Group B was a set of regulations introduced in 1982 for competition vehicles in sportscar racing and rallying regulated by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA). The Group B regulations fostered some of the fastest, most powerful, and most sophisticated rally cars ever built and is commonly referred to as the golden era of rallying. However, a series of major accidents, some of them fatal, were blamed on their outright speed and lack of crowd control at events. After the death of Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto in the 1986 Tour de Corse, the FIA disestablished the class, dropped its previous plans to replace it by Group S, and instead replaced it as the top-line formula by Group A. The short-lived Group B era has acquired legendary status among rally fans and automobile enthusiasts in general.
Group A referred to production-derived vehicles limited in terms of power, weight, allowed technology and overall cost. The base model had to be mass-produced (5000 units/year) and had to have 4 seats. Group A was aimed at ensuring a large number of privately owned entries in races.
By contrast, Group B had few restrictions on technology, design and the number of cars required for homologation to compete—200, less than other series. Weight was kept as low as possible, high-tech materials were permitted, and there were no restrictions on boost, resulting in the power output of the winning cars increasing from 250 hp in 1981, the year before Group B rules were introduced, to there being at least two cars producing in excess of 500 by 1986, the final year of Group B. In just 5 years, the power output of rally cars had more than doubled.
The category was aimed at car manufacturers by promising outright competition victories and the subsequent publicity opportunities without the need for an existing production model. There was also a Group C, which had a similarly lax approach to chassis and engine development, but with strict rules on overall weight and maximum fuel load.
Group B was initially a very successful group, with many manufacturers joining the premier World Rally Championship, and increased spectator numbers. But the cost of competing quickly rose and the performance of the cars proved too much resulting in a series of fatal crashes. As a consequence Group B was canceled at the end of 1986 and Group A regulations became the standard for all cars until the advent of World Rally Cars in 1997.
In the following years Group B found a niche in the European Rallycross Championship, with cars such as the MG Metro 6R4 and the Ford RS200 competing as late as 1992. For 1993, the FIA replaced the Group B models with prototypes that had to be based on existing Group A cars, but still followed the spirit of Group B, with low weight, 4WD, high turbo boost pressure and staggering amounts of power.
Group 2 and Group 4
Until 1983 the two main classes of rallying were called Group 2 and Group 4. Major manufacturers competed in Group 4, which required a minimum of 400 examples of a competition car. Notable cars of the era included the Lancia Stratos HF, the Ford Escort RS1800 and the Fiat 131 Abarth.
In 1979 the FISA (then the name of the FIA's motorsport regulatory division) legalized four-wheel drive (4WD). Car companies were not keen on using 4WD as it was generally felt that the extra weight and complexity of 4WD systems would cancel out any performance benefits.
This belief was shattered when Audi launched a competition car in 1980, the Turbocharged and 4WD Quattro. That year a Quattro was used in Portugal's Algarve Rallye. Registered by the Audi Sport Factory Rally Team, IN-NE 3, as an opening (zero) car, it was driven by professional driver Hannu Mikkola. Mikkola's co-driver was Arne Hertz. IN-NE 3's combined time for all stages on this rally was over 30 minutes quicker than that of the winner. While the new car was indeed heavy and cumbersome, its standing starts on gravel and road grip on Special Stages was staggering.
The Quattro was officially entered in the 1980 Jänner-Rallye in Austria and easily won. Audi kept on winning throughout the 1980 and 1981 seasons, although lack of consistent results meant that Ford took the driver's title in 1981 with Ari Vatanen driving a rear-wheel-drive Escort. The team's victory at the 1981 Rallye Sanremo, with the car piloted by Michèle Mouton, was the first time a woman won a World Championship rally. Mouton placed second in the drivers' championship the next year, behind Opel's Walter Röhrl.
Groups N, A and B
The FISA decided to separate the rally cars into three classes: Group N (production cars), Group A (modified production cars), and Group B (modified sports cars). These groups were introduced in 1982.
