Safety took a distant back seat to outright speed for much of auto racing's history. But by combining overpowered cars with narrow, dangerous rally courses, Group B racing in the 80s stands out as particularly hair-raising. In fact, the cars were so dangerous that, after a series of high profile deaths, racing's governing body eliminated the class. As the above documentary Still Too Fast to Race explains, the technological marvels remain a handful even in today's slower paced vintage races.
The 80s were heady times in race car development, with advances in turbocharging and electronic fuel injection creating a firestorm of engine development that outpaced chassis, aerodynamic, and safety efforts. Audi changed the rallying world in 1980 by debuting its all-wheel drive quattro system, which meant drivers could put more power to the ground.
But that doesn't mean there weren't holdouts from the two-wheel drive days. When the FIA introduced Group B in 1982, it envisioned the class as the premiere test bed for technological development in rallying. Loose rules and an emphasis on building the fastest possible cars for tackling rallying's diverse stages produced some of the most legendary cars in racing history, including Lancia's 037 and Delta S4, and Audi Quattro S1.
The 037 took the championship in 1983, becoming the last rear-wheel drive car to do so. Its supercharged four-cylinder produced around 300 horsepower, with later variants producing a bit more. But in the arms race that became Group B, that wasn't enough.
By the time Audi's monster S1 hit the stage in 1985, its turbocharged, 2.1 liter 5-cylinder was producing in excess of 500 horsepower, all in a package weighing about a ton. But it was bested that year and the next by Peugot's 205 T16, the epitome of the hot hatch, which was producing more than 400 horsepower out of its 1.8 liter four-cylinder as part of a super lightweight package.
Thanks to massive development budgets, the cars sprouted ever-larger power numbers matched with in-your-face wings and flares. 1980s suspension and chassis design had no hope of keeping up. So while the cars kept getting faster, they became more and more difficult to drive.
Rally cars today are limited to 300 horsepower, and have more electronic traction and stability control aids than ever could have been imagined 30 years ago. Back then, winning a rally was more a matter of having the guts to drive far past the envelope than anything else.
The intense action started to go wrong in 1986 at the Rally Portugal, when local driver Joaquim Santos, driving the extreme Ford RS200, lost control of his car and plowed into the crowd lining the stage, killing three and injuring dozens. Ford pulled the rest of its cars out of the rally, and a driver's petition to cancel the race out of respect for the accident garnered 22 signatures.
Later that year at the Tour de Corse in Corsica, Lancia's Henri Toivonen, an experienced driver, crashed his Delta S4. The car immediately caught fire, and both Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto perished. Prior to the race, Toivonen had made comments that the car was too powerful for such a tight, technical course, and those comments mixed with his death and prior incidents, caused a media uproar. FIA, then known as FISA, canceled Group B.
Despite its dark ending, Group B's few years of existence produced some of the most revered cars and drivers in history. If you've never gotten a chance to see them in action, now's the time to start.