Since the creation of mass-produced cars, manufacturers and drivers have yearned for the ability to go faster. Whether it be on highways or back roads, the need to go faster was always in the back of the heads of some car enthusiasts. From early bootleggers to modern race cars, it has been apparent that the progression of technology has directly affected the speed of race cars. Motorsports can be very, very generalized down to two different categories: road racing and dirt/rally racing. For the purposes of this paper, we are going to focus on the rally racing portion of motorsport. More specific than just the history of rally we will look directly at a sub-series of rally races named Group B. What I hope to highlight in this research paper are three things: What the Group B rally series has done to influence modern motorsports, what made the Group B rally series so different, and what modern innovations can be traced back to Group B rally cars.
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Rally racing has been a common race type for over 100 years, but back then they looked very different. Rally races, before a main sanctioning body was formed, were performed on open, public roads and had to follow the legal speed limit. All rally race cars were completely unmodified from the factory and were not much faster than other cars at the time. These types of races went on for around 70 years, until the 1960s. The 1960s saw the formation of decentralized sanctioning bodies that lobbied for closed road courses, to allow for greater speeds and safer races for the public. This eventually leads to the collaboration of these bodies to create the World Rally Championship (WRC) racing series sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), or the international governing body of all motorsports. (1) The creation of WRC leads to uniform rules and regulations across the board for all races. This uniformity leads to more competitive, more safe, and more compelling races. During the years between the beginning of rally sports to this point, it is important to not forget that rally cars have been getting more powerful and more nimble. At this point, rally cars could accelerate at speeds common among regular passenger cars in modern times. For a frame of reference, after its debut in 1973, WRC rally cars got even faster because of increased competition. In just one decade, the average rally car could accelerate to 60 miles per hour in just half of what was common before. The speeds at which these rally cars were reaching led to the WRC to split the rally cars into two different categories: Cars that would have their power regulated, and cars that would have all power regulations dropped. The first category would become Group A, the second would become Group B. For the purpose of the paper, we will focus entirely on Group B, as Group A is just more of the same for the next decade.
Group B would differentiate itself from Group A in several ways. To qualify for a race in Group A, a manufacturer had to produce 5000 examples of the car for sale. In Group B, only 200 cars were needed to be produced to qualify for racing. This difference in qualification needs led to outlandish designs to be made specifically for making loads of power. These designs could be considered outlandish for two reasons: The complete rearrangement of the geometry of the car, and the extreme use of aero devices to increase the traction to the rally course. Most passenger cars have an engine in the front of the car, with power being sent to 2 or 4 wheels. Group B rally cars changed this in many ways, offering cars such as the Ford RS200 (5). This car completely went against all precedents set before it for passenger cars that weren’t built for the rich and famous. The Ford RS200 put the engine behind the driver so that the engine’s weight would balance the weight distribution better for rally driving. The other outlandish design was extreme aero devices. These included big spoilers on the back and roof of these rally cars that gave the cars un-matched grip on the course. Since these cars now had insane amounts of power never seen before, a new issue arose: traction. With so much power at their disposal, the old transmissions used by rally cars of old just weren’t able to put the power down on the dirt as effectively as before. If you have ever driven or heard of a car with all-wheel drive/four-wheel drive, you will have heard of how much better it is at keeping the car on the road during perilous driving conditions. These innovations that lead to being integrated into regular cars can be lead back to the need for traction in Group B. Another innovation of Group B technology that trickled down to regular passenger cars is turbocharging. Turbocharging is a way to use exhaust gasses to power a turbine which forces high amounts of air into the engine, allowing it to make more power. Turbocharging in Group B cars is what lead to them being very fast.
This perfect storm of innovation, lack of rules, and high stakes lead to incredibly quick race cars and legendary drivers coming out of the woodworks to prove that they can control such beasts of power. Legendary Group B rally driver Björn Waldegård stated in an interview that the cars moved at such a high speed that it was sometimes physically and mentally impossible to react fast enough. Even with these impossibly high speeds another decorated Group B driver, Walter Rohl, commented in an interview (4) that while it was dangerous, there was a sort of pride in knowing that you were a part of some select few that survived against impossible odds. However, it was this speed and impossible reactions had some deadly side effects. Unmention before, there is another factor that lead to the downfall of this sport: spectators. There are accounts of people wearing a broken bone they recieved as a token for being hit by a group B car. In 1986, the last year of the series, the beginning of the end started with an italian team losing control of their car and killing the driver. One year later a different accident caused much more debate and outcry than that of the previous year’s accident. This accident specifically was caused by a small group of spectators being directly on the course, which was often an uncontrollable thing as over 400,000 people have been recorded at one event (1) forcing the driver to swerve to avoid them. In doing this, however, it caused his car to lose control and crash directly into a main crowd of spectators. This accident injured 31 and killed 3. Later that season another accident would send a rally car off the side of a sheer cliff without any catch guards. Both were killed on impact, and the explosion of the fuel tank left responders unable to reach the car until only the bare mangled chassis was left from the flames (3). These three accidents would lead to the immeadiate halting of the race series, and it was promptly dismantled.
The impact of sheer insanity from the Group B rally series is still felt today in modern motorsports. New restrictions on power, boost levels, amount of aero/downforce one car can use, and so on. These restrictions are solely because of the chaos that Group B stirred up among the international community. Most teams now have a therapist because of Group B, but today it is not as bad as it was during that series. It was reported that while cleaning and repairing the cars, mechanics would often find severed body parts (mostly fingers) inside the car. These stem from the spectator incidents, as spectators often tried to get as close as humanly possible and underestimated how fast they were truly going (3). Before Group B, it was not mandatory for cars to have a fire extinguisher within arms reach. This came after many non-fatal, but still very devastating fires were caused by the high power motors impacting a tree or other unmovable object.
In conclusion, the Group B rally series was a very eccentric rally series that had lasting effects on the racing community as a whole. After Group B was shut down, new legislation came into play almost immediately. New laws about driver courses. New laws, and rules about power levels on public roads. The list goes on. It is a parent that without Group B, the world of racing might not be the same. For some people, it is still a sad topic to see that Group B was removed from the racing series because of it’s an inherent danger not only to the driver but also to the public. Without Group B our cars wouldn’t be the same, our racing series might be too safe, and our interest in racing might not be as high as it was when you first set out to find the closest race to you.
- Auger, Jay. “Rise and Fall of Group B.” Rally Group B Shrine, rallygroupbshrine.org/the-rise-and-fall-of-group-b/. Accessed 7 May 2019.
- Davenport, John. Group B : The rise and fall of rallying’s wildest cars. Reinhard Klein, 2019.
- Group B – Everything You Need to Know | Up to Speed. Performance by James Pumphrey, Donut Media, 2017. Youtube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vxv-AUKsUs8. Accessed 7 May 2019.
- Rohl, Walter. Interview. Aug. 2017.
- Auger, Jay. “Group B Rally Cars.” Group B Rally Shrine, rallygroupbshrine.org/
the-group-b-cars/rally-cars/. Accessed 7 May 2019.
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