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From Group B to Rally1: the evolution of rallying

The term “Golden Age Of Rallying” is an oft-used one, but what actually was the “Golden Age”?

Surely that is purely decided by when you grew up, who your heroes were, and what your favourite car was.

What’s your favourite?

For some, that would mean the Group 4 era of the Ford Escort, Lancia Stratos and Fiat 131 Abarth. For others, it would be Group B’s Audi Quattros, Peugeot 205s and Lancia Delta S4s.

Maybe you were a Group A tragic and couldn’t get enough of the Subaru Legacy, Mazda 323s and Toyota Celicas.

There would even be others who might rate Group N as the highlight, with the never ending battles between Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evos and Subarus Impreza WRXs.

As we head towards the end of 2021 though, there’s a good argument that the current World Rally Car era is the Golden Age, and you’d be hard pressed to convince a lot of people otherwise.

Walter Rohrl

Ott Tanak

Hannu Mikkola

Since 2017 we’ve been treated to what really has been the modern day Group B. Cars with more wings and skirts than you can poke a stick at, incredible horsepower from their tiny 1600cc turbocharged engines, and road holding that we’ve never before seen.

A lot of talk at Rally Finland was that it was the last time that we would see the World Rally Cars in action on gravel at WRC level, and for many that was a sad occasion.

From Monte Carlo next January, the new Rally1 hybrid class will be introduced to much fanfare, but also to great trepidation from the fans. That’s another topic for another day though.

Better than Group B?

There’s nothing surer than that the speed we saw from the world’s best drivers in Finland was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. We’ve all watched the video footage from the event, and we’ve all marvelled at the grip of the cars and the skills of the pilots.

Rest assured, these World Rally Cars are faster than the Group B cars ever were, but does that mean that the drivers in 2021 are better than the superstars of 1986?

Yes. And no.

Henri Toivonen and the Lancia Delta S4 in all its Group B glory on the 1986 Monte Carlo Rally.

In terms of being able to keep a car on the road at 2021 speeds on Rally Finland, the 2021 drivers are clearly the fastest we’ve ever seen. But are they better?

It’s a question that is impossible to answer with any certainty, in the same way that you can’t compare sporting teams or players from different eras.

A 1986-spec Audi Quattro S1 had 600 horsepower and could literally do wheel stands in the right conditions, but on 1980s spec tyres and suspension, it wouldn’t even be in the ballpark when competing against Elfyn Evans’ Toyota Yaris WRC.

In a nutshell, that’s where the comparison has to end.

Walter Rohrl, Hannu Mikkola, Markku Alen and co. were all superhuman to manhandle those cars through the forest as fast as they did, so there’s nothing to say that a 25-year old version of themselves couldn’t drive a Yaris just as quickly as Evans, etc. in 2021.

Perhaps the only way we could ever get an indication of the speed of the drivers in different eras would be to put a current driver in a full-spec Group B car and let them loose.

Even then though, there are so many variables that would come into play that we’d never really get a conclusive answer.

Our only real option is to appreciate each era for what it was, what it delivered to the sport, and how much we miss it when it’s all over.

The current spec World Rally Cars have been incredible for the WRC, and we’ll miss them dearly – as we did with Group 4, Group B and other categories that followed.

Embracing the future

What we need to do now is appreciate that technology is evolving, and embrace the new Rally1 category with the same enthusiasm that we have for the history of the sport.

It’s all too easy to be set in our ways and wish things were like “the good old days”, and while we never really appreciate how good things are until they’ve gone, sometimes we need to refocus our minds to what is yet to come.

For rallying’s future, that means hybrid technology and electric motors. Like it or not, that’s where we’re at.

As to how fast and how exciting the cars will be, I have no concerns whatsoever that the WRC will continue to be motorsport’s greatest spectacle.

With the fastest and most talented drivers at the wheel, how can it be anything else?

Group B cars such as the Peugeot 205 T16 are still much loved by rally fans.
In comparison, Ford's Puma Rally1 is part of rallying's new hybrid era.

Order your 2022 McKlein calendars now ….

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Author

Peter Whitten

Peter has been the editor of RallySport Magazine since its inception in 1989, in both printed and online form. He is a long-time competitor, event organiser and official, as well as working in the media. In 2020 he received a Motorsport Australia 'Media Service Award'.
Peter has been the editor of RallySport Magazine since its inception in 1989, in both printed and online form. He is a long-time competitor, event organiser and official, as well as working in the media. In 2020 he received a Motorsport Australia 'Media Service Award'.