Within the history of professional motorsports racing, the mid-1980s era of Group B Rally truly stands alone. Characterized by brutally fast cars, breakneck speeds, life and death danger, and interactive crowds, Group B Rally really has to be seen to be believed. It only lasted from 1982-1986, before it became too dangerous to continue, as both drivers and spectators died during the 1986 season – punctuating its extreme danger.
Still, for five golden seasons Group B Rally produced some of the most heart-pounding and breathtaking excitement in motorsports’ history. Drivers like Walter Röhrl, Henri Toivonen, and Stig Blmqvist solidified claims as some of the best wheel men in history. Speeds increased as time went on for Group B Rally, starting from moderately crazy and ending at downright insane. By the 1986 World Rally Championship (WRC) season, some cars were rumored to make north of 600 hp. They could blast from zero to 60 mph in barely 2.3 seconds — on gravel.
Today, Group B Rally is widely mourned by rally and motorsports enthusiasts, who cling to old videos as reminders of an epic past. Now, as an ode to the finest era of rally history, let’s take a look at the history behind Group B Rally.
Table of Contents
- Group B Rally History
- Legendary Group B Rally Cars
- Group B Rally Legacy
Group B Rally History
Rallying as a sport first became really popular in the 1960s and early-1970s, primarily through local events held in small towns in the rural European countryside. Cars like the Mini Cooper, Porsche 911, Lancia Fulvia, and Alpine A110 became legends in rally’s inaugural era. World Rally Championship (WRC) first started holding rallies under their banner in 1973, and the first race was the 42nd Monte Carlo Rally. The Alpine A110 from Renault dominated the competition, winning the top 3 spots and 5 of the top 6 total.
From 1973-1981, WRC ran under a set of regulations known as Groups 1-4. Each class had their own restrictions, with Group 4 being the basis for the WRC Manufacturer and Driver’s Championships. Some of the most notable Group 4 WRC cars were the Ford RS1800, Lancia Stratos HF, and Fiat 124/131 Abarths. Starting in 1980, WRC announced a change from Group 4 to new Group B regulations for 1982. The Group B Rally regulations lasted through 1986.
The Introduction of Group B to WRC
What made Group B so popular was the incredibly lax restrictions for what you could do to modify your car. There were no limits placed on engine size, configuration, boost pressure, aerodynamics, or even horsepower and torque output. Basically, the only things required were a minimum car weight-to-engine displacement ratio, two front seats, closed roof, maximum tire width, and required safety specs. This meant massive power output from tiny and lightweight cars, and the possibilities seemed endless.
The only other requirements were for homologation. This meant that each manufacturer that wanted to enter a car into Group B had to also make 200 production versions they would sell to the public. This might sound like a lot for a manufacturer to make just to enter WRC, but it was actually considerably less than before. Previously, as many as 500 were required for homologation under Group B’s predecessor, Group 4.
Bringing 4WD to World Rally Championship
In 1979, the WRC had allowed for 4WD drive trains to be implemented for Group 4. They did so thinking that it would not lead to drastic changes because they would be too heavy and impractical. Audi, who had just entered WRC for the first time that year, had convinced the FIA to make the switch. They had just started building their famous Quattro, which featured a 4WD drive train, and wanted it to compete. They had participated in the 1979 WRC season, but with their A80 sedan as the Quattro was not ready yet.
However, in 1981 the Quattro was ready, and it got off to a great start at the first rally in Monte Carlo. Though it didn’t win, the Quattro made its mark passing the Lancia Stratos just 10 km into the first stage on the ice-covered track. The first victory came two and a half weeks later in the Swedish Rally, and the Quattro also won Rallye Sanremo in Italy and the RAC Rally in Wales.
Rallye Sanremo was particularly notable due to the victory of Michele Mouton, which was the first time a female had won a WRC event. She did so despite having brake pad issues the final day, and held off Henri Toivonen and Ari Vantanen for the win.
The 1981 season was still a bit of a disappointment for Audi, as they finished 5th in the Manufacturer’s Championship. Talbot had won the championship with Datsun hot on its tail in 2nd. Talbot was using their Sunbeam Lotus, whereas Datsun trotted out a Celica 2000GT for their rallies. Rothman’s Rally Team took 3rd, and they used a Ford Escort RS 1800 for the season. All three of these were RWD cars, showing that Audi’s 4WD Quattro still had some improvements to make.
