Group B was the ultimate expression of a rally car in the 1980s
hat a difference a decade makes. Ten years earlier, unbeknown to the wider world, rallying stood on the brink of its very own arms race: Group B was coming.
January, 1987. It’s been and gone. The new dawn has brought Group A. Walter Rohrl’s co-driver Christian Geistdorfer remembers it well.
“It was like going from a rocket to a bicycle,” he says.
Pretty much over night, power outputs were halved. And, let’s be honest, that was reflected in the spectacle. The 1986 season was world rallying’s watershed, when mad turned bad, but at the same time, what a phenomenal demonstration of speed and power between the trees.
Certainly, 1987 delivered nothing like the tragedies we’d seen in the preceding 12 months, but few remember Lancia’s Delta HF 4WD or the Mazda 323 4WD with anything like the fondness or fear they recall the S4 or Audi’s fearsome quattro E2.
Ingolstadt’s final Group B machine was the one that ultimately convinced Rohrl things had gone too far. Like its rivals, Audi suffered from horrendous turbo lag, but in 1985 that problem was partly overcome by the use of a doubleclutch transmission. This allowed flat-shifting up the gearbox, eliminating the inevitable delay as the engine dropped off boost while the clutch was deployed.
Rohrl was testing the system in Greece and vividly recalls the speed between between two hairpins. Instead of just over 100mph, the quattro was suddenly doing 130mph.
Rohrl recalls: “I said to myself: ‘Now, this is too fast for me. Now I am afraid for my life.’”
But even at that time, Audi was working on the next step. How to make quick, quicker; how to rub out and rearrange what was seen as the edge of the envelope.
The natural evolution of Group B took it over the edge. There was a need for change and that change was Group S. As a replacement for the wildest category in rallying’s history, the expectation was that it would be even more crazy. It was quite the opposite.
What was crazy was the planning for rule change to Appendix J, which regulated the classification of rally cars. The movement from Group 4 to Group B to Group S and ultimately Group A was elongated, bureaucratic, bad-tempered, at times ill-conceived; standard-fare it would seem for FISA president Jean-marie Balestre’s administration at the time.
Balestre battled long and hard with BPICA (manufacturer representation in the sport via the Bureau Permanent Internationale des Constructeurs d’automobile) over the World Rally Championship’s future. Volatility within the governing body wasn’t helped by Balestre’s ongoing war with FOCA [Formula One Constructors’ Association]; the Frenchman used anything and everything for ammunition and the WRC regularly found itself in the firing line.
A loose agreement for Group B was forged in January 1980. Nine months later, the FISA Executive voted by three to one against it. Group B was banned before it had begun.
It turned out some countries were worried about the extra speed and performance from the new cars. Seeing them as a potential threat to the sport, they politely declined the revolution.
Manufacturers like Ford and Lancia had, however, already started work on new cars. The Blue Oval’s RS1700T being one example of an early exploitation of the expected new rules.
A year later, in January 1981, the first Concorde Agreement was signed, bringing peace between FISA-FOCA. A couple of months later, Group B was back on track. Ford’s supply of DFV engines to much of the F1 paddock no doubt helped shape and influence decision-making at the time…
But still, there wasn’t clarity. When would Group B start? There had been talk of 1982, but that was stalled. Then it was on again. But by then, teams simply hadn’t the time to build the required 200 cars to conform to the new rules. The compromise was running Group B alongside the existing groups 2 and 4, which were given a stay of execution to run and score points in the championship for one more year.
The following year would be for Group B only. For sure. Sure? Almost sure… In the end the older category cars were allowed to run into 1983, but could only used by non-priority drivers who would not be allowed to score points.
So, the new era started, sort of, with the 1982 Monte Carlo Rally. On round two, Balestre turned up in Sweden, called a press conference and told the watching world he thought banning evolutions of Group B was probably a good idea.
His technical department – headed from 1982 by Gabriele Cadringher – was aghast. Clearly, the president hadn’t bothered to share his considerations ahead of his Karlstad announcements.
Ultimately, the evolutions went ahead – and it was in those evolutions that the exploitation of the regulations lay.
Away from the individual manufacturer development, Group B was progressing apace as car firms watched then bettered the competition.
Peugeot’s 205 T16 is the obvious example: the French mimicked Audi’s use of turbo power and four-wheel drive, but identified the benefits of lifting the engine out and putting it behind the driver and co-driver. When Lancia came along a few years later, the Delta S4 partly eradicated Group B’s Achilles heel, turbo lag, with the use of a supercharger.
From that first Audi to the S4’s RAC debut in 1985, the speed increase was simply shocking.
It was the same story within Audi itself. The original Group 4 quattro was a tractor by comparison with the E2 winged monster, which grew via the A1, A2 and S1.
Ingolstadt had undoubtedly instigated the revolution, but it was furthered by Peugeot. And never was the changing of the guard more obvious than in Corsica, 1984. Audi’s Sport quattro made its muchanticipated debut alongside the 205 T16. Peugeot was an overnight success while Audi headed back in the direction of the drawing board.
Ari Vatanen led on the 205’s asphalt debut in Corsica and on its first time out on the loose in Greece, before eventually dominating the 1000 Lakes a couple of months down the line.
That’s not to say the Peugeot hadn’t been born without issues. Mating turbocharging with four-wheel drive and trying to find a mid-engined car with some sort of balance was not the work of a moment. But Jean Todt