• When Group B Went Rallycrossing

    The era of the Group B rally cars was snuffed out abruptly from the World Rally Championship in 1986, following several fatalities, both drivers/co-drivers, and spectators. Group B, first introduced in 1982, was essentially an off-road version of sportscar prototype racing. The official designation of Group B, as ‘Sports Grand Touring Cars’, signifies its intent.

    There were minimum homologation numbers required, but this was only 200 vehicles per year, which, for the likes of the major car manufacturers involved, was easily achievable. Additionally, an evolution model could then be produced, requiring only 20 cars per year. Unlike Group A and Group N, which required the cars be based on 4-seaters, Group B cars could be produced as 2-seaters. Most vehicles were loosely based on the silhouette of a production vehicle, although Ford arrived late in the piece with their RS200 model, which bared no resemblance whatsoever with any other vehicle in their line-up, and had Group B continued on beyond 1986, its likely more manufacturers would have followed the same path. By 1986, the most powerful Group B cars were producing in excess of 500hp, and weighed significantly less than 1,000kg.

    Overall, Group B was a massive success. The cars were fast and exciting, manufacturer involvement was huge, as was spectator and media interest. Where Group B failed, was in the areas of driver/co-driver, and spectator safety. And this is what ultimately killed it. Group B rally cars were actually slower than todays modern WRC cars. But in the 1980s, rallys were much longer, leading to mental and physical fatigue of both driver and co-driver, and crowd control was woeful at best. At World Rally events such as Portugal, where the fans were quite fanatical, they’d stand in front of the cars in the road until the last possible moment, before diving out of the way. Or they’d try and touch the cars as they raced past. It was extreme, at best, and when things went wrong, they went seriously wrong.

    Audi dominated the early period of Group B, with their revolutionary four wheel drive Quattro. The Quattro had first entered the World Rally Championship in 1980, as, unlike the purpose-built Group B cars that would follow, it was essentially a production car. Against the Ford Escort RS1800, it was significantly faster in 1981, but not as reliable or consistent, and Ford driver Ari Vatanen won the Drivers Championship. Walter Rohrl won the Drivers Championship in 1982, driving an Open Asconda, while Audi took the Manufacturers Championship. Female Audi driver Michele Mouton finished the Drivers Championship in second. Lancia arrived in 1983, taking advantage of the Group B rules with its new mid-engined rear wheel drive 037, which won the Manufacturers Championship, while Audi finally took its first Drivers Championship, with Hannu Mikkola.

    Audi backed up their success in 1984, again winning the Drivers Championship, this time with Stig Blomqvist, while also winning the Manufacturers Championship. Peugeot entered the championship mid-way through the season with its new 205 T16, which then went on to win both the Drivers (Timo Salonen) and Manufacturers Championships in 1985. The 205 featured four wheel drive, like the Audi, but was smaller and lighter. Audi had introduced its new short wheelbase Qauttro, but to no avail. Also arriving in 1985 was Austin-Rover, with its radical mid-engined, normally-aspirated V6, four wheel drive Metro 6R4, and Ford with its even more radical mid-engined turbocharged RS200. Lancia also replaced their 037 late in the season with the mad new Delta S4, which was both turbocharged and supercharged, mid-engined, and four wheel drive.

    For 1986, Audi released its latest Quattro evolution, with wild flared bodywork, massive front and rear spoilers, and increased power. Peugeot also released the latest evolution of its 205 T16, also with improved aerodynamics. But it was the Lancia S4 that proved to be the pace-setter, with Henri Toivonen blitzing the opposition in the opening round. Toivonen retired in Round 2 with mechanical failure, allowing Juha Kankkunen the victory in his Peugeot.

    In Round 3, privateer Ford RS200 driver Joaquim Santos lost control of his machine early in the rally, and speared off the road through a large crowd of spectators. Three people were killed, more than thirty were injured, and the factory teams all withdrew from the race out of respect, allowing Joaquim Moutinho the victory in his Renault 5 Turbo. Then, in the Tour de Corse, Toivonen crashed off the road, and both he and his co-driver, Sergio Cresto, perished when the car exploded. The S4 had its alloy fuel tank mounted beneath the seats.

    FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre, who up until now, had taken a fairly relaxed stance over the rapid increase in development of the Group B cars, and lack of spectator safety, suddenly leapt into action and placed a development freeze on all Group B cars. Peugeot and Lancia won the remaining races in 1986, with Peugeot taking the Manufacturers Championship, and Peugeot driver Juha Kankkunen the Drivers Championship. And with that, Group B was banned from the World Rally Championship.

    Many think the 1986 rally ban on Group B was the end of the road for these radical machines. But, in fact, they lived on for several more years. In the UK, and throughout Europe, Rallycross has always enjoyed a strong following. Rallycross is essentially ‘stadium rallying’, though with several cars all competing together on the track, rather than separately competing on time. Rallycross courses combine both sealed and unsealed sections, and the races are short and spectacular, usually only totalling four or five laps. And in Rallycross, the Group B cars found a new home.

    Group B cars had already begun to infiltrate the Rallycross scene, but with the category being dropped from the World Rally Championship, their presence quickly escalated. While Group B was spectacular in World Championship Rallying, in Rallycross it was even more so. The cars became lighter, and weren’t required to carry a co-driver. Also, because the races were so short, the motors became more powerful, with the best of them getting well above 700hp. Although Group B cars have become hugely desirable and incredibly valuable today, in the late 1980s, where one of the few places they were accepted was Rallycross, they were simply viewed as being the best tool for the job, and were absolutely pounded upon. Body contact was common, and cars would bash and crash into each other, with bits of bodywork strewn around the track.

    Presentation of the cars suffered somewhat, given the inevitable, but this was all part of the appeal, and Rallycross enjoyed a boom period, with spectators coming out in their droves to enjoy and drink in these rare, magnificent machines, that previously in World Rally events, they’d only briefly glimpse as they shot past before disappearing back into the forest. Although there was never any sort of official World Rallycross Championship, there were hotly contested national championships taking place throughout the UK and Europe, and contestants would regularly venture abroad.

    Eventually, the Group B cars were phased out of Rallycross, as newer, faster, more purpose built cars began appearing. Today, you’ll not see Group B cars being pushed to anywhere near what they were in period. Their rarity, and values see to it they’re somewhat pampered in their old age. But here are a few cool videos of these amazing machines during their second-coming, in the fast and furious world of Rallycross.


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    This article was originally published in forum thread: Article: When Group B Went Rallycrossing started by Steve Holmes View original post