Audi Takes Over Group B
Starting in 1982, the Audi Quattro’s period of dominance kicked in. This was also the first season that Group B Rally’s restrictions took effect. Initially, most Group B cars were still leftover Group 4 cars, with RWD and modest power figures. The Quattro was the only 4WD car in WRC, and its improved system over the prior year gave it a massive advantage over other cars.
Audi won the Manufacturer’s Championship in 1982, with seven rally wins, and in 1984, and they got 2nd in 1983 and 1985. The Quattro also powered Hannu Mikkola and Stig Blomqvist to win the Driver’s Championships in 1983 and 1984, too.
Still, RWD drive trains performed well – especially on tarmac stages where the Quattro’s 4WD system proved cumbersome. In fact, with the exception of Audi, every other manufacturer still had RWD vehicles through the 1983 season. The RWD drive train, though obviously not as capable over slick surfaces and gravel, still proved much quicker on dry tarmac. This was partly due to the complexity of 4WD systems, which had hampered Audi greatly in 1981.
Their constant work repairing and maintaining the drive train through 1981 scared off many manufacturers. Yet, when Audi proved it was reliable starting in 1982-1983, other manufacturer’s started to take more interest.
However, while Audi was still perfecting their system many RWD cars were more than able to keep up. In 1982, Opel’s Ascona 400, piloted by Walter Röhrl, gave the Quattro fits throughout the season. Opel introduced the Manta 400 in 1983, which helped them place 3rd that year. But the Quattro’s biggest competition was still from the Lancia Rally 037. Lancia won the Manufacturer’s title in 1983 on the strength of the Rally 037, one of the most legendary rally cars in history.
Group B Rally Makes it Mark
It was in 1984 when Group B Rally really started to come into its own for WRC. Though Group B regulations officially took effect in 1982, most manufacturers were still using slightly updated Group 4 cars. They were allowed during 1982 as a transition, but starting in 1983 all cars had to be Group B. Still, most manufacturers struggled to come up with brand new cars for 1983, and most were just reworked Group 4 models. By 1984 however, the playing field was much more even, and soon the Quattro saw its days of domination numbered.
That year Audi introduced a new version of the Quattro, the Quattro Sport, which featured an incredible 450 hp. They dominated the season, winning the top 3 position in both of the first two rallies at Monte Carlo and Sweden. Audi won seven rallies that season, with Stig Blomqvist personally winning five on his way to the Driver’s title.
However, part way through the season Peugeot introduced the 205 Turbo 16. It was lightweight, fast as hell with 400 hp, and had a 4WD system that could compete with the Quattro. It was soon seen as superior to the Quattro, and won three events in its first season in 1984.
The 1985 WRC Season
Audi tried to compete with the 205 T16 E2 for 1985 by making several revisions to the suspension and wheel base. The season was pretty much a Peugeot vs Audi affair, as no one else came within 50 points of them in the standings. The 205 T16 E2 proved too much for the Quattro Sport, winning seven rallies and the Manufacturer’s Championship. This was even though Audi pushed 493 hp out of the Sport Quattro S1 E2 that season.
At the last rally in Wales, Great Britain, Lancia’s Martini Racing introduced their twin-charged Delta S4 to replace the Rally 037 Evo. The Delta S4 featured 4WD to keep pace with the T16 and Quattro, as well as an estimated 500 hp. British manufacturer MG also brought out a new Group B Rally car for 1985, the Metro 6R4. The Metro had a 3.0 L V6 making 410 hp and 4WD, and was one of the few non-turbocharged cars in Group B.
The Beginning of the End for Group B Rally
Unfortunately, 1985 was really the beginning of the end for Group B Rallying. The spread of 4WD technology fueled ever more increases of power, and soon it became just too dangerous. The 4WD systems were still pretty primitive and prone to overheating, breaking, and malfunctioning. When they were pushed past their limits, which they constantly were in WRC, the potential for bad consequences quickly arose.
