If you were to ask any rally fan around the world what the best era of rallying was, the answer will almost certainly contain two words, ‘Group B’.
Group B was a time when rallying went slightly mental, with cars in excess of 500 BHP and fans determined to be within touching distance as the cars screamed passed. But ever since the death of Group B in 1986 after a number of fatal accidents, rallying has failed to regain some of its popularity it endured in the 1980s. However, back in 2014 the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automoblie) submitted a survey that asked would-be rally fans around the world what direction the WRC should take next. The results spoke for themselves, more power and with a more dramatic aero package were at the top of the cards, which unsurprisingly is the same potent recipe that made Group B so popular. The FIA’s response was to loosen up the current, post 2010, 1.6 litre WRC regulations to allow more aerodynamic freedom with greater power but counter balanced with an increased incentive on driver and co-driver safety. The so called ‘2017’ regulations were released and immediately caused a mini sensation. But how dramatic are the new changes and will they really allow rallying to relive its Group B heyday?
The technical changes certainly demonstrate the WRCs bold new approach to rallying. The cars themselves will regain the use of an active centre differential and will have an increase in power from 315 to 380 BHP, due to an increase in the turbo restricter from 33mm to 36mm. Boost pressure remains fixed at 2.5 bar or 36 psi, basically WTCC regulations. This along with a reduced kerb weight of 1,175kg (25kg reduction) will have a noticeable impact on the cars’ performance. However the biggest alteration to the regulations is the aero package. The front splitter, sills and rear wing/ diffuser have dedicated ‘free zones’ which allows manufacturers limitless aero possibilities. This is single-handedly the most dramatic change, as the cars will visually look far more striking and meaningful with huge rear wings and splitters and almost DTM levels of aero detailing around the bumpers and arches. Add all this together and the new cars will be considerably quicker than their predecessors. The 4 time world champion Sebastien Ogier claimed that: “The larger wing and new aerodynamics will give the car a bit more downforce, more grip and more speed going into the corners. This is also good for the show”. However, it remains to be seen if the ‘good for the show’ assessment means retaining a high octane, fast but neat and precise driving style or whether the newer machines allow more driver aggression with bigger slides and more handbrake/ Scandinavian flick aggravated action.
Many of the test mules and completed 2017 cars only demonstrate the visual enhancement of the new 2017 regulations. Toyota’s new challenger, the Yaris WRC developed by none other than Tommi Makkien, has a Pikes Peak unlimited class style rear wing and extensive use of wheel arch vents to reduce pressure build up and improve heat displacement. Also the recently revealed Ford fiesta WRC 2017 makes extensive use of the relaxed bodywork rules and uses a more complex wing structure and far bigger flared arches accompanied with extensive fins to improve air flow and down force. All these changes will no doubt help the spectacle of the new cars as they fly 150 feet through the air on Ouninpohja, but will they recapture the adrenaline and excitement of the long gone Group B era?
For many people no matter how dynamic and technologically impressive the new cars are, they will only ever be reminiscent to their fire spitting 1980’s ancestors. Step back in time and you will realise just how unregulated the Group B monsters really were. The mid engine Lanica Delta S4 for example was in a league of its own with a lightweight spaceframe tubal chassis with a mid mounted turbo and supercharged Arbarth engineered 1.8, 4 cylinder engine. Rumours suggested it could potentially produce upwards of 500 BHP. Couple this with a total weight of 890kg and a somewhat cumbersome transmission with ineffective differentials, brakes and suspension and you can see why the S4 was deemed the most dangerous Group B car. The S4 proved to be such a nightmare to handle that it tragically took the life of Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto in the 1986 Tour De Corse, and with it the end of Group B.
However, it was not only the absurdity of the cars’ power that made Group B so popular, many of the rallies in the mid 1980’s were a true test of man and machines’ endurance. Rallies like the Rallye Automobile de Monte Carlo in 1985 featured over 800km of special stages (whereas the 2016 event featured only 377km of stages) and the notorious 1985 Marlboro Safari Rally was a monstrous 5,167km long travelling across gruelling terrain in Kenya and Uganda. Couple this with totally non-existent crowd control and it’s clear that much of rallying’s ‘golden era’ environment, that propelled it to F1 rivalling popularity, is simply unworkable today. It is debatable whether the current WRC world championship being mainly European based will be able to emulate the excitement of a true world calendar like there was in the 1980’s and early 90’s.
However, if you were to pour over WRC history it is clear that rallying’s most memorable days were always due to the cars having an ‘on the road’ equivalent. This is no better illustrated by the legendary 1990’s and early 2000’s Japanese arrivals like the Subaru Impreza 22B and Mitsubushi Evo VI TME, cars with enormous rally heritage and (due to the Group A regulations) also had a near identical road going model. Even their Group B counterparts had to be homologated with 200 road legal examples. That’s where the post 1997 WRC regulations and new 2017 rules may fall flat. It’s all very well watching Sebastian Loeb going flat out in a WRC spec Citroen C4 in Finland or Ogier taming wild over steer in Poland in his Polo R, but essentially the modern day homologation process does not mandate the production of a 4 wheel drive, turbo charged rocket ship for the road people can actually buy. But in fairness in today’s market most manufactures have a fairly limited model range with cars sharing engine and transmission floor-pans, so the prospect of developing and manufacturing a 4 wheel drive homologation approved car just to qualify for a certain motorsport is no longer appealing to manufacturers like in the old days. That said there is a risk that since the exotic new look 2017 cars have no road going sibling, past fans may still not return to the WRC.
In some ways the 2017 generation cars are homage to the failed Group S project. Cars that were essentially the same as Group B In terms of aerodynamic creativity but with a limited power output of 300BHP. If that sounds familiar that’s because in technical terms the 2017 spec cars are very similar to that philosophy, limited power but with loose aerodynamic restrictions. Overall the madness of Group B cannot, and should not, be replicated. In many ways the FIA have played a clever game, they have taken the current regulations and added a sprinkle of engineering flexibility that has the potential to make the 2017 world rally championship an invigorating year.