Group N and Group A cars were the same cars with different amounts of race preparation allowed (in Group N almost no modifications, in Group A significant modifications). The cars had to have four seats (although the minimum size of the rear seats was small enough that some 2+2 cars could qualify) and be produced in large numbers. This was 5000 cars/year between 1982 and 1991. It later changed to 2500 cars/year if the version being homologated was derived from a mass-market car (25000 cars/year for all versions).
Group B was conceived when the FISA found that numerous car manufacturers wanted to compete in rallying; witnessing the successes of the Stratos and the Quattro, manufacturers felt cars with mid-engine and RWD or 4WD were preferable, however their RWD production models had been gradually replaced by their FWD counterparts, lessening their chance of winning. By reducing the homologation minimum from 400 (in Group 4) to 200, FIA enabled manufacturers to design specialised RWD or 4WD rally cars without the financial commitment of producing their production counterparts in such large numbers.
Group B cars could be two-seaters and the minimum production was 200 cars. Manufacturers were allowed to homologate an evolution each year by producing 20 cars of that evolution. The cars entered in the races were further modified (same modifications allowed as in Group A). Group B could in theory be used to homologate production sports cars, which could not be homologated in Group N or A, because they did not have four seats or were not produced in large enough numbers (e.g. cars like the Ferrari 308, the Porsche 911, etc.). The designation used in the regulations ("Sports Grand Touring Cars") shows this intention.
The major manufacturers, however, used them in a different way: they designed a rally car, of which 20 were produced and designated the evolution model, and then built a limited series of 200 street cars for homologation. (Similar things have been done before in Group 4, for instance the Lancia Stratos.) In some cases these cars were sold at a loss and journalists[who?] reviewing them now acknowledge that their development was not quite finished.
In each group there were classes based on engine displacement (with a 1.4 equivalence factor for forced induction engines). Each class had different weight limits, maximum tyre sizes, etc. The most important classes for Group B were the 3000 cc class (2142.8 cc with turbo or supercharger), 960 kg minimum weight (Audi Quattro, Lancia 037) and 2500 cc (1785 cc), 890 kg (Peugeot 205 T16, Lancia Delta S4).
The original Renault 5 Turbo had a 1.4 L engine so it was in the 2000 cc class. The Ferrari 288 GTO and the Porsche 959 were in the 4000 cc (2857 cc), 1100 kg class, which would have probably become the normal class for track racing if Group B had seen much use there. Otherwise they existed for old Group 4 cars which competed until 1985.
Classes in Group B:
(front & back)
|4000 cc||2857 cc||1100 kg||24"||Ferrari 288 GTO, Porsche 959|
|3000 cc||2142.8 cc||960 kg||22"||Audi Quattro, Lancia 037, MG Metro 6R4, Ford RS200|
|2500 cc||1785 cc||890 kg||22"||Peugeot 205 T16, Lancia Delta S4|
|2000 cc||1428 cc||820 kg||20"||Renault 5 Turbo|
Audi was in the 3000 cc class because the displacement of the street car happened to be in that class, and as a car derived from the street version, it would have been difficult to reach the minimum weight needed. For the 037 Lancia decided that the lower class might be too light and consequently too fragile for gravel rallies, and they happened to have a good 2000 cc engine.
When these rules were decided it was felt that these displacement restrictions would be enough to control power, but in the early and mid-1980s engineers learnt how to extract extraordinary amounts of power from turbo engines (the same thing was happening in F1). Nowadays the power of turbo engines is limited by mandating a restrictor in the intake (in World Rally Car, Group A and Group N).
Although the Audi Quattro was still in essence a Group 4 car, it carried Hannu Mikkola to the driver's title in 1983. Lancia had designed a new car to Group B specifications, but the Lancia 037 still had rear wheel drive and was thus less consistent than the Audi over different surfaces (generally the Lancia had the upper hand on tarmac, with the Audi remaining superior on looser surfaces such as snow and gravel). Nevertheless, the 037 performed well enough for Lancia to capture the manufacturers title, which was generally considered more prestigious at the time, with a rally to spare. In fact, so low was Lancia's regard for the Drivers Championship, they did not enter a single car into the season finale RAC Rally, despite the fact that driver Walter Röhrl was still in the hunt for the title.
