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Battle of the Beasts: Group B Rally Car vs WRC – Who Wins?

Group B was a legendary era of rallying, an era that changed the sport forever. In it, ludicrously fast and wacky-looking cars were driven to their absolute limit on spectacular stages all over the world. The battles were fierce, and the results unpredictable as the greatest drivers fearlessly duked it out, often just inches from a sea of spectators, ebbing and flowing as the savage Group B cars claimed their path.

Despite the fall of the Group B era in 1986 and technical rules becoming more stringent as part of a campaign to make the sport safer, the Group B legacy lives on through its technical diversity and its ingenious adaptions to a tough and competitive environment.

Improving them drastically, from sequential transmissions to turbo anti-lag systems, the WRC cars of today are frighteningly fast, but are they faster than the Group B cars once were? What was it about Group B rally cars that made them so special? Did they really have something that present-day WRC rally cars are missing?

Birth of Group B

Following the huge rise of rallies in the early 1980s, the FIA introduced the Group B ruleset in 1982, although most teams didn’t have finished cars until 1983, by which time adhering to the Group B rules became mandatory; as such, 1983 is often cited as the true start of the Group B era.

With such lax rules in place, manufacturers effectively had a blank canvas upon which they could build the perfect rally car as they saw fit. Nothing was allowed, with no restrictions on engine type, configuration, horsepower, or boost level. What followed were many sensational cars, like the Audi Quattro A2, Peugeot 205 Turbo 16, and Ford RS200, all bringing rally into a whole different age.

Despite 4-wheel drive initially being one of the things that weren’t allowed, some interesting tactics deployed by Audi saw them become the first to bring the military-derived platform into rallying, as agricultural as the system was by today’s standards, during a time when the opposition were all struggling to tame rear-wheel-drive turbocharged cars on gravel and sand, Audi quickly announced their superiority with one of the most powerful cars, and capable drive systems.

How Powerful Were Group B Cars?

With the freedom to explore many engine tuning options, many manufacturers at the time used turbochargers or superchargers to increase the torque and horsepower of their engines. The Lancia 037, a rear-wheel drive mid-engined car that won the 1983 world championship, did so with around 250 horsepower, while others like the Audi Quattro S2 and MG Metro 6R4 were pushing in excess of 400 horsepower.

But just how fast were they? While top speeds can be somewhat irrelevant in rallying, various sources claim Group B rally cars at the time were capable of 0-60mph in under 2.5 seconds on gravel, with similar times on dry asphalt.  Cars could be 0-200km/h in around 10 seconds.

Is Group B Faster Than WRC?

WRC cars today are restricted to 380 horsepower with a 36mm air intake restrictor and a minimum weight of 1190kg. 0-60 figures seem top secret but are estimated to be sub-3 seconds. The top speed we know is somewhere around 220km/h.

New 2022 rules will see hybrid power make a potential 500-horsepower available at certain times, marking one of the most impactful sets of rule changes in recent history. Regardless of power figures, things like active central differential, spectacular grip, and rapid-fire hydraulic gearbox make current WRC cars far more capable rally cars, most likely dominating in every situation other than, say, a drag race over a half-mile.

Why Were Group B Cars So Dangerous?

There’s no mistaking that Group B cars were fast but easy to drive. They were not. Frustrating turbo lag, followed by uncontrollable surges in power, led to sometimes disastrous results. Teams that hadn’t yet developed anti-lag systems had to resort to archaic methods like left-foot-braking in order to keep the right foot planted on the gas and the turbo spinning through the turns!

The manufacturers learned a great deal about how to deal with these solutions, often by focusing on the weaknesses of each other’s designs, most notably Lancia, who had the bright idea of throwing a turbocharger and supercharger together.

The idea was the supercharger would provide a boost on lower RPM while the turbo was spooling up, usually the frustrating period of no power, with the turbocharger ready to take over just as the supercharger starts to run out of puff.

Why was Group B banned?

Not only was the craving for increasingly high-tech modifications making the environment more costly to compete in, but there were also growing concerns for safety as teams tried to find ways around measures designed to keep the driver and their co-driver safe, such as roll cages which had been found to be replaced with “dummies” made from cardboard or plastic, all in a bid to lose any weight they could.

Tragically, there was a string of severe accidents during the Group B era, spanning just four years (1982-1986), some of which were sadly fatal, including the accident involving the Finn, Henri Toivonen, and his American co-driver, Sergio Cresto in 1986 that brought an end to it all.

It was a devastating time for the sport, and the final nail in the coffin after the deaths of spectators on several other occasions now pressed the FIA to do something about it. Without hesitation, the FIA ceased the top-tier B-12 cars, making way for the next generation of Group A cars to welcome many new changes for WRC.

How Similar are Group B and WRC Cars?

As different as they might seem, Group B and present-day WRC cars share many similarities, from their turbocharged engines with anti-lag to their flamboyant bodywork, designed to keep the car stable and easier to handle on all kinds of surfaces.

While the requirement for the Group B rally was a minuscule 200 roadgoing versions of the car, often less than half that figure ever saw the salt of the road. This meant that the Group B rally cars often looked nothing like their roadgoing “homologation special” relatives, dressed up in a range of aerodynamic winglets, flaps, and canards seemingly piled on top of one another in a bid to keep the car from taking off at high speeds.

As excessive as the bodywork seemed in the 1980s, much of it stayed. Cars still featured aerodynamic bodywork to aid in downforce and cooling, with more extreme aero packages that can be fitted for other disciplines such as Rallycross or trailblazer events.

Present-day WRC Cars

At the start of 2022, the WRC will see “Hybrid Rally1” spec cars taking centre stage. In a similar fashion to the days of Group B, the FIA has once more made an effort to make rallying more affordable and accessible by specifying a greater amount of the vehicle’s parts to be standardized. The standardization of parts could see closer racing; one downside is we don’t get to experience so much creativity with the car’s design as we did in the days of Group B.

For the first time, adding a 100kW(136hp) electric motor will become an integral part of the car’s powertrain, providing extra power during rally stages, with the degree of usage dictated by the FIA. On top of its ability to give the new Rally1 WRC cars over 500 horsepower, exclusive use of electric power will become mandatory for all teams in paddock and service areas.

Does this new relaxation of some rules and a lower barrier for entry mean that the 2022 World Rally Championship will be the closest-fought yet, with more manufacturers possibly looking once more for a taste of WRC victory?

Stay tuned for the 2022 season; it will be the best yet.