Back in 1982, Group was brought in by the Federation Internationale DE l’Automobile (FIA) to replace the outgoing modified grand touring and touring prototypes rally racing categories. Unlike Group A cars, Group vehicles enjoyed small homologation volumes, and virtually no limits on what could be equipped.
Unfortunately, the craziness of the entrance field caused fast, furious, and dangerous racing competitions. While it was resulting in record success, the World Rally Championship was forced to retire the Group category in 1986.
The World Championship was simply becoming far too dangerous, with too many racing car driver fatalities. Some of the best car models even inspired new race machines that came years later, such as the Subaru Impress, the re-released Mini Cooper, and legendary Ford Fiesta.
While it inspired many, the vehicles that it spawned and evolved are even more impressive, from the fearsome Ford Escort and Fiat 131 Abarth Rally to the groundbreaking Mitsubishi Lancer, there was no denying the value of the group. But rather than mourn, let’s take a look at some of the world’s fastest rally cars that epitomize the spirit and thrill of the banned group.
The Citroën project was doomed from the start, being launched just months before the ban on Group. While imbued with all-wheel drive, Citroën decided against moving the engine behind the driver as had its more successful competitors, it remained in its original location: between the front wheels.
The Citroën also retained its stock wheelbase, making it the more difficult to manage on stage roads. While this wild World Rally Championship machine wasn’t the fastestrallycar ever, it certainly was one of the craziest.
The original design was powered by a V-6 version of an old aluminum V-8, fitted to the Range Rover that General Motors had sold off to the English. The engine was moved behind the driver, a complete tube chassis fabricated underneath, and an AWD system installed.
Power was quoted as 425 horsepower, but most likely was higher, The 205 T16 and E2 immediately took the lead in WRC competition, winning 12 events, until outdone by our next best rally car. It’s a whole different beast to the rear-wheel drive Lancia Stratus, but it’s a different kind of car.
With a layout similar to the Peugeot, Lancia took it one step further by creating an outside shell with no inside panels of any kind. Unfortunately a tragic accident with a Delta S4 brought an end to the reign of the Group WRC supercars.
As part of the investigation into several Group accidents, a panel of doctors determined that the cars were too fast for the drivers’ eyes and brain to process the fast-moving course and conditions. About Chris Riley I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them but I keep coming back for more.
The task of designing the new rally car would again be undertaken by Abarth even though the team had no prior experience in four-wheel drive chassis and systems. Originally code-named the “SE038 project”, the dedicated design would sport a fully tubular space-frame construction directly evolved from the 037’s and would retain much of the latter’s features such as a mid-engine layout and lack of a rear bumper replaced by large roll-up mudflaps on the rally version.
As such, the Abarth engineers crudely modified the rear section of a Rally 037 to help mimic the S4’s exterior features. The fitment of such a system to the 037 had been denied by Lancia’s management despite the pressing efforts of chief design engineer Sergio Simone.
Neither Lancia nor Abarth had any experience in four-wheel drive systems, the former having relegated development of a prototype Delta 4×4 road car to Ital design in 1982. Lancia and Hew land thus joined forces to develop the transmission and transfer case with both front and rear differentials of Of limited-slip type.
Some initial safety concerns were put forward by the engineers’ use of fairly small diameter tubing for the car ’s space-frame construction paired with a cabin made out of composite panels and very thin bodywork parts. However, Abarth engineers were one of the first rally teams to rely on computer assisted torsion and bending figures and tests.
The resulting tests revealed that, although the car could weigh as little as 890 kg / 1960 lbs (per the class rules), the chassis and brittle bodywork were not strong enough to withstand repeated abuse. In actual rally form, the resulting strict minimum race weight was 950 kg / 2100 lbs for tarmac events.
The doors were hollow to reduce weight, sporting a thin Kevlar outer skin, and composite acrylic windows. Both front and rear sections of the bodywork could open up in a “clam shell” fashion and could also be rapidly removed for ease of servicing.
The bonnet features a vent with a Gurney flap to aid in radiator cooling and could be opened independently of the rest of the clam shell to allow even quicker access to the spare tire. The rear section features large side scoops to feed both intercoolers (one for the supercharger and turbocharger systems respectively).
A large flexible front air dam paired with a deflector roof spoiler aided aerodynamics. The Delta S4 was officially homologized just in time for the 1985 RAC rally which resulted in an incredible 1-2 finish in the capable hands of Henri Poisoned and Markka Alien.
Poisoned repeated the feat at the following event (1986 Monte Carlo Rally) which would confirm the Lancia Delta S4 as a serious and fearsome contender, thus breaking over a year of Peugeot dominance. However, the Delta S4 was not without its faults; it often had to undergo chassis repairs and full rebuilds after each rally, which made it questionable for rougher endurance events.
