The Rise and Fall of Group B

Photograph Courtesy Lancia

More than 30 years ago, Group B perished in a ball of flames in a ravine in Corsica. “It was never a question of if, but when we were going to have people killed with Group B rally cars,” said Tony Pond, who drove the awesome MG Metro 6R4 for the factory team.

A lack of rules meant every other rally saw a new, ever more powerful and faster “evo” version show up at the start, spitting flames and kicking up gravel in uncontrolled anger. The scenario had disaster written all over it, yet rally never again succeeded in touching people’s hearts more than in the short-lived, four-year Group B period.

The Group B regulations made their debut for the 1982 season. It would be the top rung on the World Rally Championship. FISA, now known as FIA, not only wanted to simplify their rally groups but also aimed to attract more mainstream manufacturers to the sport. For that reason, homologation specifications were relaxed from previous years: Just 200 road-going versions of each Group B entry were required.

Thanks to advances in turbocharger technology, cars quickly evolved from “fast” to “way too much.” Group B cars initially produced about 300 horsepower. Soon that number rose to 400-and then 500.

By 1986 the game was up. Three spectators ended up dead after Joaquim Santos left the road in his Ford RS200at the Rally of Portugal in March. Dozens of others were injured. The leading drivers pulled out of the rally, having had enough of playing Russian roulette with spectators whose only desire was to touch a moving car. FISA, oddly enough, threatened to withdraw the licenses of the drivers who sat out.

By May more blood followed. Henri Toivonen–deemed by Lancia’s team manager Cesare Fiorio as the only driver to be able to manage the wild Delta S4–was fully in control of the Tour of Corsica. Then, on Stage 18, for reasons never clarified, the car left the road. Chassis No. 211, in its first and only competition appearance, dove down into a ravine. It is believed that trees cut through the fuel tank; the nearby turbocharger instantly turned everything into a fireball.

In the Delta S4, both driver and co-driver sit on the fuel tanks, surrounded by many magnesium parts. Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto never stood a chance. In two minutes chassis 211 was reduced to just the tubular structure.

All the technology and research leading to more speed had all of a sudden become too much. Fiorio said as much in a TV statement after the accident: “There is a problem with the balance between the cars and the roads they operate on. Speeds have become too high for the driver to safely operate the car on these roads.”

Fiorio was instrumental in the creation of Group B–it was he who lowered homologation criteria to 200 cars where the German carmakers first wanted 2000–and was also present when FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre declared Group B dead and buried whilst still on Corsican soil.

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