Group B – world rallying’s finest period?

For myself and many others who love their motorsport, the very pinnacle of the world rallying scene was the early 1980s when a category known as Group B was born. Why? Because it was jam packed full of big cars, big loud engines and equally big characters – mostly Scandinavian as it happens. Drivers such as Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist, Timo Salonen, Walter Röhrl, Markku Alén, Miki Biasion, Juha Kankkunen and Ari Vatanen became household names as the sport was never out of the news, although not always for the right reasons. Often it was to report yet another fatality as accidents tended to be just as big as the rest of the scene. Sadly it all came to head in 1986 after yet another horrific crash took the lives of yet another crew. Subsequently the Group was banned, and the rest as they say is history.

Before I continue … yes I realise that technically, four-wheel-drive cars aren’t the same as 4×4 vehicles. Ground clearance alone, or rather the lack of it, is enough of a difference between the two groups, but show me a motoring enthusiast who doesn’t marvel at the machines and their amazing pilots that made up the craziness that was Group B Rallying.

Yes the vehicles that made up the category were insane, especially as the majority were showroom models pumped full of steroids to convert them into snarling competitive beasts, sadly beasts that ultimately were to turn on their masters, but you have to admit – that’s what made the category exciting. The driver’s were at times quite literally ‘living on the edge’, and unsavory though it was, everyone connected with the sport knew it … that was all part of the drama being played out before our very eyes.

So how did such madness begin? For the answer you have to travel back in time to the late 1960’s. From moment it was launched in 1968, the WRC (World Rally Championship) had been dominated by the humble rear-wheel-drive Ford Escort, Lotus and Twin Cam versions amongst the favourite types. Other manufacturers during the 1970s such as Lancia, Renault and Fiat all tried to compete with limited success, but ultimately it was still the superbly-balanced Escort that remained top of the pile for the entire decade.

1970_World_Cup_Rally_Ford_Escort_09

This all changed in 1980 however when German car makers Audi launched the Quattro – a turbobocharged 2.1 litre four-wheel-drive lightened coupé version of it’s heavy family saloon. The result was a revelation, as the combination of raw power and increased traction turned the world of international rallying on its head.

Audi Quattro - 1  Audi Quattro - 3

In the hands of Finland’s Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist (Sweden) and Walter Röhrl (Germany), A1 and A2 evolutions of the Quattro pumping out 350 bhp were winning rallies all over the place in the early 80’s. Not to be outdone by her male counterparts, in 1981 Frenchwoman Michéle Mouton wrote a page in the history books when she became the first female driver to win a world championship rally; yes the Quattro was king. There was one exception however …

Just when ‘all-wheel-drive’ seemed to be the future, along came an impudent upstart that reverted back to former times. In the late 70’s, British success in the WRC had been sparse. This all changed in 1980 when Finnish driver Henri Toivonen won the 29th Lombard RAC Rally (the British round of the WRC) in a rear-wheel-drive Talbot Sunbeam Lotus – shock, horror!!

Sunbeam Lotus - 2

Essentially the Talbot Sunbeam hatchback was a rebadged Chrysler with the guile of Lotus thrown into the mix. This was a masterstroke for in 1981 it proved its worth as this little rear-wheel-drive car producing just 250 bhp brought the entire WRC Manufacturer’s Championship back to Linwood in Scotland where Talbot were based. Unfortunately its success was extremely short lived as the Audi Works Rally Team, backed by a mega-budget from the Bavarian factory, went on to produce a 470 bhp version of the Quattro, Financially Talbot weren’t in the same league, so consequently faded away.

Besides budgets, nothing was going to stop the all-wheel-drive bandwagon. With hindsight it’s easy to see why this revolution came about. To their credit, Audi were the first to cotton on to the fact that up until 1980, the international regulations imposed by FISA (Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile), the sport’s governing body, had prohibited the use of four-wheel drive, but suddenly accepted that Audi’s Quattro was a genuine production car. It took a while, but eventually in 1982 they were compelled to change the rules to accommodate the new model.

Audi Quattro - 2

In doing so, they decided to separate the rally cars into three classes: Group N (production cars), Group A (modified production cars), and Group B (modified sports cars). Not surprisingly, this instantly opened the floodgates as the world’s manufacturers scrabbled to come up with a worthy adversary to the now all-conquering Quattro.

You can see where this is leading! With manufacturers required to build just 200 vehicles a year to homologate a particular model to be eligible for Group B (these being allowed to have just two seats rather than four or five), the scene was set for ‘Group B Madness’.

It quickly became apparent that once Audi had started the ball rolling, the competition was going to be fierce. It not only had to keep up with the pack, somehow they had to keep ahead of the baying hounds. This they did to a degree right up until 1985/6. With the introduction of the 470 bhp S1 E2 Quattro they won the Manufacturer’s Championship in 1982 and 1984, but by 1985 the writing was on the wall – their rivals had simply overwhelmed them.

