The World Rally Championship is going through tough times currently with dwindling TV coverage and less stage-spectators than ever before. For the younger generation of motor racing fans it’s therefore difficult to imagine a time when the WRC was more popular than even Formula One. A television documentary, recently shown again, has taken a closer look at the halcyon days of Rallying, an era referred to as the ‘Group B’ days. Without the moving images it is perhaps more difficult to convey the extremes that were once involved with an already extreme sport, nonetheless, it is an era of remarkable motor racing that shouldn’t go amiss from any half decent written motor sport coverage.
What started out as an entirely amateur sport in which anybody could roll up in whatever vehicle they chose, Rallying slowly became a sport with professionalism at its core and to levels that would compete with the likes of Grand Prix racing. By the late 1970s the days when even Grand Prix winner Tony Brooks arrived at the Monte Carlo rally to compete in a London Taxi, were long gone.
The World Rally Championship would see cars based heavily on road going vehicles the public could purchase from showrooms compete on closed public roads against the clock. Popularity would steadily grow and a trend between those manufacturers that went rallying and the sales of their cars would soon show the benefits of competing in such a sport.
By 1981 however, the governing body, the FIA, wanted to up the ante further and tempt more and more manufacturers to compete by introducing new car regulations for the 1982 season; anything goes was the basic mantra.
For years, manufacturers produced cars specifically for the demanding high-speed stages of the WRC that were based on the every-day road-going vehicles that featured in their catalogue – one eye on victory, the other on more sales. But the new regulations, known as ‘Group B’, allowed manufacturers to experiment with virtually every aspect of what made a car go as fast as possible.
Gradually, the cars lining up to take the start of each stage were becoming more and more detached from their road-going counterparts; weight was kept as low as possible, aerodynamic aids transformed the aesthetics while space-age technology advanced chassis, suspension and all things mechanical. Engine power had increased massively also; in 1981, the winning cars were producing around 250 horsepower, by 1986, with the evolution of Group B, power was in excess of 500 horsepower.
Needless to say, the cars were much quicker; drivers loved it – World Champion Ari Vatanen described the Group B era as ‘the best days of my life – the adrenalin became an addiction and the rallies became enthralling as crowds grew bigger. With that however, danger loomed at every corner.
Concerns were repeatedly raised, not just regarding the speed Group B cars were now reaching but also the lack of progression made in spectator safety; at many international stages, the crowd could stand on the course itself, rapidly retreating as cars hurtled towards them. It was seen as a respectable triumph to touch a car as it passed at substantial speed, no more so than in Portugal…
Group B’s darkest day revolved around local driver Joaquim Santos, competing in the Portuguese event at the wheel of a Group B Ford RS200 for the first time in 1986. When racing on the “Lagoa Azul” stage, Santos entered a popular and crowded section and was forced to take avoiding action as a small group of fans edged perilously close to the racing line. Santos turned sharply but could no longer control the car as it collided with fans on the opposite bank. Santos was unharmed but three spectators were killed and 31 more were injured.
Pressure mounted on the FIA to change the way rallies operated in order to ensure crowd’s safety but two months later, the WRC’s world would be rocked again, this time by the death of one of its more promising talents:
A year after Attilio Bettega lost his life at the wheel of a Group B Lancia during the Corsica Rally, Henri Toivonen would burn to death at the wheel of his Group B Lancia S4 at the same event. Toivonen was considered a title favourite for 1986 and his death was deeply disturbing and it was blamed on Group B. The cars were too fast and volatile and the design of Lancia’s S4 contributed to the inferno that would claim Toivonen’s life.
Although the FIA conceded that the level of interest and competition at Group B level was remarkable and a success at a sporting and commercial level, the class simply had to be disestablished immediately – the dangers and deaths were unacceptable.
Group B represents a rare moment in motor racing; a real ‘Concorde’ moment, a backward step in technological advancement and marks an extraordinary period in the World Rally Championship, the likes of which that will never be repeated.