On the 4th stage of the rally at the Tour de Corse in Corsica, France, tragedy finally struck when Italian driver Atilio Bettega died after rocketing his Lancia 037 into a tree. His co-driver, Maurizio Perissinot, thankfully walked away from the crash unharmed.
The crash raised serious questions about the safety of Group B Rally and its minimal restrictions. Manufacturers like Audi were considering leaving WRC unless new safety regulations were put in place. Later that season, Ari Vatanen of Peugeot got into a serious crash driving a 205 T16 E2 in Argentina. He had to be airlifted to the hospital, though he later returned to competition.
The Fateful 1986 WRC Season
The 1986 WRC season started out on a high note, with Henri Toivonen winning the Monte Carlo Rally in his Delta S4. But soon, things turned dark. At the rally in Portugal, Ford driver Joaquim Santos was involved in a fatal accident. Spectators had developed a dangerous tradition of running into the middle of the track to cheer drivers on, and this would often lead to very close calls. On March 3, 1986, Santos was trying to avoid spectators on the road when he lost control of his RS200. The car careened into a crowd, injuring 30 people and killing multiple children.
The organizers of the rally callously wanted to continue, but the drivers from the various teams refused and all withdrew from the remaining stages of the rally. This created huge amounts of controversy among the manufacturers, as they reportedly tried to force the drivers to compete. In particular, Lancia was very adamant about its drivers finishing the rally, but eventually relented after they collectively refused.
The Final Tragedy
Barely two months later and exactly one year after Bettega’s fatal crash, tragedy struck again. Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto were driving in the same Tour de Corse rally in Corsica as Bettega when their Delta S4 – the same car Bettega was driving – flew off the side of the road. There was no safety railing put in place to stop them, and Cresto and Toivonen were killed when their fuel tank exploded.
The rest of the season ended in chaos and controversy, as it was soon announced that Group B would be discontinued after the 1986 season. All further improvements to the cars were to be halted and some aerodynamic parts, like side skirts, were immediately banned for safety purposes.
However, this inflamed tensions even more when Peugeot was disqualified for having side skirts by Italian judges but not by British ones – creating more controversy. Still, Peugeot ended up taking the manufacturers title for 1986 season. Their driver, Juha Kankkunen, took the driver’s championship piloting the 205 T16 E2.
Audi’s Quattro S1 E2, though so dominant through 1985, failed to win a single rally for 1986. Their best showings were the first rally in Monte Carlo, where Hannu Mikola took third, and at the final Olympus rally, when John Buffum took third, too. This was despite increasing power from 493 hp to 592 hp in the inline-five engine. By the end of the season Group B Rallying was finished.
Legendary Group B Rally Cars
Even though Group B WRC was relatively short lived, lasting from just 1982-1986, it produced some of the most memorable cars in rallying history. Let’s take a look at some of the fan favorites from the era, including the Quattro, 205 T16, and RS2000.
Audi Quattro A1/2 and Sport S1/S1 E2
From 1982-1986, Audi produced a total of four models that competed in WRC. Starting in 1982 and lasting until partway through the 1984 season, Audi officially used the Quattro A1/A2. This was the same Quattro they had been using in 1981 under Group 4 rules, and they were allowed to use it during the transition into Group B Rally. The Quattro A1/A2 had 4WD, a 2.1 L inline-five engine, massive wheel arches, and a modest wing. The inline-five pumped out 350 hp and was fitted to a six speed manual.
Starting mid-season 1984, Audi introduced the Sport Quattro S1. The Sport Quattro S1 pumped up power output to 444 hp, courtesy of Jetronic fuel injection and a larger turbocharger. The body shell was made from carbon-Kevlar for weight reduction, had more windshield slant, and the massive and iconic wing. The windshield slant was increased to reduce glare, which had previously been a frequent complaint on the A1/A2.
At the end of 1985, Audi trotted out the Sport Quattro S1 E2. Its new aluminum inline-five engine had slightly less displacement, due to a smaller stroke, but pushed out 493 hp. The red line screamed past 8,000 RPM, and Audi added an even more aggressive body kit. By the end of 1986, and Group B Rally, the Sport Quattro S1 E2 made an astonishing 592 hp. Yet, it was starting to get outclassed by lighter cars with slightly less power but better 4WD systems.