The low homologation requirements quickly attracted manufacturers to Group B. Opel replaced their production-derived Ascona with the Group B Manta 400, and Toyota built a new car based on their Celica. Like the Lancia 037 both cars were rear wheel drive, but, while successful in national rallying in various countries, they were less so at World Championship level, although Toyota won the 1983 Ivory Coast Rally after hiring Swedish desert driving specialist, the late Björn Waldegård.
In 1984, Audi's Stig Blomqvist beat Lancia to the driver's title, although the victory was bittersweet: Midway through the year Peugeot had joined the rallying scene with its Group B 205 T16. The T16 also had four wheel drive and was smaller and lighter than the Audi Quattro. At the wheel was the 1981 driver's champion Ari Vatanen, with future Ferrari Formula One team manager and FIA President Jean Todt overseeing the operation. A crash prevented the T16 from winning its first rally but the writing was on the wall for Audi.
Despite massive revisions to the Quattro, including a shorter wheelbase, Peugeot dominated the 1985 season. Although not without mishap: Vatanen plunged off the road in Argentina and was gravely injured when his seat mountings broke in the ensuing crash. Timo Salonen won the 1985 champion title with 5 wins.
Although the crash was a sign that Group B cars had already become dangerously quick (despite Vatanen having a consistent record of crashing out while leading), several new Group B cars entered the rallying world in 1985:
- Late in the year, Lancia replaced their outclassed 037 with the Delta S4, which featured both a turbocharger and a supercharger for optimum power output.
- Ford returned after several years away with the Ford RS200 and the Ford Sierra RS Cosworth (though the latter went on to compete in Group A.
- Citroën developed and entered the BX 4TC, which ultimately was too heavy and cumbersome to be successful.
- Rover created the distinctive Metro 6R4, which featured boxy bodywork and a large spoiler mounted on the front of the car.
For the 1986 season, defending champion Timo Salonen had the new Evolution 2 version of Peugeot's 205 T16 with ex Toyota driver, Juha Kankkunen. Audi's new Sport Quattro S1 boasted over 600 hp (450 kW) and a huge snowplough-like front end. Lancia's Delta S4 would be in the hands of the Finnish prodigy Henri Toivonen and Markku Alén, and Ford was ready with its high tech RS200 with Stig Blomqvist and Kalle Grundel.
On the "Lagoa Azul" stage of the Portuguese Rally near Sintra, Portuguese national champion Joaquim Santos crested a rise, turning to his right to avoid a small group of spectators. This caused him to lose control of his RS200. The car veered to the right and slid off the road into the spectators. Thirty-one people were injured and three were killed. All the top teams immediately pulled out of the rally and Group B was placed in jeopardy.
Disaster struck again in early May at the Tour de Corse. Lancia's Toivonen was a championship favorite, and once the rally got underway he was the pace setter. Seven kilometres into the 18th stage, Toivonen's S4 flew off the unguarded edge of a tightening left hand bend and plunged down a steep wooded hillside. The car landed inverted with the fuel tanks ruptured by the impact. The combination of red hot turbocharger, Kevlar bodywork, and ruptured fuel tank ignited the car and set fire to the dry undergrowth. Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto died in their seats. With no witnesses to the accident it was impossible to determine what caused the crash other than Toivonen had left the road at high speed. Some cite Toivonen's ill health at the time (he reportedly was suffering from flu); others suggest mechanical failure, or simply the difficulty of driving the machine although Toivonen had a career full of crashing out while leading rallies. Up until that stage he was taking stage win after stage win and leading the rally by a large margin with no other driver challenging him.
