Wednesday, May 22, 2019
Group B Rallying’s Greatest Cars

No other form of motorsport has seen quite as acute an explosion in technology over such a short span of time as Group B rallying. For a few short years from 1982 to 1986, Group B allowed rallying to explode in both popularity and stature, this meteoric rise only matched by the dizzying power outputs of the cars competing, and the clever, boundry-pushing technological advances that made them possible. Of course Group B also had a dark side, and the final year brought tragedy in the form of an ‘off’ at Rally Portugal which saw spectators perish, and a monster crash that claimed the lives of Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresta at Corsica.

Group B’s power to enthrall remains resolutely undiminished a full 30 years since its demise, probably partly to do with the manner in which it ended, but mainly thanks to the sheer spectacle it represented. With this in mind, we’ve put together a quick run-down of the Greatest Group B cars of all. The list isn’t based on results, just the cars which we feel best embodied the WRC at the time and those that we find fascinating.

Despite a string of reliably issues, the original A1/A2 Quattro was the dominant force in early '80s rallying

Despite a string of reliably issues, the original A1/A2 Quattro was the dominant force in early ’80s rallying

Audi Quattro A1/A2

It’s an all too often overlooked fact that Audi actually had to seek permission from the other manufacturers competing within the WRC to be allowed to campaign the Quattro, as the rules governing the sport at the time forbade the use of four-wheel drive. The likes of Ford, Fiat, Lancia and Saab saw no problem as at that time all-wheel drive was the preserve of Land Rovers, tractors and the odd Jensen Interceptor. Doubtless all four were deeply unimpressed when, mere years later in 1981, Audi debuted the Quattro, at a stroke consigning rear-wheel drive, naturally aspirated cars to the history books.

Homologated into Group 4 for 1981, the Quattro set about wiping the smirks of the faces of rival team managers at the Monte Carlo rally. Hannu Mikkola had been signed up to drive the five-pot machine, and within 10 stages he was a staggering 6 minutes ahead! A shredded alternator belt put paid to his chances though, a sign of things to come – it eventually took Audi a full season to make the Quattro into a reliable rally winner. Niggles aside, the Quattro quite clearly represented a paradigm shift in rally cart design, and within months Audi’s rivals had begun drawing up plans for their own four-wheel drive Group B weapons. While they were doing this Audi cleaned up, winning the manufacturer’s title in 1982, taking Mikkola to the drivers’ title in 1983, and bagging both gongs the following season!

Rear-wheel drive was a huge disadvantage in mid '80s rallying, yet the Manta 400 was developed into a formable rally car

Rear-wheel drive was a huge disadvantage in mid ’80s rallying, yet the Manta 400 was developed into a formable rally car

Opel Manta 400

GM Dealer Sport campaigned the Ascona 400, a traditional, NA Group 4 car with a rear-wheel drive layout, successfully in the early ’80s, and its Group B Manta replacement had much in common, including the engine and transmission. This resolutely old school layout meant that it was always going to be up against it when pitted against the likes of the Quattro, but it was light, reliable and very ‘chuckable,’ able to give the four-wheel drive opposition a very tough time on sealed surface events. It was never able to win a WRC round much less the title, yet anyone who followed the British Rally Championship in the mid ’80s will recall the titanic battles between the Mantas of Jimmy McRae, Russell Brookes, Bertie Fisher and Austin McHale, and the various Quattros and T16s.

Late to the party, the Ford RS200 looked to have all the makings of a WRC winner, it simply ran out of time

Late to the party, the Ford RS200 looked to have all the makings of a WRC winner, it simply ran out of time

Ford RS200

Ford’s first foray into Group B rallying was the RS1700T, a machine based on the then current Mk3 Escort and powered by the BDT, a turbocharged engine proven to make big power. BHP wasn’t an issue but traction was, Ford having opted to stick with rear-wheel drive, a mistake it realised midway through and one which prompted it to cancel the project and focus instead on the RS200. A far more sophisticated beast, the RS200 retained the BDT yet brought power all the way to 420bhp. It had a very trick suspension setup with twin wishbones and double dampers front and rear, both of which made it a very capable car on gravel, while Ford’s Boreham-run team was very well versed in how to set about World Rallying having won many times in the preceding decade.

Sadly the RS200 was destined to never win a WRC event. It made its works debut on the 1986 Swedish Rally and was on the pace right away, Stig Blomqvist and Kalle Grundel using it to great effect on the snowy stages, but both were ultimately denied a maiden win. Ford’s challenge came too late in the life of Group B to make any real impact on the WRC, and after the horrors of Portugal the works team was seen only sporadically.