Even more power was rumored to be in the works: in a well known myth, it was unofficially reported that in early 1986 Henri Poisoned drove two test laps on the F1 circuit of Estonia in Portugal with an 800+ BHP version of the twin charged engine and came within a few seconds of the qualification times made by the Formula One cars. The myth had some recent backing when Jinni Russo, Lancia’s rally team manager of the time, somewhat confirmed the rumors.
Nonetheless, there might be some truth about the horsepower figure as Markka Alien later said in an interview that the car he was given for the 1986 Olympus Rally featured an upgraded engine that was tuned to produce “up to 750 BHP”. Independent tests also proved the Delta S4 as the fastest accelerating GroupBrallycar on tarmac with a time of 2.4 seconds for the 0-100 kph (0-62 mph) dash.
The Lancia Delta S4 extensive weight minimizing philosophy would ultimately lead to disaster when driver Henri Poisoned and co-driver Sergio Crest crashed their car at the 1986 Tour de Corse. The car inexplicably flipped over the stone wall, rolled down the rocky embankment through some bushes, got hanged in some trees, and caught fire.
The accident had no witnesses close enough to clearly see the event but some reported hearing an explosion and seeing a huge ball of fire shooting up from the treeline. The team had removed the skid plates to make the car lighter for increased performance thus leaving the fuel tank fully exposed to outside elements.
Despite the ill fate of the car, the Delta S4 can be arguably considered as the fully exploited Group class embodiment and a true achievement for Lancia & Abarth. It can be positively argued that, if not for Poisoned’s untimely demise, Lancia would probably have won the 1986 WRC manufacturer championship and most likely would have crowned a driver champion as well.
A small consolation came for Lancia when they won both the European and Italian Rally Championships in the capable hands of Fabricio Ta baton & Dario Serrano, respectively. However, the car continued to be successfully raced by privateers for many years in such disciplines as autocross, rally cross, rally sprints, and hill climb.
In early 1986, before Group ’s official ban, Abarth was already working diligently on a second evolution “E2” version of the Delta S4 which would have brought further improvements to the car. In modern times, the Lancia Delta S4 can be admired in action in exhibition events such as the yearly Eiffel Rally Festival in Germany.
The Straddle kept true to the Course (race car) by retaining most of its features, including the twin-charged engine and full space frame construction. Nonetheless, it featured a fairly well-made Alcántara interior with sound deadening and amenities such as air conditioning.
The exterior body panels were made out of polyester resin and the windows out of normal glass to reduce production costs. The roof scoop was unused on the Straddle as it was determined it didn’t need the extra oil cooling and as such was blocked off in favor of providing a better rearview.
Other minor differences from the Course version include the use of a pneumatic assisted power steering due to lack of room in the front cargo compartment. While the horsepower was reduced at around 250 BHP in road trim, making use of a smaller K26 turbocharger, it is claimed that only minor modifications to the engine could double its output.
Like most Group homologation specials, the Delta S4 Straddle was considered uncomfortable, unpractical for daily use, and very expensive to maintain. What is known is that many of the already rare road going cars were converted into the Course (racing) version by their owners (and most likely crashed at one point), making the Straddle very seldom to be found in factory form.
But with machines tuned to upwards of 600bhp and crowd control that was at best lax and at worst non-existent, Group ’s fate was grimly predictable. So when Finnish driver Henri Poisoned fatally crashed at the 1986 Tour de Corse, rallying had its wings clipped and it was all over for Group.
The Worst moment: Audi’s decision to pull out of Group immediately following a fatal crash at the 1986 Rally de Portugal WRC manufacturers had initially resisted adopting four-wheel-drive on their cars, thinking that the extra weight and complexity of the systems would cancel out any advantages.
But what really gets rally fans hot under the collar is the vision of the Quarto S1 E2’s enormous wings and the primordial timbre of the car ’s five-cylinder engine howling at full chat. Watch the incredible footage of Walter Royal piloting his Sport Quarto in between a wall of fans at the 1985 Rally de Portugal in the video below.
When the Peugeot 205 T16 arrived in the World Rally Championship midway through the 1984 season, it immediately became the Grouper to beat. With legendary drivers like ARI Taken, Michele Mouton and Just Raikkonen behind the wheel, and future Ferrari F1 team principal Jean Todd at the helm, Peugeot and the 205 T16 were the true mid-80s WRC superpower.
The Worst moment: A privately-owned RS200 being involved in a fatal crash with spectators one event later at Rally de Portugal Having tried and failed to succeed in Group with the rear-wheel-drive Escort RS1700T in 1983, Ford unveiled the four-wheel-drive RS200, a car purpose-built for rally competition, in late 1985.
Watch current M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson competing in the 1985 Lindisfarne Rally with the RS200 in the video below. Austin Rover’s tiny, mad MG Metro 6R4 was a late arrival in the GroupB party.