went and launched the Ur-quattro in 1980, and instantly changed the whole landscape of rallying. Using the Ur-quattro as course opening vehicle, with Hannu Mikkola at the wheel, the vastly improved traction showed four-wheel drive for what it really was – both a revelation and a revolution. Had the Ur-quattro been entered into the rally as a competitor, it would have won by a faintly astonishing nine minutes.
When the quattro entered (and won) the 1980 Janner rally in Austria, it was all but blindingly obvious to the rest of the competition – two-wheel drive was now old news.
Group B rules came in to replace the popular Group 4 and Group 5 regulations, and, along with four-wheel drive, allowed fewer restrictions on technology, design and the number of cars required for homologation to compete. Manufacturers only had to stump up 200 production cars, far less than any other series, and ‘evolution’ was allowed, as long as constructors could make another 20 production models to match.
Cars became more and more outlandish as time went on, as weight got lower and power got higher. And then higher a bit more. All restrictions on boost were removed, effectively allowing unlimited power, while four-wheel drive helped put that power down far better than ever before.
Audi was tipped to win the constructors’ championship in 1982, the first full year of the Group B regulations, and duly met expectations (although Walter Röhrl, driving for Opel, took the drivers’ crown that year). But the Ur-quattro soon became uncompetitive – poor reliability, a challenging drive, and its old-fashioned front-engine, monocoque chassis layout left the door open for the Lancia 037 Monte Carlo to take the 1983 constructors’ title. A blip in Group B’s history due to its lack of four-wheel drive.
Peugeot got stuck in to the new rulebook better than anyone, however, and came up with the 205 T16, which had almost nothing in common with the homologated road-going version. Mid-engined, four-wheel drive, and a space-frame construction left the Peugeot lighter, more balanced and ever more powerful than the competition.
An evolution of the Ur-quattro, the Audi A2 (not the eminently sensible Kamm-back hatch from 1999…) may have taken the title in 1984, but the Peugeot dominated the last two years of Group B.
By 1985, Group B was running at full tilt. Lancia was back with its new Delta S4, which came with a supercharger and a turbocharger, Ford entered the fray with its RS200, Audi appeared with its S1 quattro, an evolution on the Sport quattro from 1984, and Peugeot introduced the 205 T16 Evolution 2. Even Austin-Rover wanted a slice of the action, launching its rather barmy (if uncompetitive) Metro 6R4.
And they all had plenty of things in common. Power was often in excess of 500bhp, four-wheel drive was a must, and they all needed enormous wings, comprehensive aerodynamic kits and other downforce addenda just to keep them on the not-so-straight and little-too-narrow. Short wheelbases made these things diabolically difficult to drive, but oh-so-special to watch.
It was only a matter of time before this absolute power corrupted absolutely, however. The pace of technological advancement was truly breathtaking, as cars became ever faster, louder and more sideways. But the costs associated with competing and the excessive levels of performance spiralled. Rallying is always going to be a dangerous sport, but tragedy hit the 1986 Rally Portugal in March.
A Ford RS200 lost control on a heavily-populated section of a spectator stage, narrowly missing the rampant crowd on the inside bend, before careening off the outside of the bend. Three spectators were killed, another 30 were injured, and every works team pulled out of the rally with concerns both for their safety and the audience’s.
Two months later, at the Tour de Corse rally, Lancia’s top driver, Henri Toivonen, had complained that cars were too powerful for this particular rally. With no witnesses later that weekend, Toivonen’s Delta S4 left the road on a tarmac stage, sliding down a rocky, tree-lined hillside, and eventually catching fire. Both Toivonen and navigator, Sergio Cresto, were killed, and the decision to ban Group B was taken hours later, meaning the 1987 season never happened. The proposed plans for Group S regulations, which would have introduced a whole new level of crazy, were also binned.
These days, we have the World Rally Car regulations – safer, undoubtedly, and almost as entertaining to watch. But if there was ever an era that stood out as a flash in the pan of rally action, it’s Group B. It made the world of motorsport a faster, louder and all-together more sideways place, even if it did lead manufacturers down a somewhat darker path. And for that, Group B gave its fans some of the brightest, most wonderful days of all.