The S1 E2 was the ultimate Quattro, a be-winged monster that allowed Audi to snatch a final Group B win

The S1 E2 was the ultimate Quattro, a be-winged monster that allowed Audi to snatch a final Group B win

Audi Sport Quattro S1/S1 E2

The passage of time revealed the Quattro to have one massive weakness, its production car origins. Its front engined layout was a hangover from its debut in Group 4, and though sheer, brute power and traction enabled Audi to claim titles in the early part of the decade, by the end of 1983 it’d become clear that some fresh thinking would be required if the Quattro was to ever win again.

Clearly alarmed by the pace of the Peugeot 205 T16, Ingolstadt’s boffins went back to the drawing board, coming back with the ‘short’ Sport Quattro. They’d removed a full 12.6in from the length of the car in order to make it a nimbler prospect and less of an understeery beast, yet all the chopping in the world couldn’t eliminate its biggest issue, the five pot engine slung (mostly) ahead of the front axle. In fact by some accounts the reduction in length made the even twitchier, and it wasn’t long before Audi was hard at work on the third and final iteration of the Quattro, the S1 E2.

The S1 E2 was the ultimate incarnation of the Sport Quattro. Its radiators were moved to the boot in an effort to aid weight distribution, it sported some of the wildest aero appendages ever seen on a rally car, and never had less that 450bhp. It only won once, Walter Röhrl using all his prodigious talent to smash the PSA onslaught in Sanremo 1985, but it was without doubt the wildest looking of all the Group B machines.

If anyone could make rear wheel drive and Group B together, it was Lancia

If anyone could make rear wheel drive and Group B together, it was Lancia

Lancia 037

Lancia’s competition budget was comfortably the biggest of the bunch before Audi gatecrashed its party, so the Turin firm probably felt quite confident in its ability to take the fight to the German upstarts with its first Group B car, the 037. The 037 lacked all-wheel drive but in all other respects it was almost the perfect rally car: light, adaptable, backed up by a team with a stunning track record, and instantaneous power courtesy of its supercharged 1995cc four-pot. Lancia also waggled its check book under the noses of some of the WRC’s finest drivers, coming up trumps with (amongst others) Markku Alen and Walter Röhrl.

The 037 was destined to face off against the long wheelbase Quattro, and the fight between the proven Italian car and the experimental German one proved a fascinating spectacle. The 037 was quick, reliable and could run rings around the cumbersome (and often sickly) Quattro on tarmac, but it had no answer for the Ingolstadt machine’s gravel pace. Lancia snagged the 1983 Championship for makes against the odds, but that point the writing was on the wall for two-wheel drive and the factory had already begun work on the 037’s replacement.

The rip-snorting Renault 5 Maxi was able to win the 1985 Tour de Corse

The rip-snorting Renault 5 Maxi was able to win the 1985 Tour de Corse

Renault 5 Maxi

Not every manufacturer that signed up to Group B thought that four-wheel drive was essential to win, and Renault was a prime example. It had campaigned the 5 Turbo successfully in Group 4 in the early part of the decade, the rear-wheel drive machine able to put up a fantastic fight on sealed surface rounds thanks to its turbocharged 1397cc Cléon motor. The pace of development in Group B meant that by the time 1985 rolled round the writing was on the wall though, and Renault was forced to concede that the car would need further development in order to be competitive.

The resulting car was the Renault 5 Maxi, a highly developed version of the R5 which had won the Tour de Corse in 1982. It retained its two-wheel drive layout so was never going to be a winner on gravel, yet a hefty power figure of 350bhp, allied to the driving skills of Jean Ragnotti (seriously, give him a Google – you won’t believe what he could make a rally car do until you see it) meant that it was a demon on tarmac. He used it to put in one of the drives of his life to emerge victorious on the 1985 Tour de Corse, trumping the likes of Audi, Lancia and Peugeot in the process.

The Delta S4 was brutally fast and hard to control at the ragged edge, a point underlined by the tragic events at the 1986 Tour de Corse

The Delta S4 was brutally fast and hard to control at the ragged edge, a point underlined by the tragic events at the 1986 Tour de Corse

Lancia Delta S4

Lancia’s replacement for the rear-wheel drive 037 was the Delta S4, a four-wheel drive monster powered by a 1759cc longitudinal inline four mounted amidships. The engine’s trump card was that it was twin-charged, meaning it had both a supercharger and a turbocharger, a setup devised to counter the kind of debilitating lag that the Quattro was notorious for. The supercharger provided instant throttle response and torque at low revs, the large turbo out-and-out power further up the rev range.

