Posted by: joevanderfluit | October 28, 2014

Group B: My Anti-NASCAR

As I’m probably known as something of a “car guy”, I think it surprises people when I balk at the thought of NASCAR and then go into frothy tirades about how I dislike it so. Oh sure, I wasn’t always this way. When I was little I liked NASCAR just fine, especially the meanie in the big black #3 car. My dad watched it every Sunday and, other than monster trucks, it was really the only racing I knew about. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. But then one fine day Speedvision showed up in the cable package and suddenly, as one would guess by the channel name, there was this whole new world of speed to view. First it was British Touring Car and Australian V8 Supercar racing. Cars that were distinct from one another! That actually resembled the street cars they shared names with! And they could turn right! And then there was Le Mans. Five different tiers of cars, all running on the same track at different speeds! For 24 hours straight! Even at night! In the rain! Because their lights weren’t stickers! Then, sometime in 2001 I think it was, I saw something that was just the best: WRC. The World Rally Championship. This was a whole different breed of racing than running in circles. These were cars blasting, one at a time, down timed stretches of every type of road (or “road”) imaginable: smooth ribbons of Western European tarmac; dusty dirt tracks; gravel-strewn moonscapes suitable maybe for mules; all lively with hairpins, jumps, streams, occasional livestock. These slick European hatchbacks took monstrous beatings while them good ol’ boys and their burly NASCAR stockers hid in their trailers at the slightest hint of rain. Drivers drove like men possessed while brass-balled co-drivers sitting shotgun calmly read off directions; and if something went wrong, both would hop out and fix the car. I rooted for the Peugeot 206 WRC simply on the merits of it being one drop-dead gorgeous little Gallic rocketship that just so happened to take the championship three times in a row. That said, I did have a soft spot for the perennial struggler: the Skoda Octavia WRC. It was the Czech tank of the grid; too big for rallying but made a great sound and was a true underdog.

Peugeot 206 WRC

Peugeot 206 WRC

Skoda Octavia WRC

Skoda Octavia WRC

These cars ran with mandated sub-2000cc turbocharged engines good for about 300 horsepower that would literally spit fire out the tailpipe at every slam of the sequential shifter. This pyrotechnic display with accompanying gunshot sound, I would learn later, was an anti-lag system for the turbochargers. For those not in the know, a turbocharger is essentially a two-ended turbine. One end is driven by hot exhaust gases on their way out of the engine and the other acts as a compressor for air on its way in. More air means more pressure means more force per combustion event means your 206 WRC goes faster. Problem is, there is a delay – “lag” – while the exhaust gas spools up the turbine wherein you make less power. Since this is racing, that won’t do at all. The WRC cars got around this by allowing fresh air into the hot exhaust manifold to mix with unburned fuel. The mixture would ignite, driving the turbo while the throttle was off; making a loud bang and sending flame out the back. This anti-lag measure was critical when I got into WRC as the air inlet for the turbo was choked down by a restrictor to keep power down at 300 hp. Naturally, my question became why the restrictor? The answer was a most glorious thing to behold; a distant myth from a legendary age before time itself: 1982-1986. A time when monsters roamed the earth.

Actually, the story begins earlier than that, way way back in 1972 with the introduction of one of my very favorite cars of all time: the Lancia Stratos HF. This tiny wedge doorstop of a car was the first to be single-mindedly purpose-built to win rallies. Its wide track, tiny length, rear-wheel-drive and Ferrari V6 made it both blisteringly fast and nervously twitchy. In other words, the perfect weapon for tight and winding rally stages. It filled Lancia’s trophy cabinet as one would expect a thing meant to do just that would, bringing home the top-level championship in ’74, ’75, and ’76. It kept competitive into the ‘80s though overshadowed by FIATs after infighting among FIAT and the makers it controlled, including Lancia. Boo, hiss, and all that.

Lancia Stratos HF

Lancia Stratos HF

Audi would be the ones to change the game next, unleashing what next to the Stratos was a ponderous, nose-heavy titan of a thing. It boasted a fancy and complex all-wheel-drive system that gave the car its name – Audi Quattro.

Audi Quattro

Audi Quattro

As the sales success of AWD cars over the last thirty years has shown, that kind of thing is really, really handy on traction-unfriendly surfaces like dirt, gravel, and snow. Surfaces that rallies like to be run on. So handy that Frenchwoman Michele Mouton wrestled that awkward Audi into second place in the world championship. (Ladies, I will always reverently view Mouton as the true face of the potential for women in motorsport. Not middle-of-the-pack-talent that happens to look good in GoDaddy commercials like, oh, say one Danica Patrick.)

Michele Mouton

Michele Mouton

At the time, rally class rules stipulated that a rally car had to be based on a street car that sold 5000 units a year. Given that most mass-market offerings were becoming front-wheel-drive economy cars, this excluded a ton of smaller carmakers from rally. Smelling these winds of change, and anticipating a possible technological arms race, stuffy old rulemakers and administrators did something rather odd and created a new class of rally car. A largely de-restricted class that mandated A) two seats, and B) 200 street cars be haphazardly slapped together and sold to maniacs. Sure, there were other rules like weight minimums and corresponding engine size limits, and math to equalize turbocharged/supercharged engines with those that were not (which didn’t come close to working as engineers went mad with boost – either you raced with boost or you lost badly) but those don’t really matter. The FIA had given engineers the go-ahead to build monsters; and monsters they built. These were the legendary, the epic, the fearsome cars of Group B.

