Group B World Rally Championship

The Group B World Rally Championship was introduced for the 1982 season and was intended to motivate major manufacturers into building cars for racing and rallying.  It led to the fastest, most outrageous and powerful rally cars ever seen which eventually led to them being banned.  The FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) established an engine capacity of 3 litres for naturally aspirated units or two litres for forced induction, including turbo charging or super charging or a combination of the two.

As part of Group B, only 200 cars were required to be built for homologation by the FIA and engine, suspension and aerodynamic improvements could be used on evolution models.  The cars didn’t require production body shells and only the central body section was required from the original car.  As a result, front wheel drive, front engined cars with four seats appeared as four-wheel drive, two seaters and mid engined in some cases.  The cars had outlandish looks with big wings and flared guards in comparison to the Ford Escort’s, Fiat 131 Abarth’s and Talbot Sunbeam’s that preceded them in the Group 4 days at the start of the 1980’s.

The regulations of this era gave unlimited freedom and reducing the minimum production requirement from 400 cars per year to 200 enabled an increasing number of manufacturers to develop special competition cars.  Car makers were invited to design sports cars with amazing levels of performance that bore no resemblance to their showroom counterparts.  Although four-wheel drive and turbo charging already existed, neither had been exploited to anything like their full potential.  Although neither is fundamentally dangerous and are still used in world rallying, in the Group B period there was no mechanism for controlling them and four wheel drive was poorly understood.  The regulations also had no safeguards in the use of materials or control of fuel systems that racing demanded.

The main contenders

Audi Quattro

Arguably the most unmistakable engine sound in rallying history was from the two litre five cylinder turbocharged engine used in the Audi Quattros.  The Audi Quattro’s launched the four-wheel drive revolution and were the first of the true Group B rally cars.  The birth of the Quattro was in 1976, when Audi, part of the VW group, was contracted to produce a new 4WD utility for the German Army.  Known as the Iltas, it was powered by a four-cylinder engine from the Audi 80.  Audi engineers thought about developing a 4WD car and developed a prototype based on the 80, however with a five cylinder turbocharged engine.  By the middle of 1978, the programme was approved by the VW Board with the car to be used for both road and rally.  The WRC regulations of 1978 forbade the use of 4WD machines, therefore Audi, without revealing the Quattro, asked the other manufacturers if they had any issues about withdrawing the rule.  The response was ‘of course not’ due to the fact that the only car that the others knew about at the time produced by VW-Audi was the 75 bhp Iltas.  The Quattro was revealed at the 1980 Geneva Show and Hannu Mikkola was approached to drive the car in 1981.  The potential of the car was shown when Mikkola was allowed to drive at the Algarve Rally at the end of 1980 as a course opening car.  His special stage times were recorded and had he been competing, would’ve won the event by 26 minutes.

The car’s official debut in the WRC was at the Monte Carlo Rally in 1981.  Mikkola was joined by Michèle Mouton, and after six stages Mikkola was leading by almost six minutes but ended up finishing 91st due to mechanical issues and driver error.  At Sweden, Mikkola won however in future events the car was struck with engine cooling issues.  Audi finished fifth in the WRC and Mikkola third in the first season of competition.  In 1982, Audi not surprisingly took the manufacturers championship with Mouton finishing in second position ahead of Mikkola.  Mouton could have won the 1982 championship in the Quattro but was forced to retire on the final stages of the Ivory Coast Rally, the last event of the season.

In 1983 revised versions were introduced for the Group B competition, including the A1 and A2.  These versions were known for their long wheelbase and engine mounted well forward which meant they had a tendency to understeer.  In this season, Mikkola won the driver’s title but Lancia narrowly won the constructors in the Lancia 037 by two points.  In 1984, the two door Quattro Sport (E2), which had over 400 bph was revealed however Stig Blomqvist stuck with the A2 with only 300 bhp until the new car proved itself later in the season.  Blomqvist went onto win the driver’s championship and Audi the constructors.  The E2 was seen as a disappointment by some, and the short wheelbase exaggerated the car’s nose-heavy weight distribution.

