Classic: Group B Rally
Racing changed forever in 1979 when the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) allowed four-wheel drive cars to compete in the events it sanctioned. Previously, the setup was banned so the majority of teams went rallying with rear-wheel drive racers.
In addition to providing extra traction, four-wheel drive allowed engineers to develop more powerful engines. Unsurprisingly, the first four-wheel drive rally car came from Audi, the company that had lobbied FISA to allow four-wheel drive in the first place. The team introduced a turbocharged four-wheel drive racer christened Quattro in 1980.
At first, rival teams weren’t worried about the arrival of the Audi Quattro.
“We thought “there’s no problem there, let them have their toy to play with. Of course, two years later when they actually came with the Audi Quattro we were all a little bit sort of taken aback because that wasn’t what we expected them to come with,” remembers John Davenport, the manager of MG’s rally team, in a documentary called Still Too Fast to Race.
New World Championship categories called Group N, A and B, respectively, came into effect at the beginning of the 1982 season. The regulations stated each manufacturer had to sell 200 street-legal examples of a particular car to the general public in order to homologate it in Group B, a number that was far easier to attain than the 400 examples required by the outgoing Group 4. This made Group B accessible to a wide range of machines. Additionally, Group B regulations put very few restrictions on key attributes like weight and power. Kevlar, fiberglass, turbochargers and superchargers were all fair game.
The Audi Quattro initially remained close to the regular-production coupe on which it was loosely based because it was designed under the Group 4 guidelines. The first true Group B car was arguably the low-slung Lancia 037 that debuted in 1982. Lancia believed the extra weight and the complexity added by four-wheel drive offset the benefit of improved traction so the 037’s supercharged four-cylinder engine spun the rear wheels only.
In 1982, the 037 was plagued with mechanical issues and Audi went on to win the Constructor’s Title with the Quattro. However, engineers had ironed out the kinks in time for following season and pilots Walter Röhrl and Markku Alen secured the Constructor’s Title for Lancia. 1983 also marked the introduction of two new rear-wheel drive competitors: the Opel Manta 400 and the Toyota Celica TCT.
Walter Röhrl moved to Audi for the 1984 season. The team won most of the races that year and took home the manufacturer’s championship but it had to fend off stiff competition from the new Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 that debuted late in the season.
Peugeot was gunning for all-out rally domination: Its team was led by Jean Todt and its cars were driven by experienced pilots like Ari Vatanen. The 205 T16 was a force to be reckoned with, and Audi knew it had to step up its game if it wanted to keep winning.
As the competition between automakers became fiercer and fiercer, the races drew an increasingly large amount of spectators.
“Thousands of people used to walk into the British forest to see a Quattro belching two yards of flame out of the exhaust. It was great for the spectators,” said David Sutton, the manager of Audi’s UK rally team.
1985 was one of the most interesting Group B seasons. Although the Peugeot 205 T16 (and, later, the 205 T16 Evolution 2) won most of the races, a Toyota Celica managed to take first in the grueling Marlboro Safari Rally and French pilot Jean Ragnotti won the Tour of Corsica behind the wheel of a Renault 5 Maxi Turbo. Audi introduced an updated, short-wheelbase version of the Quattro late in 1985 in order to keep up with the potent 205 T16. The reduced dimensions made the Quattro lighter and more nimble to drive.
The dangers of Group B started to become evident in 1985 when Lancia driver Attilio Bettega died after hitting a tree in a 037 during the Tour of Corsica. Several months later, Peugeot’s Ari Vatanen spent several days in the hospital after crashing a 205 T16 in Argentina.
Lancia surprised its competitors at the RAC Rally, the last event of the 1985 season, when it finally switched to four-wheel drive and replaced the 037 with the mighty Delta S4. Other new participants included the Ford RS200, the V6-powered MG Metro 6R4 and the Citroën BX 4TC.
The 1986 season got off to an exciting start thanks to a diverse field of competitors that included a revised Audi Sport Quattro with a snowplow-like front end and an engine pushed to about 600 horsepower. Unfortunately, the season took a turn for the worse at the Rally of Portugal when Ford’s Joaquim Santos swerved to avoid group of spectators, lost control and veered into the crowd, killing three and injuring over 30. Audi and Ford immediately withdrew from the rally and nearly all of the pilots petitioned the FIA for better crowd control.
Tragedy struck again at the Tour of Corsica when a Delta S4 driven by Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto plunged into a ditch and caught fire. Both men died on the spot, though the crash went unnoticed until spectators realized the car hadn’t arrived at the finish line, saw a cloud of smoke in the distance and put two and two together. The accident happened about a year after the fatal crash that took the life of Bettega, and it convinced the FIA to finally act.
The FIA’s president announced Group B would be canceled at the end of the 1986 season because it had become too dangerous. It banned teams from building evolutions of their current cars and it also canceled Group S, a new category that was scheduled to kick off in 1987.
The mood was understandably low but the season continued. Race authorities disqualified the Peugeot 205 T16 from the 1986 Rally of San Remo because they ruled the car was fitted with illegal side skirts. The call was heavily debated and Peugeot accused the Italian authorities of cheating to help Lancia win. The FIA later reversed the decision and the rally was not counted in the final points tally. Peugeot took home the last-ever Group B constructor’s title in 1986.
Some of the Group B cars were sold to privateers after the 1986 season while others were modified and entered in other events. An evolution of the Peugeot 205 T16 won the Paris – Dakar twice, and the Audi Quattro continued to race at Pikes Peak, setting a new record at the 1987 edition of the hill climb.
Be sure to check out the gallery for more archival photos from this legendary series.