Dubbed the golden age of rally racing, Group B has been steeped in controversy ever since it was banned in 1986. But just who are the players in this historical racing drama, and what was Group B rally racing all about?
Group B rally racing was a series of races from 1980 to 1984 that is considered to be a truly unique and legendary period in the history of racing. Lax regulations allowed for extreme (and deadly) power outputs, requiring extreme skill and bravery to maneuver.
Group B was truly a remarkable time in the history of racing, and the sheer absurdity of this brief, yet action-packed series cannot be overstated. The rest of this article will discuss the history of Group B and how it has impacted racing to this day.
What a time to be alive. Introduced in the 1980s, the Group B era of racing pushed drivers and their machines to the limits of possibility and their racers to the brink of death, perhaps more so than any other motorsport competition in history. Both the racers and drivers were unlike anything the world had ever seen.
The vehicles produced during this time are unlike anything ever manufactured. Wanting to spice up the competition, the Fédération Internationale de L’Automobile (FIA) introduced a new class of racers that would basically give designers unrestricted creativity to design their rally racers anyway they chose.
Wilder still, the fabled Group B class was conducted on highly difficult courses that were narrow and fraught with major changes in elevation—all lined by swarms of eager fans.
With no restrictions on horsepower or torque output and mo limits on material designs. Almost no safety requirements. Truly, a recipe for disaster.
Beyond the lack of safety requirements, the ludicrously low 1962-pound (890 kilogram) weight minimum allowed for vehicles seriously lacking in integrity.
It seems the FIA was more interested in attracting new fans to the sport, and attract new fans it did. The Group B racing series was incredibly popular and led to many big-name companies to throw their hat in the ring, as it were, creating a competitive scene unlike any other.
The Group B racers were competing on public roads, allowing spectators to get up close and personal during the races.
The distinction between Group B’s vehicles and its predecessors was stark; unlike prior classes, Group B wasn’t required to adhere to the production model base for a vehicle. Manufacturers could design vehicles for maximum power and minimum safety, although it seemed to take them some time to realize the scope of what they could do.
By the end of the Group B competitions, designers had increased the horsepower from under 300 to well over 400, with some vehicles pumping out 600 horsepower. As you can imagine, the absolute lunacy of the Group B races was incredibly attractive to fans.
Drivers with insanely powerful cars and unparalleled bravery had to demonstrate their skills in machines that were far from broken-in, creating a truly thrilling spectacle for viewers.
While these vehicles were wild in their own right, the introduction of the Group B racing resulted in several massive breakthroughs in motor racing technology, including advancements in components like all-wheel drive, forced-induction, and semi-automatic gearboxes.
These vehicles weren't just one-of-a-kind death machines, they were also extraordinarily rare. Manufacturers weren’t required to produce these vehicles in the same quantity as other racing groups, so their scarcity was tantalizing to collectors. Here are some of the most famous cars from the Group B rally racing series.
Toyota already had its foot in the door when it came to the racing scene, so when the lax regulations for Group B were announced, the race department got to work.
Unlike most other cars in the Group B, the Celica actually had some robust safety features. Nicknamed “The Whistling Pig” for the sound that the engine produced, the Celica did manage to obtain several wins throughout this era of racing.
The Peugeot 205 T16 closely resembled the commercially produced 205 road model but was suped up to the nines with an advanced weight and dynamics system due to a perfect mid-placed engine. It zipped around corners—a great advantage considering the windy nature of the racetracks. In 1985 and 1986, the Peugeot secured two Group B championships.
Austin Rover, weighing in on the racing scene, developed a racecar that took all of the positives from the class’s fastest cars and integrated them into the design of the MG Metro commuter car.
Featuring a sturdy suspension package, mid-placed engine, and an advanced aero kit, the MG Metro 6R4 was an advanced racer of its day. Sadly, it never won any championships during its stay in the Group B competition.
After the failure of the RWD setup in the 037 for off-road sections, the Italian marque came back with a twin-charged powertrain outfitted with a supercharger and turbocharger, both offering incredible torque and allowing Lancia to score several wins before the conclusion of the Group B class.
A brilliantly designed chassis and suspension allowed the Lancia to excel offroad as well.