The Delta S4 debuted on the 1985 RAC rally, the same event as the Metro 6R4, and proceeded to snatch the top 2 positions, just ahead of the Longbridge machine. Lancia had grasped the full potential of the Group B regulations and never looked back, battling the Peugeot 205 T16s of Juha Kankkunen and Timo Salonen the following season. Sadly it was to all end in tragedy, with leading driver Henri Toivonen plunging his S4 off the side of a Corsican cliff midway through the year. Both he and co-driver Sergio Cresta were killed in the ensuing fire, and with them died Lancia’s hope of truly taking the fight to Peugeot that year. It’s thought that the location of the S4’s fuel tank (filled with experimental high octane fuel) beneath the seats contributed to the speed at which the fire engulfed the car.

You could make a strong argument for the 205T16 being the most complete Group B car of them all

You could make a strong argument for the 205T16 being the most complete Group B car of them all

Peugeot 205 T16

Audi might’ve been the first to make use of four-wheel drive in rallying but the Quattro was always a production car homologated into Group B, and as such it could never fully exploit the open-ended nature of the regulations. It took the arrival of Peugeot for Group B’s potential to truly explode, and in time the 205 T16 became the most complete and successful car of them all, winning in both 1985 and 1986 and taking Timo Salonen and Juha Kankkunen to the Drivers’ title. Not bad for a small French firm very close to bankruptcy at the end of the ’70s!

Like most Group B cars, the T16 evolved over the course of its career, sprouting an impressive assortment of aerodynamic appendages. Many of these were homologated in an effort to counter its alarming tendency to nose-dive mid-jump (Ari Vatanen very nearly lost his life in a terrifying T16 jump-crash in Argentina), a trait that was thought to be exacerbated by the mid-mounted, transverse engine layout with its rotating mass spinning away manically. Power figures also rocketed, and by the start of the 1986 WRC season rolled round the works T16s were reckoned to make approximately 500bhp.

The instant power provided by a naturally aspirated engine simply wasn't enough to allow the 6R4 to beat the turbocharged opposition

The instant power provided by a naturally aspirated engine simply wasn’t enough to allow the 6R4 to beat the turbocharged opposition

Metro 6R4

It’s hard to not feel a tad sorry for the Metro 6R4, another car that simply arrived too late to the Group B party to ever be truly effective. This is a shame, as had it been launched a few years earlier then it might well have done quite well, its naturally aspirated V6 powering all four wheels would’ve been lag free – a key complaint leveled at cars with huge turbos like the original Quattro. As it was, Austin Rover fell into the same trap as Ford with RS200 – they took too long to develop the car. It meant that by the time the 6R4 made its WRC debut on the 1985 RAC it was already out of date and down on power. The likes of Lancia, Peugeot and Audi had perfected forced induction, while the increasingly common use of special, high octane fuel meant that power figures exploded.

The Metro? It made do with just under 400bhp in ultimate, 1986 works spec, still an impressive figure. It was also among the most charismatic of all the Group B cars, possibly because it looked about as wide as it was long, and thanks to the howling, screeching naturally aspirated roar which emanated from the 2991cc V6! Not a winner then, but easily one of the coolest cars homologated under Group B.

The Celica triumphed in every one of the six African rallies it entered

The Celica triumphed in every one of the six African rallies it entered

Toyota Celica Twin Cam Turbo

Differences in culture and outright aims meant that Japanese manufacturers often had a very different approach to rallying in 1980s, and this was reflected in their WRC cars, with most opting to focus on strength and reliability at the expense of outright power and technical sophistication. Toyota was a classic example of this, and it was therefore entirely appropriate that its Group B challenger was centered around the Celica Twin Cam Turbo, a rear-wheel drive car with a live axle. As the name implies, the Celica was at least turbocharged (it made a whisker under 400bhp in ultimate form), but was also built by a constructor with a proven track record of winning the WRC’s endurance classics like the East African Safari and the Ivory Coast. The Celica was expected to carry on the tradition.

The Celica Twin Cam Turbo made its African debut in 1984 with a crack driver lineup spearheaded by Björn Waldegård. The car proved every bit as tough as its predecessors, its incredibly long suspension travel allowing it to simply swallow up the ruts, craters and other features that made the Safari such a slog. A fresh faced Juha Kankkunen repeated the trick the following year, while Waldegård came back to make it 3 Toyota Safari wins in a row in 1986. It also won an equal number of Ivory Coast rallies, meaning that the Celica was triumphant in all 6 African rallies it entered.

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