Mid way through 1985 a Sport Evolution model was released, the fire breathing S1, known to have over 500 bhp with outrageous aerodynamics for the time.  The S1 version had an improvement in weight distribution, mainly because the radiators and oil coolers were moved to the boot.  The wings and spoilers generated downforce and brought an appreciable benefit at speed.  Walter Rohrl, who drove for Audi in 1985, loved the car because it ‘was the ultimate driver’s car and a pure challenge to handle with plenty of power everywhere at any speed’.  Audi withdrew in 1986 because of the lack of crowd control which was commonplace throughout the Group B period as well as the accident at the Tour of Corsica that resulted in Henri Toivonen’s untimely death.

Lancia 037 & Delta S4

Lancia built two cars to compete in the Group B competition.  The rear wheel drive Lanica 037 was the first attempt and was loosely based on the Beta Monte-Carlo two door coupe.  The 037 used a version of Fiat’s well-proven, long stroke twin cam engine equipped with a belt-driven Volumex supercharger.  It lacked the sheer urge of a turbocharged car but had 325 horsepower which meant instant throttle response with no lag.  It also had long travel suspension and twin dampers at the rear and was so light that it just made the 960 kilogram limit.  The 037 had development problems in its first year of competition in 1982 however these problems were eventually solved in 1983 and the drivers took five wins out of 12.  The car had a tendency to understeer but excelled on tarmac events.  Markku Alén described the 037 as being ‘fantastic on tarmac’ where he was able to win in Corsica in 1983 and 1984.  He also noted that ‘the balance of the 037 was good, especially on the jumps in Finland where I was always confident to take very big risks’.  The last ever world rally win for a two-wheel drive car was in a 037 in 1983.

By 1984, Audi made it obvious that four-wheel drive was the way to go.  Lanica introduced their Delta S4 and although the car was not as visually appealing as the 037, was built to the limit of Group B regulations.  The car was based on their front wheel drive Delta compact car but bore little resemblance except for the centre section, with the rear section constructed of fibreglass.  The S4 had a four cylinder supercharged and turbocharged engine which resulted in an even spread of power across the rev range; the supercharger having most effect at low to mid range rpm and the turbo taking over at higher revs.  This proved to be effective and the S4 finished one-two in their first event at the RAC rally in 1985 and battled with Peugeot in 1986.  The S4 was thought to be the ultimate expression of a Group B rally car.  The Delta S4 was Lancia’s first four wheel drive car and handling was never as sure footed on loose surfaces as the Peugeot 205 T16 or Ford RS200.  The car controversially had the fuel tanks positioned under the seats.

Peugeot 205 T16

The Peugeot 205 T16 broke Audi’s stranglehold and like the Lanica S4 was built as close to the limit of Group B regulations as possible.  The manager of the team was none other than Jean Todt, former Ferrari F1 manager who had a very thorough approach to team management.  A 205 hatchback was chosen and in road form was front engine and front wheel drive.  The T16 however was redesigned to house the engine where the rear seats originally were.  The 205 T16 was developed as a result of more than two years of painstaking and often frustrating development.  It was the only top Group B rally car to use a transverse engine.  The car first made its presence felt with fourth at the tour of Corsica in 1984.  Later that year, Ari Vatanen won the 1000 Lakes, San Remo and RAC rallies.  Timo Salonen in the 205 T16 went onto win the championship in 1985 with the constructors going to the Peugeot team.  In 1986, Juha Kankunnen won the driver’s championship and Peugeot again won the constructors.  In this season, the car used was the ‘Evolution 2’ and featured changes to the four cylinder engine.  A new head was developed with better porting, and with a Garrett turbo replacing a KKK power went up from 350 bhp to an official 435 bhp.  The monocoque structure at the rear was replaced with a tubular arrangement that was lighter and stiffer and aerodynamics changed with the addition of extra front spoilers and a substantial rear wing.  Juha Kankkunen was incredibly fond of the 205 T16, describing it as being ‘very powerful with great looks, good handling and being easy to drive’.

