‘This car reacts faster than I can think, it is impossible to keep up with it!’ These were the words that Timo Salonen uttered to waiting media as he pulled his Peugeot 205T16 into time control in 1986. As beads of sweat glistened on his face in the low setting Finnish sun, he pulled out a cigarette, lit up, and surveyed the time control board. A trail of smoke crept out the Perspex side window of the angrily idling Peugeot, as he engaged first gear and idled off to the next stage.
It is scenes like this that are forever gone from rallying, there is no doubt the 80s were the wildest years, and the Group B machines were the Sex Pistols of rallying. It had all the fatal ingredients, for some it is forever remembered in a romantic sense, yet for others it was as dangerous as driving an automotive hand-grenade with the pin rolling around under your pedals. Despite the death, and danger, Group B will forever hold a special place in rally fans hearts, and it is unfortunate that the fans of today, will never experience the excitement of those magical years when development moved faster than the officials red tape, safety was secondary, and blind faith was what guided the cars down the special stages.
Every year in San Marino, Italy, the magic of ‘Group B’ is recreated in an event appropriately called ‘Rallylegend’. It is a 5-day celebration of rallying, and is heavily focused on the Group B era. The exact cars that scared drivers in the 80s are gathered up, and many are reunited with their original pilots for 3 days of tarmac rally action. Lancia, Peugeot, Audi, Ferrari, Fiat, Opel, Ford are among some of the marques to be found, gathering to celebrate the days of old.
The Group B rally cars were a mix in appearance between a science laboratory, and a NASA space shuttle. 0-100 on gravel in 2.3 seconds, and with upwards of 600 horsepower they were formidable weapons. By today’s standards 600 horsepower isn’t much, but when it is in a car with no driving aids, no active differentials, a turbocharger and supercharger on the same engine, all weighing in at 980kg you start to understand why these cars are the stuff of legends.
It may be easy to snigger at their simplicity, but these cars are indeed the most powerful and purpose-built machines rallying has ever seen.
As the cars are unloaded in the hot Italian sunshine, the old medieval town of San Marino, with its narrow cobblestone streets is the perfect location for an event like this. The streets are identical in every way to where most of these machines were run in anger back in their heyday.
After scrutineering of all the cars and an overnight parc ferme, it is time for the crews to gear up and hit the pavement. The event was to have a mix of sunshine, and rain. Although in the rallying world rain doesn’t ruin the event, it actually seems to make it better. As they say, there must be something in the water when it comes to rally fans.
Each day was set with a group of stages that were opened by 2 modern WRC machines. In 2015 it was Jari Matti Latvala, and Hayden Paddon who were the designated safety cars. They preceded the main field and ran through the stages at pace, to warn the crowds and ensure that the stage was clear for the first Group B cars behind them.
An important part of rally safety, although if we are brutally honest this was more of a chance to showboat the VW and Hyundai rally cars, and it quickly turned into a battle between the two of who could take the hairpins at the most extreme angle and remain sideways the longest.
Names such as Markku Alen, Miki Biasion, and Juha Kankkunen haven’t been seen on rally timesheets for quite some time. For many of the drivers this was the first time that they were behind the wheel of these machines without any pressure to put their life on the line stage after stage.
Alen remembers vividly what it was like competing behind the wheel of his Lancia S4, ‘It was a long time ago, but I still remember. All the time you were wondering when would be your next accident, and death was always in the back of our minds as we started each stage’.
Rallylegend treated the drivers and fans to three stages per day, two in the daylight and one in the inky darkness of the Italian night. For many this is how rallying should be.
The only significant difference is nobody is really to worried about the stopwatch, it’s not how fast you make it to the end, it is about having as much fan as you can the whole way there.
A lot of stages were run throughout the night for the Group B drivers, and there is no finer sight than a Quattro S1 hard under brakes, spotlamps lighting the way ahead, and a long bright orange lick of flame out the back highlighting the big boxy flares with that unmistakable Quattro howl echoing through the night sky. For many this is the true form of rallying.
In 2015 the Tour de Corse consisted of three days, and 332km of special stages. In 1985, the event was the same three days, yet saw the drivers wrestling with the cars for 1075km of competitive stages.
There was no doubt about the fatigue that set in for drivers, and after a string of accidents throughout the decade on May 2, 1986 Henri Toivonen gave a midday service interview to TV.
He said ‘on the slow stages which is only fifty percent pace to listen to the notes, where is the gravel, where is the water, it’s crazy you know. There isn’t a brain that can work so hard’. When asked if it was just he who shared this thinking he replied ‘Well everyone agrees, but many of them are already dead’.
Less than an hour after giving the interview at 2:40pm, Henri and his co-driver Sergio’s Lancia S4 left the road and burst into flame, neither of them made it out of the car. Just outside Corte is the corner that effectively killed Group B and banished the class to the history books.
Rallylegend is an event that brings back the best, and worst of rallying, but for all the right reasons. The legends that drove, and were driven, all come together to celebrate, and toast the darkest, yet brightest and most incredible days the sport of rallying has ever seen.
Imagery use in this article may not be reproduced without permission. All images copyright of Martin Hansson - www.mhrallybilder.se/