So, just who were Group B’s duellists? In no particular order …

As mentioned, apart from the hiccup that was the rear-wheel-drive Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, all-wheel-drive vehicles dominated the early to mid 80’s and British interest was meagre. This again all changed in 1985 when the MG Metro 6R4 rally car was born, although about the only thing that linked the 6R4 with the family hatchback that British Leyland produced was the name “Metro”. Developed by the Williams Grand Prix racing team, it was a brutish-looking, rear-engined, four-wheel-drive, 400+ bhp monster.

Metro 6R4 - 2

Cloaking a seam-welded tubular spaceframe chassis, the majority of the body was glassfibre, and even the David Wood designed V6 3-litre engine was a break from tradition as it wasn’t turbocharged – by now the majority of its competitors were. Featuring twin overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, the engine was also unusual as it was reverse-mounted in the car, that is with the front of the engine facing the rear hatch, with the gearbox attached conventionally behind it. This in effect produced a mid-mounted set-up intended to produce the balance required to tackle the world’s toughest rally stages.

Metro 6R4 - 1  Metro 6R4 - 3

Arguably, the best of the Groups B cars was the Peugeot 205 T16. It certainly was the most successful in the last two years of the World Rally Championship’s Group B era, winning the 1985 and 1986 Manufacturers and Drivers titles. With such a well-balanced car, a highly professional team (superbly managed by none other than Jean Todt, the visionary who not only masterminded Peugeot Talbot Sport’s WRC success, but also Paris-Dakar victories and multiple wins in the Le Mans 24 Hours race, plus manage the Scuderia Ferrari Formula One team from 1994 to 2007), and flying Finns Timo Salonen and Juha Kankkunen at the helm, it was hardly surprising they were so successful.

Apart from outward appearance, the road variants of the 205 T16 (you recall 200 of which had to be made to be eligible for Group B homologation), had almost nothing in common with the family runabout from which it was spawned. All 200 sported the same transverse mid-engine layout of the rally version, plus the same all-wheel-drive system, but had less than half the power for road use. The T16 also had wider wheel arches, plus the whole rear section, formed out of tubular frame and sheet steel to mimic the profile of a standard 205, lifted up to give unprecedented access to the engine – a real boon when it came to the brief service points between a rally’s competitive Special Stages.

Peugeot 205 T16 -1  Peugeot 205 T16 -4

Appropriately enough, in total Peugeot’s 205 T16 ended up with 16 WRC victories to it’s name, and that was without Ari Vatanen’s victory in the 8,315 km Paris-Dakar Rally in 1987, Juha Kankkunen in ’88, and Vatanen again in  1989 and 1990. Yes, the 205 T16 with works backing were a formidable outfit!

Peugeot 205 T16 -2  Peugeot 205 T16 -3

Next came the powerhouse of world rallying – Ford. Having enjoyed so much success with the world-beating Escort in the decade before Group B was created, it must have hurt terribly not being able to compete on equal terms with the new kids on the block – the four-wheel-drives. There was only one thing they could possibly do, build another world-beating vehicle to take on Group B.

So it came to pass that 200 Ford RS200s were manufactured, with another 20+ units built purely for Ford Works Rally Team’s spare parts bin. Featuring a Ghia-designed fibreglass/plastic body supplied by the British company Reliant (this again including virtually the same accessible raised rear section as the Peugeot 205 T16) , it was yet another vehicle with a mid-mounted engine and four-wheel drive.

Ford RS200 - 1  Ford RS200 - 4

Power came from a turbocharged 1.8 litre Ford Cosworth BDT engine producing 250 horsepower (190 kW) for the road versions, in racing trim this increased to 450 horsepower (340 kW). However, the car was never that competitive as its power-to-weight ratio was poor by comparison to the opposition. Third place in the 1986 Rally of Sweden was the car’s highest ever WRC place, a lot of investment for very little return.

Ford RS200 - 2

It may have been a whole new ball game however if Ford had been allowed to develop the “Evolution” version for Group B. It has been said that depending on gearing, the most powerful Evolution models produced an incredible 815 horsepower, and could accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) in just over 2 seconds!

Ford RS200 - 3

The downfall of the RS200 began on the very next event following their podium finish in Sweden. During the 1986 Rally de Portugal, a Ford RS200 driven by Portuguese Ford works rally driver Joaquim Santos was involved in a tragic accident which claimed the lives of three spectators and injured many more. Then soon after, another Ford RS200 crashed into a tree during the 1986 Hessen-Rallye in Germany, instantly killing Swiss Formula One driver Marc Surer and his co-driver and friend Michel Wyder. This and other fatalities all lead to the RS200 being unable to compete any longer – more about that later. In all the RS200 Group B rally car only competed in one competitive season of the WRC.

Finally there was the skittish, almost un-drivable Lancia Delta S4. They say the only driver that even came close to being able to exploit the S4 was Finn Henri Toivonen, and even then it proved to be his nemesis. This was another Group B car that could achieve 0-60 mph in under 2 seconds … not just on tarmac though, but gravel. It too featured a mid-mounted engine and a 75:25 rear-biased four-wheel-drive system developed by English transmission specialists Hewland, its 1,759.3 cc four-cylinder power unit producing up to a claimed 560 bhp (417 kW), which apparently came in at a whopping 8400 rpm! The Delta’s fuel was ordinary petrol mixed with the octane booster toluene. First pioneered by the Honda team, toluene fuelled all the turbo Formula 1 teams in the 1980s. So with the engine both turbocharged and supercharged to reduce turbo lag at low revs, plus it’s potent fuel mixture, the combination made the performance claims perfectly feasible.

