In 1982 the FIA (International Automobile Federation) introduced a set of regulations known as Group B. These were designed to enable the development of new technologies in sports car engineering. The resulting explosion of innovative ideas produced machines of awesome power and led to a brief period in motorsport history regarded by many as a golden age.
The Group B guidelines placed very few restrictions on design, technology and performance. For car manufacturers and drivers, the possibilities seemed endless. By using the latest high-tech materials, low weights and with no speed limits, engineers produced unbelievably fast machines.
Consequently there was a massive surge of interest in motorsports with companies such as Audi, Lancia, Peugeot and Ferrari stopping at nothing to create the perfect racing monster.
Ferrari went all out to develop a track-racing car. The result was the Ferrari GTO. The design was notable for a combination of strength, lightness and speed. The front bonnet and bulkhead were made from the same Kevlar glass fibre material also used in Ferrari’s F1 cars. The 2855cc V8, twin turbo engine took the GTO from stationary to 60mph in 4.9 seconds and the car could easily hit a top speed of 189mph.
This became the fastest production car in the world at the time and as only 272 were ever made, this is still a sought-after gem today.
Despite Ferrari’s success, the rest of the motor racing world was more interested in rallying.
Group B cars quickly evolved from racing machines to all-wheel drive supercars. Packed with space age gadgetry and manufactured from aluminium, magnesium and Kevlar, there appeared to be no limit to what could be achieved and top speeds were becoming unreal.
F1 driver Nigel Mansell tested a Group B Peugeot 205 T16 rally car and reckoned it could out-accelerate his F1 machine.
This was the age of the Audi Quattro, the Ford Escort RS1800, the Peugeot 205 T16, the Lancia Delta S4 and the Fiat 131 Abarth. The short period from 1983–1985 saw big racing successes for all the major players.
In 1983, Lancia won the Constructors Championship with the 037 prototype, whilst the Quattro gave Hannu Mikkola the driver’s title in the same year. In 1984, Audi achieved a world rally title with Stig Blomqvist at the wheel, only to lose this a year later to Peugeot.
Meanwhile Lancia was producing astonishing performances with the S4, which could go from 0 to 62mph on gravel in 3 seconds.
Controlling a chunk of metal in off-road conditions at such terrifying speeds sounds impossible. Driver’s reaction times needed to be half of what had been necessary in previous rally classes. In terms of the mechanics the cars couldn’t go any faster, so on rally circuits the only limit to a vehicle’s speed was the profile of the road and the instincts of the driver.
Not surprisingly the scene was set for disaster and the accidents soon started to pile up. In 1985, Ari Vatanen was seriously injured when his Peugeot hurtled off the road in Argentina.
In the same year, Attilio Bettega died after crashing his Lancia 037. Things didn’t improve in 1986 when Joaquim Santo lost control during the Portuguese Rally. His Ford RS200 ploughed into a crowd of spectators leaving three dead and 31 injured.
The situation came to a head later in 1986 when 29-year-old Henri Toivonen crashed his Delta S4 during the Corsican Rally. Losing control he somersaulted into a ravine. The resulting fireball destroyed the entire car, leaving nothing but the engine and a few pieces of tubing. Henri and his co-driver were thrown clear but neither survived.
Ford and Audi withdrew from the class the same day and within hours of the crash the FIA banned the entire 1987 Group B rally season. Modified Group B cars continued to feature in other motorsport events but the wild and deadly days of barely regulated racing were thankfully over.
Despite the tragedies, enthusiasts look back at this brief era with a certain nostalgia. The engineering innovations were indeed revolutionary. Even today the incredible power and performance of the Group B cars is yet to be surpassed within their category. However this was achieved at the cost of several lives, so it’s little wonder these machines are remembered by many as the ‘Killer B’s’.
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