The first shots fired across Audi’s most prominent bow were from Lancia who came out swinging with another of my all-time favorite cars, the 037. By the end of its run in 1984 its 2000cc motor – supercharged (like a turbo but mechanically driven by the engine eliminating lag) – was screaming out 325 horsepower driving a scant minimum weight of 960 kg. It was the last rear-wheel-drive car to ever win the championship.

Lanica 037

Lanica 037

Halfway through 1984 Peugeot waded into the fray with their 205 T16. Small, reliable and more drivable (meaning less terrifying) than the competition the little all-wheel-drive French hatchback dominated in 1985.

Peugeot 205 T16

Peugeot 205 T16

Audi responded by cutting and pasting the Quattro into a shorter, leaner and meaner package. The Sport Quattro S1 punched out 444 turbo horsepower and took the championship away from the 037.

Audi Sport Quattro

Audi Sport Quattro

In the midst of the melee yet another of my bizarre favorites came to be. Austin took their Metro, otherwise a miserable shopping cart, bolted a wing or vent or box onto every surface, stuck in an angry turbo motor and made the Metro 6R4. It didn’t win much of anything but made a name for itself in rallycross (think a mixed-surface closed race circuit with 4 to 6 cars bludgeoning each other for position) well into the 1990s.

Metro 6R4

Metro 6R4

Ford came late to the party with the attractive and speedy RS200, though it only achieved one event third place in 1986. 1986 Ford RS200 Evolution

And just as the madness began with the Stratos and again with the 037, Lancia blew everything out the water with my most favorite of all the Group B beasts. The Delta S4.

Lancia Delta S4

Lancia Delta S4

It was a true, horror-movie monster. A sub-1800cc engine fitted with both a supercharger and a turbocharger was stuck in the middle of a tube-frame (much like the 305 T16) wearing flimsy Delta hatchback bodywork like an ill-fitting Halloween mask. Officially, in race trim it made 480 horsepower. Owing to typical racing skullduggery it most certainly did not. The engine was tested at up to 1000 horsepower and was thought to make somewhere in the mid-500s on race weekends. Urban legend says that it ran a race track and posted the sixth best time. In a field of Formula 1 race cars. As it turns out, that is only partially true. A Delta S4 in the hands of prodigy Henri Toivonen did in fact lap Estoril circuit; and did indeed post a lap time somewhere in the top 10 of Formula 1 times that week; but those were merely preliminary testing times and not nearly as fast as dialed-in, 1500-horsepower F1 cars would turn in qualifying or on race day. But still, the S4 was mind-bendingly quick. From a dead stop 100 km/h came and went in as little in 2.3 seconds. On gravel.

For 1986, the Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2 was tickling the bottom of 600 horsepower and needed a massive snowplow of a nose and buffet table of a rear wing to have a hope of staying on the ground.

Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2

Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2

The cars were becoming too much for mortal men and it showed. 1985, Atillio Bettega pinballed a Lancia 037 through a forest, killing himself and a co-driver. And the crowds didn’t help. Stages became lined with walls of spectators a dozen deep, which often spilled into the road and would narrowly split as cars barrelled towards them. Rally Portugal, 1986. A Ford RS200 jinks to avoid a wayward fan and slides sideways into a crowd. Three die, thirty-some more are injured. By the end, the cars became too much even for men seen as immortal. Tour de Corse, France, 1986. Henri Toivonen, the only one who could release the Delta S4’s true potential, was running away with a massive lead in the second day of competition. Unseen, he enters a hairpin and zigs when he should have zagged. His Lancia Delta S4 sails into a ravine and ejects both crew on impact. It rolls over both men, killing them, before it lands on its roof and explodes into flame. There was not enough recognizable wreckage to determine a cause. The drivers issued a letter to the governing bodies citing crowd control issues and unmanageable speeds and Group B was banned at the close of the 1986 season.

For a few short, glorious years in the 1980s Group B rally cars were the fastest, meanest and most electrifying form of motorsport the planet has ever seen and I do dearly wish I was there to see it. I’ve seen a number of these cars for sale in Vegas and I could not think of a better way to spend 1 million US greenbacks than on a Lancia 037, Metro 6R4 and a Ford RS200. If I were to see a late Audi Quattro S1 with the shovel nose, or especially a Lancia Delta S4, I would stop dead in my tracks, my blood would flow cold and my heart would stop. They are cars I profoundly fear yet dearly lust for. They were once chariots of gods. Cars that embraced bleeding edge technology to go faster thirty years ago than we can dare to go now, in this age where NASCAR only just adopted fuel injection as a legitimate technology, not some dag-nabbed dirty foreign Commie, freedom-hatin’, Jesus-denyin’ plot agains Murrica, never you mind that it was available on the Corvette in the 1950s. No, keep drivin’ in circles boys.

I love every scrap of footage of Group B I can find. Where the real men raced on dirt and snow and mud and turned right. And French women could beat them. Somewhere, a NASCAR fan’s head just dun’ esploded like the Fourth of Joo-ly y’all.

I’ll leave this video.

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