28 Feb 2013

Group B rally - A retrospective

Matt Chappell of iCarhireinsurance.com looks back at the era of Group B rallying, how it came about, why it was fantastic and why it had to end

It’s not often I wish I was ten years older, but when it comes to cars and the motorsport world, I make that wish every single time. Being a twentysomething, I was somewhat unable to appreciate the 1980s for the glorious automotive gems it produced. Climate change was by no means dictating car manufacturer’s priorities, and it certainly shows in the variety of high displacement vehicles produced in this time.

In a decade so often associated with excess, this notion is also evident in the world of motorsport. The words ‘Group B Rally’ have long conjured a sense of extreme excitement in my mind, making my ears strain to hear the scream of a tuned European engine and my eyes long for straight lined body kits and the white and blue, red or yellow colour schemes and Martini graphics synonymous with these cars. But enough about my jealous musings, let’s take a look at this iconic motorsport era.

1982 was a fantastic year for motorsport. It was the year that the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, or FIA, introduced new regulations, the sum total of which was Group B. It was intended as a replacement for the equally interesting but altogether different regulation Groups, 4 and 5. One of the catalysts for Group B was the FIA’s legalisation of four wheel drive in 1979, which prompted Audi to enter their Quattro in the 1980 Janner Rally – rewarding them with instant success.

Many other manufacturers had been cynical about four wheel drive and held back from implementing it. But with the Quattro’s performance serving as a technical eye opener for works engineers such as those at Peugeot, four wheel drive became a desirable feature. One of the main reasons that the cars of this era became such monsters was that, with regulations lowered in many areas, the engineers and the respective manufacturer teams were allowed a huge amount of freedom.

For example, the practice of using a current production car for racing (homologation) was encouraged through the reduction of the number of cars required to 200 models. It meant that less time and money had to be spent on creating a production version and so more time and money could be spent optimising the rally version.

The introduction of four wheel drive allowed a number of benefits. Firstly, with a more even coverage of power through all four wheels, an overall increase in traction was afforded. This meant faster take off times and more constant speeds in corners. The car’s increased tolerance for speed prompted larger engines and, when these factors are compounded with Group B’s incredibly low weight restrictions and encouraged use of specialist materials, blinding track times could be achieved with these ultra-light engine sleds.

Having seen Audi’s front engine AWD monster set the precedent in Group B’s early years, Peugeot set about raising their own creation – the 205 T16. Building upon Audi’s advances they created a mid-engine AWD hatchback that weighed in at just 910kg and featured a 440hp turbocharged 1.8litre engine – certainly enough to catapult this thin skinned space frame across any terrain.

Ultimately this proved to be a winning combination, as Peugeot went on to achieve significant victories once their teams were familiar with the machine and its limitations. Their progress improved steadily up until Group B’s untimely end in 1987. The increases in vehicle performance led to extra pressure on each manufacturer’s teams to not only stay ahead of the game technically but also in terms of skill.

They were constantly edging closer to the limit of their own ability and the physical restrictions each track and car presented. As Maurice Guaslard (head of the 1986 Michelin Rally Program) stated in this very telling quote, ‘rallying has reached a point such that the speed limitation is the profile of the road. If everything goes right for the drivers, there is no more than two or three seconds of difference on a stage. Which means the judge is not the car, the tires, or the drivers - it is the road. They cannot go any faster!’

Ultimately it has been said that Group B simply got too fast to be safe. Crashes were frequent and drivers such as Ari Vatanen became synonymous with close shaves and lucky escapes. This luck was finite, however, and in 1986 a series of horrendous crashes forever marred this era of motorsport and signalled its untimely end. In Portugal, three people died and many more were injured when a Ford RS200, piloted by Joaquim Santos, left the track on the outside of a spectator lined corner.

It has been speculated that the accident was caused by spectators on the inside of the corner leaning into the road to gain a glimpse, leading Santos to try and avoid them which resulted in him going wide and leaving the track. In this sense, the spectators became another obstacle in a sport famed for almost supernatural reactions. As anyone who has ever watched rallying will have seen the spectators, particularly on the continent, were often perilously close to the action. They lined the sides of even the hairiest corners hoping for a glimpse of these machines, with some participants actually trying to touch the cars as they sped by.

The final nail in the coffin came when the Henri Toivonen, Lancia’s number one driver, crashed in Corsica whilst in the leading position. His car left the track and careened down a steep hill, lined with tress and rocks. Purportedly taking half an hour for emergency services to reach the plume of smoke marking the car’s location, the response team were greeted by a grisly scene in which two legendary men lost their lives.

And with this shocking occurrence, Group B had run its course. The 1987 season was cancelled and much of the manufacturer teams pulled out immediately. These events forced the FIA to reassess its regulating procedures as well as the process of spectating. If Rally were to continue as a sport it would need some serious re-evaluation.