Group B Rally: The Wild, Deadly Era of Racing
In 1982, the world of rally racing changed forever. FIA organizers changed homologation rules that freed up manufacturers to make near F1 cars for the road. Homologation means to build a certain number of road cars of a racecar to sell at a dealership. This would prove that the racer is, in fact, a road worthy car. In many cases, racing series have homologation numbers in the high hundreds, but for 1982 only 200 road cars needed to be built for a rally car to be homologated. This made Group B rally racing quite fun. For world-class automakers with extremely large budgets, building 200 cars– even if they lost money on each car– was an easy decision. So they built widely powerful versions of the existing rally cars. They had reworked aerodynamics and large spoilers. Yet the real story was the engines. In F1 this was the heyday for turbocharging, and this carried over into rallying. A four cylinder engine which usually makes a little over a hundred horsepower could be turbo'd to put out five times that and more. It was the sword by which Group B lived and died. The cars were insanely fast, but also difficult to control. The difficulties of driving a Group B racecar were perhaps best explained by Audi driver Walter Rohl: "In '73 I drove a car that had 130 brake horsepower. In '86 I drove one that had 530 brake horsepower. But the roads were the same, The potholes were the same. The curbs were the same." Not only had the cars gotten more powerful, but the crowds had grown as the high-horsepower cars attracted more fans to the sport. In rallying there are no crowd barriers whatsoever. The races are held in the woods, and as such, crowd control was an exercised in futility. Check out this video of Rohl in an Audi S1. Not only is he wrestling with the wheel of his high-horsepower machine, but just look at all the people who stay in the track to get a photo and then dart out at the last second- its insane! http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_HjXXUyQhPE#! To think that kind of open danger existed, it was only a matter of time before a tragic accident occurred, and many did. Just look at this Wikipedia list of fatal rally crashes Most occurred in the 80's. When it came to crashes that involved spectators, perhaps the worst was at the Rally Portugal in 1986. Joaquim Santos lost control of a Ford RS200 while trying to avoid spectators that were in the road. In doing so, he ended up hitting a "human wall" of spectators on the side of the road. The crash killed three people and injured thirty. All teams withdrew from the event after that, and at the following race, the drivers went on strike in protest to the lax crowd control efforts. By 1987, enough fatalities and injuries had raised enough concerns about Group B. The sport was disbanded amidst controversy over the crashes as well as accusations that Italian officials at the Rally San Remo disqualified Peugeots for technicalities. The claim was that it allowed their native Italian Lancias a better chance of victory. After Group B disbanded, rallying took on a more humble approach to racing, with less powerful cars. Still the Group B cars continued in unlimited events like the Pikes Peak Hill Climb and the Paris-Dakar Rally.
Though it ended in tragedy, Group B for a brief time was an incredible era in automotive racing, The developments in all wheel drive and turbocharging are still felt today, as Audi's Quattro originated from this series. If "racing improves the breed" then some of the great quantum leaps in the automotive industry came from the Group B rallying of the 1980's.