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May 1, 2011

Rallying: 25 years ago... the Group B

This Monday will be the 25th anniversary of one of the most tragic episodes of rallying, but also the event believed to be the ending of one of its most exciting eras: the era of Group B rallying.

Although this happened a long time ago, it is hard to understand how rallying was developed since then without knowing why lots of fans still miss those impressive rally cars.

25 years ago, Rallye Tour de Corse was about to begin. Two days later, one of World Rally rising stars, Henri Toivonen (click to watch a great tribute video), would be killed along his co-driver, Sergio Cresto, in a crash. They burnt until death as their fragile Lancia Delta S4 exploded after crashing against a tree.

But it wasn't the only dramatic accident, as a year before Attilio Bettega, also died after crashing his Lancia 037, and two months before Tour de Corse 1986, in Portugal, Joaquim Santos crashed against several spectators, killing three of them (a video explaining the tragedy in Spanish). All those fatalities lead to Group B ban.

Yes, it was dangerous, and the death of Group B was inevitable, as crashes were more and more frequent, but it was exciting: different cars (front, rear, all wheel drive; naturally-aspired and turbo engines; aerodynamic devices; cars hard to handle with), long and characteristic rallyes and stages, and of course, lots and lots of spectators.

Group B was created as part of new FISA (nowadays FIA) rules, where numeric groups (1&2 for production cars, 3&4 for GT cars, 5&6 for prototypes, usually reserved to track racing) were substituted by letters: N would be strict production cars, A production modified cars, C were endurance racing prototypes, and B were rally-aimed cars.

Those cars were directly desgined for rallying purposes, and manufacturers only needed to build 200 cars to homologate them. So we passed from racing with Ford Escorts, Fiat 131s or Talbot Sunbeams (of course, prepared for rallying) to nearly prototype cars that anyone could buy...

Two years before, Audi presented its revolutionary Quattro, first all wheel drive rally car (except by heavy Safari's Range Rovers), which opened the new path. Anyway, Lancia decided that 4x4 was still too heavy, so they designed a really light rear wheel drive car, called the 037.

By playing its cards really well, they beat Audi in 1983, but in 1984 Peugeot changed again rally world by fitting all wheel drive to its tiny 205 T16. And then came the Japanese cars, or the MG Metro 6R4, the Ford RS2000, the Lancia Delta S4, along with myths like Renault 5 Turbo or Maxi Turbo which surprised on tarmac, for example.

Drivers were also special. There was a mix of Flying Finns like Markku Alen, Hannu Mikkola, Juha Kankkunen, Timo Salonen, or Henri Toivonen, with others like Stig Blomqvist or Walter Röhrl, and tarmac specialists like Jean Ragnotti, that glued just by their charisma many fans to roads.

Of course, this is just a list of names, maybe unknown to many of our readers, but some of these videos, by their images or sounds, will clearly explain why, even 25 years later, Group B cars are still missed:

A musical tribute to the S1, the most brutal evolution of the Audi Quattro:

A Lancia Delta S4 which is still allowed to race in hill climbs:

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