Lancia S4 - 1

Similar to the Peugeot 205 T16, although the Delta S4 bore some resemblance to the family front-engined Delta hatchback you could buy from the showroom, it too shared precious little else in common. The rally version boasted a tubular space frame chassis, long travel double wishbone suspension front and rear, modified springs and twin shock absorbers at the rear, single coil over shocks at the front, and a detachable carbon fibre body both front and rear for speedy maintenance and repair. Like all of Group B’s manic machinery, it was as far removed from the original vehicle as you could possibly get. Just as well as it’s known to one and all that the Delta rusted faster than … well, than “an Austin Allegro’s bare steel bodyshell that had been left out in the rain for a month during a British Leyland worker’s strike” .… and that’s saying something!

Lancia S4 - 2

The Lancia Delta S4 went on to achieve five WRC victories in 1985 & 1986, but it’s legacy will always be tainted by the fact that ultimately it contributed irrevocably to Group B’s demise. Tragically whilst competing in the 1986 Tour de Corse – Rallye de France in Corsica (held on asphalt roads, it was known as the “Ten Thousand Turns Rally” because of the tight twisty mountain roads), Henri Toivonen and his American navigator Sergio Cresto inexplicably crashed on a tight left-hand hairpin bend with no barriers, and plunged headlong down into a ravine. The S4 burst into flames, instantly extinguishing the lives of its two occupants. This and a whole raft of incidents, including the RS200 fatalities mentioned earlier, led to the banning of Group B halfway though the 1986 season. The combination of turbo lag and a short wheelbase meant the cars were often twitchy and all but impossible to drive flat out, something of course the fearless drivers were born to do. ‘Holding back’ just wasn’t in their vocabulary, hence the inevitable carnage.

Lancia S4 - 3

Last but least, there was the Porsche 959. This was certainly the most technically-advanced of the Group B protagonists with its lightweight Kevlar/aluminium shell and advance four-wheel-drive system, but although it was conceived, designed and built to compete in Group B, it never quite made it to the start line of a single ‘B’ rally. Instead it etched it’s name in motorsport history in the Paris-Dakar rallies of 1984/5/6, the latter being the most successful as the three entries managed 1st, 2nd and 5th places overall. Running as a ‘service barge’ for the team, the fifth placed 959 could even have finished 3rd, but the overwhelming objective was to achieve ‘overall winner’. This they duly did with aplomb, it was a resounding victory.

Porsche 959 - 2  Porsche 959 - 5Porsche 959 - 3  Porsche 959 - 6

What the the vehicle would have achieved in Group B is anybody’s guess? When it was introduced at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show, the street version of the twin-turbocharged 959 was at the time, the world’s fastest street legal production car with a top speed of 195 miles per hour (314 km/h), with the sport model capable of reaching 197 miles per hour (317 km/h) – so it certainly had the grunt. The Paris-Dakar versions by the way competed with ‘detuned’ engines of 400 bhp to cope with the inferior fuel found in Africa. As I said, we’ll never know what heights the 959 would have reached in the World Rally Championship, all we do know is at today’s prices, examples that originally cost € 300,000 are now fetching over € 1.5 million … a pretty sound investment by anybody’s standards!

Porsche 959 - 1

And what of the cars that competed in Group B, did they just simply end up in transport museums the world over? Not a bit of it! They quickly found a new home in the 1987 European Rallycross Championship, with the former Group B cars instantly dominating the discipline. Their power figures also steadily rose during this time, from roughly 435 bhp from a naturally aspirated 3.0-litre V6 in the Metro 6R4, to 700bhp in a turbocharged 2.3-litre V6 for the 1992 season. Unfortunately the regulations for European Rallycross changed in 1993, again making the Group B’s redundant. Now their day was truly done, the “Killer B’s” as rally enthusiasts cruelly dubbed them, could now officially slip into retirement.

Rallycross - 1 Rallycross - 2 Rallycross - 3

As for the World Rally Championship that created these monsters, despite the demise of Group B back in 1986, all-wheel-drive systems continue to be the No.1 choice to this very day. Cars such as the Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Toyota Celica, Subarru Impreza, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Toyota Corolla, Pugeot 206, Citroën Xsara, Ford Focus RS, Citroën C4 & DS3 and VW Polo R have won every WRC Manufacturers title from 1986 to the present, thus proving the worth of four-wheel-drive and the technical expertise that Group B helped fast-track. Those very same developments can be seen in today’s road-going 4×4 SUVs, which in my mind fully justifies this article.

Well that’s me vindicated, next please!

 

Tom McGuigan

(Editor of Europe 4×4 Mag)


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Tom McGuigan