Unlimited Power: The Meteoric Rise and Fall of Group B Rally

The 1980s was a glorious era of excess. Big hair, neon lights, and cars that went way too fast were not only a staple of the Reagan United States. In Europe, the sport of Rally was about to reach an exciting new high. A relaxation of regulations in the sport by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) meant Rally cars were lighter and running more horsepower than ever before. This lead to a rebirth in the sport which reinvigorated interest and created a legacy which Rally fans still consider the golden age. Unfortunately, the same things that made Group B Rally great were directly responsible for its downfall. The excess ended up becoming a great danger to drivers and spectators and Group B was banned after only four seasons.

Rally is a highly unique motorsport. The races are run in stages with staggered starts and the goal is not to pass opponents but to beat their overall times. Rally is not door-to-door racing as seen in almost every other kind of motorsport. Instead, Rally drivers and their integral co-driver (who calls out turn information) navigate courses that are often times not paved, in conditions that most people struggle to drive in at a commuting speed. The crews of these cars do not have the luxury of caution. They have to navigate hairpins and jumps on ice, on cliffs, and in crowds of spectators. Watching some of the feats of car handling in Rally makes Hollywood look pedestrian. Rally is as much a race against other drivers as it is against the natural landscape of the many places in which races are held. However, it is still very much about speed and in its most simple terms; the most horsepower and torque at the lowest overall weight is the ideal set-up for setting blistering stage times. Until 1982 there were many regulations placed on Rally by the FIA and in that banner year, Group B was created.

Group B in and of itself is nothing more than a regulation class. There were no changes to the basic rules of Rally, however, the cars became devils. Originally, a company building a Rally car had to turn out 400 general public production versions of their race car; Group B halved that number. The relaxed technology regulations saw cars that were closer to fighter jets than their original production models. Amongst these beasts, the Ford RS200, the Lancia Delta S4, and the Audi Sport Quattro stood above the pack. With the Lancia and Audi producing a rivalry which was as big in the Rally world as the Yankees and the Red Sox. Maurice Guaslard, head of Michelin’s rally program said “Rallying has reached a point such that the speed limitation is the profile of the road…They cannot go any faster!” Stage times began to be separated by ~3 seconds, a difference which is almost unheard of in Rally and one which makes for extremely exciting racing. With a roster populated by some of the best drivers in Rally history and major European auto giants squaring off across the globe, the crowd draw at these races were incredible. For a couple years it was a racing euphoria and responsible for some of the greatest racing stories in motorsport history. However, the dangers were looming on the horizon. Crowds were getting too large and too unruly. The speed of the cars had drivers reacting in split-seconds. It was all about to come to a violent end.

Deregulation creates an incredible spectacle in a short span of time. However, some would argue that over time the unchecked excess will eventually swing back the other way and do more harm than it ever did good. This was true for Group B Rally in an almost immediate way. Group B began in 1982, by its end in 1986 four accidents had proven fatal for at least one of the crew members in a car. As well there was one particularly disturbing event in which Joaquim Santos plowed into a crowd in Portugal, killing 3 and injuring more than thirty. Rally was a dangerous affair which, in a lot of ways, created the draw. However, FIA organizers realized that the lack of car regulations and the burgeoning lack of crowd control was only going to continue to become more dangerous. The proverbial last straw came on May 2nd, 1986 when Finnish driver and championship leader Henry Toivonen lost control on a turn in the France rally. He and his co-driver Sergio Cresto were killed, hours later Group B was banned from competing in the 1987 season.

Only 4 years separated the beginning and end of Group B Rally. However, those four years contained enough great racing that Rally fans still talk about the era with glorious reverence. There is a solemn nature to speaking about Group B, a grim understanding that the outlaw nature fans loved about it were also the reasons why it was nipped so early in its life. Rally at its absolute core is about pushing the limits of car and driver and for a brief moment there were no limits. No regulations to hold back the field or create equity and balance. Much like the decade it starred in, Group B was pure indulgence. Indulgence in speed and skill. For 4 years Rally fans can claim they saw the best drivers and the best cars in the world racing at their absolute maximum.

 

References:

Midghall, Adam. “The Death Of Group B.” Car Throttle. 2016. Accessed March 05, 2018. https://www.carthrottle.com/post/wodk7lo/.

Oagana, Alex. “Group B Rally Cars: The Killer Bs.” Autoevolution. November 22, 2010. Accessed March 05, 2018. https://www.autoevolution.com/news/group-b-rally-cars-the-killer-b-s-2724.html.

 

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