Planning to replicate the success of the Escort RS1700T, Ford quickly realized that the technical nature of the Group B courses would require a vehicle with a little more finesse.
As such, they designed a new vehicle completely from scratch, the specs included a lightweight design of only 2600 pounds and the capacity to pump out an astounding 600 horsepower and 400ft-lbs of torque, making it one of the fastest vehicles in the Group B era.
Citroën, new to the racing scene, certainly evolved their game by modifying their current BX model, fueled by a turbocharged engine and an advanced four-wheel drive system. The suspension system, designed on a hydropneumatic model, allowed for ride height adjustment while driving.
Unfortunately, the French firm was too late to the competition and never proved its worth before the Group B rally was ended.
Wanting to get in on this new racing scene, Ferrari kicked into high gear with their entry into the Group B competition. Instead of building a Group B racer from the ground up, Ferrari chose to modify the 288 GTO for use in the rally. Michelotto, one of Ferrari’s partners, would bring the Ferrari 288 GTO to life.
With lightweight carbon fiber bodywork and a tubular chassis with a long-travel suspension system, it’s a shame the 288 GTO never saw any competition in the Group B races; however, the power and performance capabilities of this vehicles certainly put it on par with other Group B racers.
Just as all good things must come to an end, so must all cockamamie ideas; however, it took over 30 injuries and several tragic deaths before FIA finally pulled the plug on the Group B rally cars.
The prevalence of power over safety meant that the cars were extremely volatile and prone to exploding or breaking apart on impact. But just like their vehicles, Group B’s mere existence in the racing scene was a ticking time bomb.
On May 2, 1986, driver Henri Toivonen, and co-driver Sergio Cresto, died on the Tour de Corse, dubbed the rally of 10,000 corners.
Potted and uneven, the deadly left turn lifted the Delta S4 off the ground, causing it to tumble down the mountain and subsequently burst into flames. The tragedy is that if the Delta S4 were designed with more robust safety features, Toivonen and Cresto might have survived.
The Kevlar-reinforced plastic body was extremely susceptible to burning, and, like all other Group B racers, the gravel guard designed to protect the alloy fuel tank on unpaved rallies was removed to conserve weight.
Moments after it tumbled from the road, the Delta S4’s alloy tank was punctured by the trees, causing the car to erupt into flames. And just like that, the life of Toivonen, former three-time champion and a heavy favorite for the race, was cut short.
Mere hours later, FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre announced the end of Group B, banning all Group B vehicles for the 1987 season. To put the nail in the coffin, major competitors Audi and Ford withdrew immediately.
Later investigations would prove just how dangerous Group B was: drivers’ reactions were not fast enough to cope with the speed of the cars and the frequency of the turns, causing tunnel vision. It’s astounding that it took such an explosive end
For example, in a separate incident, the driver of a Ford RS200 lost control of his vehicle and crashed headlong into the crowd, injuring thirty people and killing three of them.
In another accident during the 1986 ADAC Hessen-Rallye, Mark Surer crashed his RS 200 and was severely injured. Co-driver and friend Michel Wyder died in the accident. Surer may have survived, but the event clearly scarred him.
Ejected from the flaming wreckage and knocked unconscious by the force of the impact, he was comatose for three weeks. After he recovered, he retired immediately.
The Group B rally racing class was a truly remarkable period in racing history, born out of the FIAs blatant disregard for safety regulations and desire to attract new blood to the sport.
Race after race, highly talented drivers would climb into their absurdly powerful and extremely unsafe vehicles to tackle unprecedented obstacles—unpaved roads, winding turns, and narrow lands—all on public roads for spectators to stand as close as they wished.
It was truly a different time, and the introduction of Group B has created some of the most iconic (and unsafe) vehicles ever. These vehicles were a nightmare to control and required extraordinary levels of skill from drivers of exceptional caliber.
Even so, the Group B rally came to a swift and deadly end after the death of Toivonen and Cresto when their vehicle tumbled on the thematically-named "left turn that killed Group B" and burst into flames, quickly ending the class in 1986.
It was a moment in racing history that no one will forget, and Toivonen and Cresto’s death seemed to jolt competitors and racers back to reality. Modern racing might still be incredibly dangerous, but it’s likely that we will never see a class of vehicles—or drivers brave enough to pilot them—like those in Group B ever again.