.:: GROUP B : THE END OF AN ERA ::.


.:: Lancia Delta S4 and Peugeot 205T16 : the last icons of Group B rallying ::.

Markku Alen and Juha Kankkunen greet the crowd at the arrival of the last stage of the Olympus Rally, the final event of the 1986 World-Rally Championship. This is a poignant image, which has contains mixed messages. One is to say "until we meet again" to their continued battle for the leadership of the 1987 rally-championship, and the other is a final salute to the Group B Epoch, started in 1982 and including the successes of the Lancia 037, the Audi Quattro and the Peugeot 205T16, which were driven by legendary rally-drivers Walter Roehrl, Miki Biasion, Markku Alen, Juha Kankkunen, Henri Toivonen, Michele Mouton, Stig Blonqvist e Hannu Mikkola. The drastic and unyielding decision of the FISA (International Automotive Federation) was caused by events during the 1986 calender. The highest class of vehicle regulations for the 1987 rally-championship, was the Group A championship, which were based on large volume production vehicles, less powerful, with less speed and agility, so safer. Why was this decision taken? Basically it was a combination of good sense and respect for the drivers. ATTILIO BETTEGA, during the Tour de Corse 1985, was killed at the wheel in a crash. This event shocked both the fans, but also the organizers and the respective teams and committees. The development activities on the Group B cars by the Constructors at the time were approaching a technological level similar to that of Formula 1, in terms of costs and performance. The cars, with 4WD, were able to reach speeds that, on roads/tracks that were driven blind, apart from the co-driver notes, did not leave any margin for error and were extremely dangerous to both the driver/co-driver and the spectators. In order to stop this exponential increase of performance, caused by the relative freedom of the Group B regulations, it was decided to abandon these regulations. The last year of Group B, had been a year full of events and emotions, also acutely sad, that remains indelibly in the minds of those who were involved, and still alive in the folklore of today's rally supporters.


The 1985 WRC finished with a victory for the Lancia Delta S4 on the RAC rally in England. The 13 rounds of the 1986 WRC started with the top competitors of Peugeot, ultra-competitive with a revised 205T16, Audi with the Quattro-sport S2, and the Lancia, all developing around 600 CV. The first round was the MonteCarlo Rally, the traditional season-opener, and it was a victory for Team Martini Racing, with the Lancia Pirelli sponsored S4, driven by Toivonen-Cresto. The roads had less snow-cover that customarily occurred, but were still extremely slippy. Peugeot were visibly slower, and were happy to accept 2 place, and could be content that the other two factory team Lancias failed to finish (Alen Engine failure, Biason Crash during Transfer) although these crews were also quicker that Peugeot until their incidents. 3 place went to Mikkola in an Audi, who were trailing the competitively of the Lancia and Peugeot.


The 2 round, Rally of Sweden, was won by Kankkunen, whilst his team-mate Salonen stopped after the 6th SS with a broken oil-pump. His Co-national Toivonen experienced engine breakage, and the second Lancia S4 of Alen had volumetric supercharger problems. So for Peugeot and Lancia, at this point in the championship they were equally matched. The Portugal Rally was the third round and should have been a chance for Lancia or Peugeot to prove their superiority, but for an event that overshadowed the proceedings, and was an indication of what we have mentioned about the danger of these vehicles. Rallying is extremely popular in Portugal and the special stages were overrun with Spectators, who for the most part were not aware of the extreme speed of the Group B cars. During the first special stage, Lagoa Azul, The Ford RS200 driven by Joaquim Santos, an expert and experienced driver, lost control and left the road in an area crowded with spectators. Three spectators were killed and 30 injured. The other works drivers, in difficulty to dominate their powerful cars and drive with full concentration knowing that it was easy to cause a successive incident amongst the crowded roadsides, called for a stop of the event, and retired. The event was won by Renault with the 5-Turbo. This united driver action was a precedent in the history of Rallying.
After this, the 4th round Rally Safari on completely different (and less crowded) terrain) had 1 and 2 awarded to Toyota, with slower but more robust vehicles suited to the course, and Alen finishing 3 in a Lancia 037, also correctly decided by the Lancia team to be a more robust vehicle for this event. The fifth 1986 championship round was the 30th Rally of France the Tour de Corse, and with hindsight, too difficult for the over-powered top Group B 4WD cars. Another champion, precisely a year after Bettega, lost his life on 2-May; Henry Toivonen and Co-driver Sergio Cresto were leading the rally, but on the 18th stage, Corte-Taverna, their Lancia S4 left the road, hitting some trees and subsequently caught fire, killing them instantly. This further catastrophe caused FISA to immediately abolish the Group B, and also the still-born Group S championship, which was to have been the successor to the Group B championship, having even more sophisticated and performance vehicles. Group A, by default, became the premium championship for 1987.


Peugeot, led by team boss Jean Todt, was against this decision, since Peugeot had no possible competitive Group A ready for 1987, but FISA chairman Mr Balestre, overruled any objections. The 1986 championship, overshadowed by the preceding tragedies, still continued, with alternating victories; Peugeot in Greece, New Zealand with Driver Kankkunen, and in Finland and England with Salonen. Lancia conquered in Argentina (Biasion) and America (Alen), and both teams swapped 2 and 3 places regularly. The points situation was pretty even, but it was the 11th round (San Remo, Italy) that caused the final controversy of the year. Peugeot were disqualified for "aerodynamic aids" and Lancia took 1,2,3 places. Peugeot contested this decision, and FISA, under contradictory and obviously pressurized circumstances, cancelled the Rally result and completely removed this Lancia 1,2,3 win from the championship. This decision was taken three weeks into 1987, and Alen bitterly saw his 1986 world-championship taken away from him and presented to Kankkunen, similarly Lancia lost the constructor's championship to Peugeot. 1986 and the Group B epoch finished with these strange complexities, misunderstood decisions and the loss of three champions, but still remains in most rally-fans memories the high-point of rallying. 1987 started with Lancia continuing to be victorious, with Miki Biasion winning the MonteCarlo, with the newly developed Lancia Delta 4WD group A. Biasion continued with two world drivers championships, and the Lancia Delta, with continuous evolutions developed in Torino, won 6 consecutive World Rally Championships in the Group A category. As was stated earlier, it had been a premise of FISA to supersede the Group B regulations with a new "top-level" championship termed Group S, which would have allowed more works-teams to develop prototype vehicles to compete, and with a lower engine capacity that may have avoided the excessively powerful Group B cars safety-risks. But the 1986 events saw that this "kit-car" formula was never to be adopted. Some manufacturers built prototypes, and the Lancia ECV stands somewhere between an final-evolution of Group B, and a starting point for Group S development, an Italian triumph of advanced vehicle engineering that was at the pinnacle of its success.

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