Plans for the Audi Sport Quattro RS 002 fell through when Group B Rally ended, but rumored specs were insane. A 1,000 kg curb weight, 690 hp, 186 mph top speed, and mid-engine layout were planned, and that was just the start.
BMW M1 Rallye
Though its history was short lived, the BMW M1 was a Group B competitor in 1982-1984. A decent driver under Group 4 in the late-’80s, the BMW M1 was outmatched when it came to Group B. Though it still produced pretty good power, 430 hp, it was too big, handled poorly, weighed too much, and had lots of engine issues. In fact, BMW France only made two entries with the M1 in 1982 and 1983 due to extensive problems.
The BMW fared no better in 1984, retiring in ten events and barely being competitive. After 1984, the M1 was out of Group B for the remainder of its history. Still, the BMW M1 Rallye was still an incredibly unique car, it just couldn’t really hang with Group B.
Ford was one of the late-comers to Group B Rally, only officially entering into competition for the final 1986 season. The 1982 inaugural Group B Rally season did feature the Ford RS1800, but it was entered by a private team. It struggled in 1982, and no Ford entered WRC competition (manufacturer or private team) from 1983-1985. During that time, Ford was developing a new super car for Group B Rally.
After winning the Manufacturer’s title in 1979, Ford retired the RS1800 and started building a new car. The new car was supposed to be the Escort RS1700T, but the project was quickly abandoned. Ford wanted it to be a turbocharged, 4WD version of the RS1800. However, problems with development and production made Ford abandon the plan, and they instead turned to creating the RS200.
The RS stood for Rally Sport and the 200 represented the 200 homologation rule for Group B. It featured a new 4WD system, to compete with Audi and Peugeot, and a turbocharged 1.8 L Cosworth engine. The engine made 450 hp, but it was notorious for massive amounts of turbo lag, making it sluggish.
In competition the RS200 was relatively ineffective. It did not feature an aggressively aerodynamic body kit like other manufacturer’s cars, and was actually very similar to the homologated road going version. This led to much criticism of Ford engineer’s underdevelopment, as most other cars in Group B barely resembled their production version. Manufacturers did everything to cut weight, boost power, and add non-production aerodynamic body kits — it was legal under Group B rules.
The RS200 was the car Joaquim Santos drove in the Rally de Portugal crash that killed 3 and injured 30. It never won any Group B events and only placed in the top 3 one time.
Lancia Rally 037 Evo and Delta S4
Lancia was one of the fiercest competitors in Group B Rally, producing two of the most iconic cars in history. From 1982-1985, Lancia trotted out the Rally 037. It was introduced as a RWD competitor to the Quattro, and it more than held its own. The Lancia 037 took the 1983 Manufacturer’s title. Yet, by 1984 its lack of 4WD was beginning to hamper it after Audi introduced the improved Quattro Sport S1.
The Lancia Rally 037 featured a 2.0 L straight-four engine, fitted with a supercharger to make 280 hp. The final version of the 037, the Rally 037 Evolution 2, made 325 hp. Lancia used a supercharger over a turbo to reduce lag, and made the car mid-engine.
Realizing that the 037 Evolution 2 was still inferior to the 4WD Quattro Sport S1 and 205 T16, Lancia began development on a new model: the Delta S4. The Delta S4 was one of the most unique Group B WRC cars of all time, featuring a twin-charged 1.8 L engine. The use of both a supercharger and turbocharger eliminated lag and produced an incredible power band that made 500 hp. The addition of 4WD also made it competitive with the 205 T16 and Quattro sport.
The WRC Delta S4 was considered a silhouette race car, which meant that the WRC version was almost nothing like the homologated road going version. This was allowed under Group B rules, and led to the massive power increase over the production version (247 hp).
Mazda’s Group B Rally contributions are not often talked about, but they did put forward entries for the 1984-1986 seasons. They had debuted the rally RX-7 at the tail end of the 1981 season, finishing 11th at the RAC Rally in Wales. But Mazda took it out of competition for the next two seasons, returning it in 1984 for another go.