Ford RS200

The Ford RS200 arrived too late to make an impact in the Group B championship.  Stig Blomqvist led the team in 1986 however a crash at Portugal which resulted in spectator deaths ended Ford’s involvement.  The Ford was an attractive mid engine sports car with perhaps the best chassis of all.  It had an aluminium monocoque, double wishbones all round and twin dampers at each corner.  Ford put the gearbox at the front, along with the front and centre differentials.  Homologation was delayed with the car until 1986, and this meant that the car weighed 1080 kg and was short of aerodynamic devices, unlike the Lanica and Peugeot that weighted under 1000 kg.  The car was short on development and was known to sometimes catch fire.  It’s best result occurred at its first WRC event, a third place in Sweden in 1986 in the hands of Kalle Grundel.  The car went onto success in the British championship with an engine capable of pulling to 9000rpm and producing an estimated 600 horsepower.

MG Metro 6R4

The MG Metro 6R4 was built on a production line at Longbridge and arrived too late into the Group B competition to make any real impact.  The 6R4 outlived its Group B rivals, however its best result was on its debut at the 1985 RAC Rally, where it placed third with Tony Pond.  The car had a different engine configuration to its counterparts and featured a mid-engined three litre V6 with four wheel drive.  The engine however epitomised the car’s failure and chronic problems with the cam belts caused a rash of failures well into 1986 and the car didn’t deliver the 400 bhp promised.  The exhaust system caused serious power drops between 4000-5000 rpm.  Williams F1 made the prototypes however the homologated car ended up being heavier than Williams intended, and the size and nature of the engine caused handling problems.  The car however excelled in downforce and braking.  Didier Auriol won the French Championship in 1986 and notes that the ‘car was nice to drive with its wonderful noise from the engine’.  After Group B was banned, many were sold to private owners by Austin Rover.

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Other cars of interest

The Porsche 959, a four wheel drive, 200mph supercar that won the Paris-Dakar rally in 1986 may have been a force in the world rally championship if the manufacturer had of been interested in entering the car in Group B competition.  Porsche however was more interested in dominating Group C prototype sportscar racing, with the 956 and 962 models.  Porsche 911’s were entered in Group B but never a force as the company had other priorities.

Four hundred road going versions of the Renault 5 turbo were built to qualify for group 4 in 1980, with the car in the hands of Jean Ragnotti winning the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally.  The car was left behind once group B took effect however was better at tarmac events, winning the Tour De Corse in 1985.

Walter Röhrl in an Opel Ascona won the 1982 championship.  In 1983, the car was outclassed however Ari Vatanen won the Safari Rally.  The Manta 400 was introduced towards the end of 1983 and Jimmy McRae took third at the RAC.

Björn Waldegård won the Safari Rally in 1986 with a Toyota Celica Turbo.  The car was outclassed in Europe but came into its own in endurance events, where traction wasn’t such a big issue because of the length of the stages.  Power, ease of maintenance and strength were crucial for endurance events and this is where the Toyota excelled.

End of an era

The Group B period was so exciting for the spectators that people would often line the roads to see the cars and tried to touch them as they flew by.  The lack of crowd control not only meant the cancellation of numerous stages but also resulted in an inevitable tragedy in the 1986 Rally of Portugal when Ford driver Joaquim Santos ploughed into spectators, killing three and injuring thirty.  Top teams immediately withdrew from the event and leading drivers signed a petition demanding better crowd control at future events.  Henri Toivonen was also killed later in the season when his Lancia Delta S4 left the road at Corsica and was engulfed in a fireball.  The FIA banned Group B at the end of the 1986 season to be replaced by Group A, which were essentially modified production cars.  The Group B World Rally Championship may be long gone, but certainly will never be forgotten by rallying enthusiasts.

 

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