A time bomb is what happens when cars with too much power and bare-bones safety are allowed to race on unforgiving rally circuits. For five years, between 1982 and 1987, the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) embarked on an experiment to increase the participation of various manufacturers in the WRC by setting up a rally class with significantly fewer regulations. It became known as Group B, and it was magnificent. For the first time, manufacturers could sidestep bureaucracy, truly modify their cars and test their limits on the harshest environments.
Group A regulations only allowed manufacturers to modify and set up models for rally if they replicated the same changes in 5000 cars within their lineup. That is an extremely expensive endeavor and not feasible for brands without a multi-million dollar motorsport budget. Group B only asked that manufacturers have two cabin seats in their models and replicate changes to 200 cars they produced. Apart from that, the wheelbase was based on engine displacement, as was the overall weight. That meant some cars could weigh under 900 kilos. When the thing is pushing 450 horsepower, perhaps 600 with boost, the result was terrifying. Some sources claim that an average Group B car could do 0 to 100 kph within 2.5 seconds- on gravel.
Manufacturers also quickly learned there were infinite ways to upgrade their vehicles and make them better on the circuits in this new era of competition. Audi already had a head start with its four-wheel-drive Quattro. Their turbocharged inline-5 was generated upwards of 450 horsepower. They also had the most grip on the track but faced intense competition from the rear-wheeled Lancia 037. Walter Rohl gave Lancia its final victory before transferring to Audi in 1984 and winning the first rally of that season. After several retirements, though, he was reassigned to assist with the development of the Sport Quattro. The recently deceased Hannu Mikkola, Rohl himself, and Michele Mouton brought significant glory to team Audi in the early years of Group B. Audi’s four-wheel-drive system also contributed to their supremacy on loose surfaces like mud and snow; however, the car was still very heavy. Considering the engine and drive train was set in front, it had significant understeer.
Peugeot took note of these weaknesses and came up with the 205 T16. It utilized the same four-wheel-drive system and had a short wheelbase. Typically that would mean the car was quite agile at lower velocities, with a trade-off of instability at high speeds. The engine and gearbox were also placed side by side in the middle, perpendicular to the car orientation. That led to a lower centre of gravity and contributed to nimbleness while also improving stability during high speeds. Drivers also left foot braked during turns while keeping their foot on the accelerator to keep the turbo spooling, just to reduce turbo lag.
The desire for more speed and performance would come at a price, though. During the 1985 Tour de Corse in the fourth stage, Attilio Bettega, driving for Lancia, crashed his 037 into a tree and died instantly. His co-driver, Maurizio Perissinot, survived uninjured. Later the same season, Ari Vatanen from Peugeot was involved in a severe end over front crash that would almost take his life.
The Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile was already worried about the potential danger these rally events posed to the spectators. Some of the stages were on public roads, and with fans, practically in the middle of the road as the cars hurtled by in excess of 200 kph, it was inevitable that some would be hit. In 1986 at the Portugal rally, Joaquim Santos lost control of his Ford RS200 and struck a crowd of spectators. 30 civilians were injured and 3 died instantly- two of them children. Factory team racing drivers opted to pull out of the rally after the incident. Audi and others also canceled their Group B programs on the condition the safety issues be solved before they could return.
The final straw happened on the Tour de Corse when rising star, Henri Toivonen, failed to make a tight left corner with no guardrail and plunged into a ravine. The Lancia Delta S4 he was driving burst into flames after the fuel tanks ruptured, causing his death and that of co-driver; Sergio Cresto. The FIA announced a ban on Group B cars following the end of the season, claiming they were too fast to use in competition safely.
At first, the thought of Group B was a noble idea. Removing the red tape that hinders racing, would allow teams to do what they do best. But there was a dark side. The cars were so fast, drivers were developing tunnel vision, so perception was almost impossible to adjust between corners. The cars were also riddled with safety issues. In fact, there is an urban legend that mechanics sometimes found severed fingers when working on the cars after races. These drivers were tested beyond the natural human parameters and many would require therapy to cope. It is hard to romanticize that even though the five years of Group B gave way to significant advancements in technology and even safety.