The crash came a year after Lancia driver Attilio Bettega had crashed and died in his 037. While that fatality was largely blamed on the unforgiving Corsican scenery (and bad luck, as his co-driver, Maurizio Perissinot was uninjured), Toivonen and Cresto's death, combined with the Portugal tragedy and televised accident of F1 driver Marc Surer in another RS200 which killed co-driver Michel Wyder, compelled the FIA ban Group B cars immediately for 1987. Audi decided to quit Group B entirely after the Corsica race.
The final days of Group B would also be controversial. The Peugeots were disqualified from the Rally Sanremo by the Italian scrutineers as the 'skirts' around the bottom of the car were deemed to be illegal. Peugeot immediately accused the Italians of favouring the Lancias. Their case was strengthened at the next event, the RAC Rally, when the British scrutineers passed the Peugeots as legal in identical trim. France based FISA annulled the result of the Sanremo Rally eleven days after the final round in America. As a result, the championship title was passed from Lancia's Markku Alén to Peugeot's Juha Kankkunen. Timo Salonen had won another two rallies during the 1986 season and became the most successful group B era driver with a total of 7 wins.
Although 1987 saw the end of the Group B cars on the world stage they did not disappear from motorsport. Peugeot adapted their T16 to run in the Dakar Rally. Ari Vatanen won the event in 1987, 1989 and 1990. Improved Peugeot and Audi cars also competed in the Pikes Peak Hillclimb in Colorado. Walter Röhrl's S1 Rally car won the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 1987 and set a new record at the time. Audi used their Group B experience to develop a production based racing car for the Trans-Am and IMSA GTO series in 1988 and 1989 respectively. Ford sold off their RS200s to private buyers, with many being used in European Rallycross events from the beginning of 1987 till the end of 1992. The Metro 6R4 also became a frequent sight in Rallycross and the car was also entered in British and Irish national championship events. Porsche's 959 never entered a World Rally event, although it did compete in the Middle East championship and won the Paris-Dakar Rally. The 961 prototype won the GTX class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans 1986 race but crashed and caught fire in 1987. The Ferrari 288 GTO was built and sold the minimum requirement of cars to the public, however it never saw action in its category. The WSPC grids it was intended for was filled up by a batch of Group C cars, but it saw limited use in an IMSA GTO race in 1989.
As well as the cancellation of Group B, the tragedies of 1986 also brought about the scrapping of Group B's proposed replacement: Group S.
Group S rules would have limited car engine power to 300 hp (225 kW). To encourage innovative designs, ten examples of a car would have been required for homologation, rather than the 200 required for Group B. By the time of its cancellation, at least four Group S prototypes had been built: The Lancia ECV, the Toyota MR2-based 222D, the Opel Kadett Rallye 4x4 (aka Vauxhall Astra 4S) and the Lada Samara S-proto, and new cars were also planned by both Audi (the 002 Quattro) and Ford (a Group S development of the RS200). The cancellation of Group S angered many rally insiders who considered the new specification to be safer than Group B and more exciting than Group A.
The Group S concept was revived by the FIA in 1997 as the World Rally Car specification which, as of 2018, is still in use. WRC cars are limited to 300 hp (220 kW) and require 20 examples of a model but, unlike Group S, are required to share certain parts with production cars.
The era of Group B is often considered one of the most competitive and compelling periods in rallying. The combination of lightweight chassis, sophisticated aerodynamics and massive amounts of horsepower resulted in the development of a class of cars whose performance has not yet been surpassed within their category, even three decades later. In reference to their dubious safety record, however, the class has also earned an unsavory nickname among enthusiasts: "Killer B's".
NB: cars that were issued with Group B homologation certificate but were never built as a Group B racer are listed.
- Audi Sport Quattro RS 002
- Ford RS200
- Lada Samara S-proto
- Lancia ECV
- Toyota 222D (based upon MR2)
- Opel Kadett Rallye 4x4/Vauxhall Astra 4S
- Peugeot 405 T16 GR
- Proton Iswara 4WD Turbo Group S
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- Lancia Delta S4
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