Rallying has always been the working-man’s motorsport, with cars that were more or less based on affordable family sedans or hatchbacks. However, for a few years in the during the eighties, rally stages around the world were being won by fire-breathing, Formula One-rivaling, 500 horse-power monsters that proved to be too dangerous to drive in the end.
It all started in 1979 when the World Rally Championship’ governing bod , FISA, finally allowed competitors to use all-wheel drive in their cars. While the already-established, successful manufacturers like Lancia, Fiat and Ford shied away from the added weight and complexity of an AWD system, sticking to their proven RWD formula, a then-unknown German manufacturer decided to take on the challenge.
The Quattro’s more power made it harder to keep on the ground
Audi launched their Quattro in 1980 and, while still under the more restrictive Group 4 regulations, it proved that the future belonged to four-wheel drive vehicles.
It wasn’t until 1983 when things started to get crazy, as the Group B was officially created. With looser regulations, cars were now basically unlimited and could run even upwards of 500 horse-power from turbocharged engines. 1983 also brought the Quattro’s first real rival, the purpose-built Lancia 037.
The Lancia 037’s rear-wheel drive meant more sideways action
Still rear-wheel drive, the 037 managed to give the Quattro a run for its money due to its lower weight and mid-engine architecture, especially on tarmac stages. In the end, the Quattro won both 1983 and 1984 driver’s championships, driven by Hannu Mikkola (’83) and Stig Blomquist (’84, and yes, that’s where a certain TV show’s silent driver got his nickname), with Lancia winning the manufacturer’s championship in 1983.
1984 saw the introduction of the Peugeot 205 T16. Smaller, lighter and more powerful than its competitors, the 205 quickly rose to dominate the 1985 and 1986 seasons.
Cars were becoming now more wild and dangerous than ever. Four-wheel drive and turbocharging were now the norm and huge wings started to be used in order to keep the car in contact with the ground.
Speeds were insane and the cars got to the point where they could rival the Formula One cars of the same era. The combination of traction and power resulted in 0-60 times of 2.5 seconds!
The Peugeot 205 T16 was more nimble due to its size
It wasn’t long until other manufacturers decided to enter the competition with even more insane vehicles. Lancia introduced the turbocharged and supercharged Delta S4, Austin had its diminutively-sized Metro 6R4 (whose V6 engine went to power the Jaguar XJR supercar) and Ford brought the purpose-built RS200 into the game, while Audi and Peugeot revised their entries with the Quattro S1 and 205 T16 Evolution 2.
It’s easy to see how accidents could happen with crowds so close to the road
The stage was set for one hell of a competition, but in 1986 the 600-hp downforce monsters were proving to be too much to handle. During the same year’s Rally of Portugal, Joaquim Santos lost control of his Ford while trying to avoid a small group of spectators that were too close to the road, resulting in the car hitting another group of spectators, killing three and injuring thirty-one. Later that year, Lancia driver Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto met their tragic demise in another accident.
The end of Group B came in 1987 when it was banned by FISA and its president Jean-Marie Balestre, giving way to the slower and closer to their production counterparts Group A cars.
It is safe to say that we won’t ever see something as dangerous and thrilling as Group B rallying. Whilst current WRC cars are approaching – and even surpassing – rally stage times set by their fire-breathing ancestors, safety was vastly improved.
There’s no question about the influence that Group B had on rallying. Audi’s Quattro cemented the front-engined, turbocharged all-wheel drive layout as the best way to build a rally car around, and we owe it cars such as the Subaru Impreza STi and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.
The banned cars went on to set record times in the Pike’s Peak International Hill climb or to win rallycross competitions, and drivers like Walter Rohrl and Ari Vatanen became household names. The legacy of Group B lives on.