It hardly seems possible that Group B rally cars were outlawed from the World Rally Championship exactly 30 years ago, given the power they still have to stick in our minds. For many the thought of a Lancia Delta S4, a Peugeot 205 T16, an Audi Sport Quattro, a Ford RS200 or a Metro 6R4 cannoning through the stages, wastegates chuntering and stones flying, defines what rallying is all about.
Today’s owners of these mad machines often seize the opportunity to demonstrate them, and the anniversary gives this year a special resonance. The biggest British event will be Classic Nostalgia on 16-17 July at Shelsley Walsh, the Worcestershire hillclimb that is Britain’s oldest still-functioning motor sport venue. A roll-call of Group B rally cars will storm the hill, while others will be on static display.
The four rings of the Auto Union badge will be prominent during the weekend. Hannu Mikkola will be reunited with the short-wheelbase Audi Sport Quattro (with Manx registration 44 WMN) that took him to his 1986 British Rally Championship win, and Hans-Joachim Stuck will brave an Auto Union Type C V16 Grand Prix car, complete with doubled-up rear wheels, like that driven at Shelsley by his father, Hans Stuck, in 1936.
Group B’s milestone anniversary is also being celebrated across Europe, including several appearances from the British, German and Belgian branches of the Slowly Sideways group. The German branch is taking cars to Spain’s Rallye Festival Trasmiera on 26-28 May, but that grouping’s biggest celebration will be at the ADAC Eifel Rallye Festival just south of the Nürburgring on 21-23 July.
‘Our aim is to bring as many different Group B cars as possible to the Eifel,’ says Reinhard Klein, head of Slowly Sideways Germany. ‘We also hope to have some of the important drivers of the Group B era in their former cars in the Eifel,’ adds Christian Geistdörfer, Walter Röhrl’s former
Slowly Sideways UK and the Rallying With Group B organisation have plenty more appearances planned for British rally enthusiasts during the rest of 2016, making this a bumper year for turbochargers and traction. It will re-ignite memories of the three intense years from 1983 to 1986 when rally cars moved away from their production-car roots to become purpose-built machines whose resemblance to showroom models, if it existed, was for marketing reasons only. Just 200 roadgoing examples of a car type had to be made, complete with the turbocharging and four-wheel drive required after the Audi Quattro’s arrival had made them essential for any real chance of victory.
By the category’s end, the best engines produced over 500bhp (as much as 600bhp for the final Audi) and the cars were getting too fast for the stages of the usual rally venues, often lined with cheering crowds standing too close. Audi and Lancia dominated at the start, with Audi drivers Mikkola and Stig Blomqvist winning the Drivers’ Championships in 1983 and 1984, but Peugeot started to make waves during 1984 and secured both the manufacturers’ and drivers’ titles in 1985, the latter claimed by Timo Salonen.
But Group B had turned sour. In 1985 Ari Vatanen was badly hurt in a huge crash on the Argentina Rally in his Peugeot 205 T16. The next year, Joaquim Santos’s Ford RS200 killed three errant spectators on the Portuguese Rally, and another RS200 crashed out of a German national rally, causing navigator Michel Wyder to lose his life. Then front-runner Henri Toivonen plunged down a mountainside on the Corsican Rally in his Lancia Delta S4, killing himself and his navigator.
For the FIA, this was untenable. It made the manufacturers uncomfortable, too, with Audi taking no further part in that year’s WRC events. Peugeot’s Juha Kankkunen won the 1986 Drivers’ Championship – and after that it was back to production-related cars, running in the Group A category. Now redundant from front-line rallying, the Group B cars found themselves repurposed for rallycross events before gradually retreating into museums and collections. Now they are out to play again. Get to see them if you can.
Key Group B displays throughout 2016
• Shelsley Walsh Group B Rally Sprint and celebration 16-17 July (SS and RWGB)
• Carfest North, Bolesworth Castle 29-31 July (SS)
• Carfest South, Laverstoke Farm 26-28 August (SS)
• Oulton Park Gold Cup 28-29 August (RWGB)
• Rally Isle of Man 15-17 September (RWGB)
• Manchester Classic Car Show 17-18 September (RWGB)
• Castle Combe Rally Day 24 September (SS)
• Sywell Classic 24-25 September (RWGB)
• Wales Rally GB 29-30 October (SS)
Words: John Simister