The RX-7 was one of the few Group B Rally cars that actually had a substantial production version. The road going RX-7 was incredibly popular as a production car, selling well more than the necessary 200 for homologation. The rally version of the RX-7 had an aggressive body kit and a turbocharged version of the 1.3 Wankel Rotary making 300 hp. However, it was not incredibly successful in Group B, with its best performance in 1985 Acropolis Rally in Greece, taking 3rd.
The RWD of the RX-7 hampered it compared with the Quattro and 205 T16’s 4WD, and in the final Group B season Mazda put forth the Familia. The Familia was relatively underpowered and failed to make an impact, recording only 9 points on the season, though it did have 4WD. Mazda came in 11/12 for the season, proving the Familia’s ineptness.
Opel Ascona/Manta B 400
Opel was routinely one of the top challengers in Group B, first using the Ascona 400 and then the Manta B 400. The Ascona 400 was originally built for Group 4 rallying and was allowed to compete during the transition to Group B regulations in 1982. It featured a bored and stroked 2.4 L engine that was capable of up to 340 hp in the rally versions. Opel developed the engine in conjunction with Cosworth, who designed the cylinder head. Irmscher created the aerodynamic body kit, which had wider wings, a lighter hood, and other features that made it cut through the air better than the production version.
Walter Röhrl piloted the Ascona 400 to the Driver’s Championship in 1982, marking the last RWD victory in WRC history. Starting mid-season in 1983, Opel began using the upgraded version of the Ascona 400, the Manta 400 B. The Manta B 400 had the same naturally aspirated engine as the Ascona 400 and made the same 340 hp.
Yet, due to its RWD drivetrain, the Manta 400 had pretty much no chance competing once true Group B cars became the norm starting in 1984. The Peugeot 205 T16 and Audi Quattro Sport S1 made the Manta 400 almost irrelevant in WRC. It placed in the top 3 only two times from 1983-1986, though it was still competitive in local non-WRC rallies.
Peugeot 205 Turbo 16
While Peugeot’s early entries into Group B Rally were relatively forgettable, it was their ultimate creation that really turned heads. For the 1982-1983 WRC seasons, Peugeot used the 504 V6, 505, and 104 models. They were all RWD and could not compete with most of the other cars transferring from Group 4.
However, Peugeot struck gold when they teamed up with British manufacturer Talbot. Together, they created Peugeot Talbot Sport and launched the 205 T16 for the 1984 season. The 205 was immediately a hit with its lightweight chassis, 4WD drivetrain, and brutally efficient 1.8 L turbocharged engine. The 205 T16 E1, the first version, made 350 hp from its twin-scroll turbo and Bosch Jetronic fuel injection. Peugeot bumped power up to 550 hp by the end of the 205 T16 E2’s run in 1986.
The Peugeot was an instant challenge to the Audi Quattro Sport and quickly proved to be superior. Its 4WD system was more reliable and less complex, and the car handled much better on tarmac. The 205 T16 dominated the 1985-1986 seasons, instantly becoming the fan favorite over the Quattro Sport. Plans for a 205 T16 E3 version ended up stopping after Group B ended.
Group B Rally Legacy
Today, Group B Rally stands out as one of the craziest eras in motorsports history. It featured some of the most powerful cars of the 1980s, and indeed all motorsports history, blasting through rallies in relatively primitive 4WD systems. Manufacturers like Audi, Peugeot, Lancia, and Opel created some absolutely monster machines, though unfortunately they were short lived.
Group B Rally turned out to be just too dangerous to continue. Injuries and deaths started to mount up in the 1986 season, scaring off drivers and manufacturers. By the end of the year, Group B was on its way out as WRC realized the need for more safety. Highly engineered and tuned beasts like the Quattro Sport, 205 T16, Delta S4, and Manta 400, were soon sport-less. Though manufacturers re-imagined them for other uses, their initial Group B purposes were never realized.
There are still historical rally classes that allow for Group B Rally cars to race, though not nearly at the same level of competition. Unfortunately, Group B Rally is forever gone, a permanent resident of the mid-’80s zeitgeist.
Still, it’s never too late to talk about Group B or learn its history. What is your connection to Group B Rally and WRC? Did you follow it growing up as a kid or are you just getting into it now a few decades later? Let us know what you think about Group B Rally in the comments below!