Evocative names come forth when people start chatting about vintage rallying. “Did you see the Rothman’s-sponsored 911s that used to drive on the dirt?,” some might say. Other, more smug aficionados might retort with something like, “Yes, but everything was rear wheel-drive in that period.” This sort of long-winded conversation drones on until the enthusiast worth their salt touches on the Group B years of rally racing, circa 1982-1986. Then my ears prick up.
Since the eighties was a decade known for excess, Group B rallying fit in perfectly to the whole mold. With a booming worldwide economy, tons of money was poured into technological innovation and the eighties saw the rise and development of the turbocharger and the four wheel-drivetrain in the racing world. Audi spearheaded the use of four driven wheels on loose surfaces and despite the weight handicap, it was trouncing the rear-driven competition on snow and dirt.
Turbos had, on the other hand, been in motorsports for a few years before their inception into rallying. Renault pioneered the turbo in Formula One in the late seventies and Porsche had been making arguments for the effectiveness of the turbo in sports car racing for some time. Its promise in rally cars was not seen until the arrival of Audi’s dominant Quattro. The five-cylinder, force-fed engine was heavy and impacted the weight distribution, but the Quattro four wheel-drive system could compensate for the less-than-ideal balance and made controlling the power feasible.
By the time these technologies had become the clear step forward, other marques were trying their hands at them. Thankfully, limitations in the Group B era were minimal and manufacturers were able to aggressively pursue performance and refine their approach year-after-year, thereby keeping the winners uncertain. Audi’s S1 had dominated until 1984 when Peugeot released its 205 T16, which happened to be piloted by the 1981 world champion Ari Vatanen.
Come 1985 and Lancia replaced their obsolete, rear wheel-drive 037 with the four wheel-drive Delta S4. At first glance, the S4 stood apart from its competitors with its quirky proportions. Its stocky, hatchback rear and jagged aero kit and elongated, rounded front-end with bug eye headlights gave it a strange combination of parts that made it look a bit Frankenstein.
Looks were not the only peculiar part of the Lancia’s makeup. The S4’s mid-mounted engine was a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder that boasted both a supercharger and a turbocharger, a combination also known as “twincharging”. The supercharger aided response at the low end and the turbo gave the motor some serious top-end punch. Official figures rated the Delta S4 at 480 horsepower, but some sources claimed the actual figure was closer to 560 horsepower. In any event, the engine was tested under extreme conditions and boost pressure was raised – for scientific purposes- to 5 bar, resulting in over 1,000 horespower.
With carbon fiber and kevlar bodywork, vehicle weight was kept down to the category minimum at 1,962 pounds. The front and rear bodywork was completely detachable in the event of an accident. Critically, the S4 was one of the first rally cars to really utilize downforce, having a gurney flap, front splitter, front winglets and a solid rear aerofoil. The windows were fixed kevlar with a sliding opening. Clearly, this car was designed to decimate.
And decimate it did. Chosen for the 1985 campaign was the Finnish prodigy Henri Toivonen who took the S4 to victory in its first competition event, the 1985 RAC Rally. In the sister car was the established Markku Alen, who would ultimately take second place in the 1986 season, winning the Olympus rally in the process. The Lancia would cement its legacy through both its success and the horrible accidents it became associated with.
On Thursday, May 1, 1986, Toivonen inexplicably careened off the road during the Tour de Corsa. What had caused Toivonen to miss the corner is uncertain, though ill-health was suspected. Henri had been taking flu medication at the time of the crash. Plummeting down a tree-studded hillside into a ravine, the car landed on its roof, puncturing the gas tanks in the process. Lighting both the fuel and underbrush, the resulting fire burned so hot that when the medical staff arrived on the scene an appalling thirty minutes after, all that was left of the car was the charred spaceframe. The bodies of Toivonen and his copilot, Sergio Cresto, were found thrown from the car. The Finnish sensation was 29 years old.
The accident struck the death knell for the Group B program, as within hours of Toivonen’s death, the FIA cancelled Group B. In conjunction with an incident that year at the Portuguese Rally which killed three spectators and hospitalized thirty-one more, the FIA had decided it had enough wit hthese fire-breathing monsters, citing that they were simply too fast to be driven within the narrow confines of rally stages. In reality, the cars and crowds could’ve been improved and the spectacle retained, but such was the impact of these two incidents that the governing body decided to shut it down.
The sudden axing of Group B angered both fans and manufacturers. Metro, for instance, had an excess of their 6R4 rally cars which could not be sold as street cars nor raced in any sanctioned series immediately thereafter. Fans clamored for a series that would replicate some of the drama seen in the Group B days, but the proposed successor, Group S, was canned despite significant power restrictions. Many teams left rallying on an acrimonious note and would not return for some time.
Thankfully, some of the innovation seen during that era was seen in Audi’s S1, which completely dominated the 1987 Pike’s Peak Hillclimb, where 600 horespower and sophisticated aerodynamics helped it carve up the fourteen-thousand foot mountain. Peugeot did the same, and some of the Group B magic can be experienced vicariously through their 1990 film Climb Dance. For anyone who wants to get a better impression of what it was like to drive one of these monsters, the onboard footage featuring a confident Ari Vatanen sliding his Peugeot on the edge of a cliff will do the trick.
Group B lives on in the minds and hearts of enthusiasts because the cars constantly pushed the limits. Not only was the technical side of it interesting, but the competition was close and the drivers had to change their mental and physical approach to keep up with the ever-improving machinery. Ultimately, it proved to be a dangerous, but mesmerizing spectacle with showed what could be achieved with imagination, plenty of resources, and very few rules.