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The Short Lived Experience of Group B Rally

Brendan Byrne ‘22

The history of motorsports has some of the most fascinating and exciting stories sports as a whole has to offer. From NASCAR to Formula 1, and from endurance racing at Le Mans and Spa to rally racing in the rolling hills of Wales, Germany, Chile, and so many more locations, we see deep histories with huge names, well known for their advanced skills in some of the fastest paced racing capable of man. The specific branch of motorsport with one of the most colorful, confusing, fascinating, and ultimately very short-lived histories however, is a specific branch of rally racing, the infamous Group B Rally.

Group B Rally was a division of rally racing that came about in the 80s, and what had differentiated it was that homologation rules, the rules regarding required production numbers of the vehicle, as well as specific specs and limitations to performance to allow the car to compete, were extremely lessened, to such a degree where they were nearly irrelevant. Instead of the usual requirement of 500 production vehicles, the number was reduced to 200, and each year in Group B an “evolution” model could be introduced. What this meant was that a more powerful or modified version of a vehicle could be made each year, and that special version only needed to have 20 production models What this did was allow manufacturers to create far more beastly machines, which went down in history as some of the fastest, yet horrifically undrivable, machines to ever grace the dirt roads. 

The cars themselves were what solidified Group B’s infamy, not only at the time, but in all of motorsport history. Some of the most well known and successful vehicles from Group B include the Audi Sport Quattro S1, the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 E2, the Lancia 037, the Opel Manta 400, and the Metro 6R4. The Audi Sport Quattro S1 is one of the tops of the most famous Group B vehicles from this era. Having been the frontrunner of the races for so long, it became an icon in the racing community, and even up until today is the car often used to represent Group B when discussing it. It’s entirely possible you’ve seen it many times before without really knowing what it was.

Starting in 1980, the Audi Sport Quattro began its mass production as a rather unassuming, yet proficiently performing 2-door Coupe. The vehicle was AWD, fairly light, and was already showing success in harsh conditions like in rain and on dirt, making it perfect for rally racing. With some heavy modification, including a power boost all the way up to nearly 700 horsepower. This amount of horsepower is absolutely ludicrous, surpassing most supercars, and nearly all supercars of the time. This would help the vehicle reach some outrageous, and dangerous, speeds.

Audi

What made this incredibly powerful engine so interesting in the way it functioned was that it was the first ever vehicle to utilize what was called “Dual-charging”. Not to be confused with Twin Turbos, meaning two turbochargers affixed to the engine, the Audi’s engine used both Twin Turbos and a Supercharger. The Twin Turbos allowed for the massive spike in power at high revs, and the Supercharger eliminated the primary problem with Twin Turbos, that being “turbo lag.” “Turbo lag” is an issue where when an engine is at low revs, the Turbochargers won’t produce any power, leaving the engine very weak and slow in comparison.

The Turbochargers spin faster based on the revs of the engine, and the faster they spin the more air they suck in, allowing for the engine to produce more power. The Supercharger almost eliminated this problem because the Supercharger was able to create consistent, albeit less than the turbochargers, power at lower revs. The use of “dual-charging” allowed for this vehicle to have incredibly consistent power, as well as incredibly high power, something which other vehicles would have to decide between instead of utilizing both. Another fairly significant vehicle in Group B Rally was the Lancia 037, the car known as the last RWD vehicle to be somewhat successful in Group B.

Group B thanks to its ludicrous pace and minimal room for error was dominated by the AWD monsters that were easier to drive, could accelerate faster, and generally were able to put down power more efficiently. However, the Lancia 037 did have its specialties, as a RWD drivetrain is far lighter than an AWD drivetrain, putting the Lancia at a weight advantage, and because of how it was structured, the vehicle was at a special advantage on tarmac courses. On tarmac the RWD wasn’t a problem since the tires could easily grip and still push the car very quickly. The issue came in on the specific dirt and gravel courses where any driver no matter how experienced would struggle keeping its rear from stepping out and spinning. 

Lancia

Another RWD car also existed in Group B, the Opel Manta 400, but this car ended up fading into obscurity as it did not have the advantages present in the Lancia, and did not find nearly the same success. The Peugeot 205 was another standout from Group B however, and one of the biggest winners alongside the Audi Quattro which had somewhat of a rival in it. The interesting thing about the Peugeot 205 was that it wasn’t just a modified version of a production car like many of the other Group B cars, but was purpose-built for Group B much like the Lancia Stratos was for Group 4 where it became one of the most successful and famous rally vehicles ever. It got to the point where for a time the Quattro was almost totally outrun by the Peugeot, for the Quattro was being pushed to its limits while the Peugeot was only at the beginning of its lifespan. 

Peugeot

Once the later years of Group B came in, the Audi Quattro and Peugeot 205 continued as the two frontrunners in Group B, developing further and faster and leaving the RWD Lancia 037 in the dust. 

Group B was probably the most exhilarating and exciting sport to both be a part of, and to watch, and as the main attraction is with a lot of racing, the main draw of Group B rally was the danger of the races. Thanks to how fast these cars were, they were known for being incredibly hard to control, and crashes of great spectacle would occur very often. At first this was treated like any other motorsport, such as NASCAR, where crashes were accepted as an inevitability, but unfortunately things eventually started to go too far. On multiple occasions there were tragic crashes that killed multiple spectators, and at points resulted in the deaths of some of the most proficient and talented Rally Drivers, and motorsportsmen in general, ever seen throughout history. A large problem with Group B, and rally as a whole, is the fact that there are no designated spectator zones, so therefore spectators line the entire course along the edge where with one wrong move a vehicle could plow down an unassuming spectator who was trying to get a decent picture or a better view.

The speed of Group B only added to this problem as the drivers hardly had time to react were this to happen. The 1986 season of the rally group was where things finally began to fall apart, and the first crash of the season was the true sendoff to Group B. At this point people had finally begun to realize that this type of racing was far too unsafe. The crash was in Lancia’s AWD vehicle, the Lancia Delta, driven by Henri Toivonen and his co driver Sergio Cresto. Both of these men were highly respected in the rally racing community and both of them died immediately upon impact on this date. Drivers began wanting out after a soon following crash of a Peugeot 215 that crippled a veteran racer, as many began fearing that they themselves would end up crippled, or worse. On March 5th, the most tragic crash of Group B happened when Joaquim Santos lost control of his Ford RS200 and plowed into a wall of spectators. Approximately 31 were very severely injured, and 3 of the spectators died immediately. Finally the story of Group B, the most dangerous of any motorsport to ever exist, came to a close. The exhilarating spectacle of the ludicrous vehicles was lost to history, and rightfully so. No matter how innovative the cars were, no matter how exciting it was to watch, the danger couldn’t be ignored, and the cars seen in the races faded into legend. 


Seen here is the gruesome crash of Henri Toivonen and his co driver Sergio Cresto:

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