The cycle of rally – Group B to WRC and back again

The cycle of world rallying is set to continue as this year draws to a close. As we plan for 2017, let’s take a look back at the last three decades and see why.

Winding the clock back

Group B

By the mid 80’s the WRC’s premier category was Group B. The loose rules allowed manufacturers to create futuristic rally cars and they did. Engineers and designers ran free creating light weight mid engine machines. Tubular or space frame designs became common. Exotic materials such as magnesium, titanium and kevlar were used extensively with plastic panels making up the outer skin.


Engines developed huge power with turbo/super charging pushing figures to over 600 horse power in some cases. Most cars were four wheel drive however all suffered handling problems. Many of the group B machines also had fuel tanks mounted in the cockpit that the driver and co-driver literally sat on.

Lit fuse

Highly flammable materials, rocket fuel, very hot mechanical components and handling problems were the primer.  The huge numbers of spectators that Group B drew was providing a further catalyst. Special stage distances could also be up to 100km each. The fuse was the drivers and many feared for their lives each time they started a stage.


A string of lethal accidents involving spectators and competitors forced a change. The FIA had to act and so Group B was banned at the end of 1986. 30 years ago this year the Ford RS200, the Lancia Delta S4, the Peugeot 205 T16, the Rover Metro 6R4 and the Audi Quattro S1 finished their short lived WRC careers.

The Cycle starts


New rules for 1987 brought sweeping change to the WRC. Manufacturers had to use cars with a minimum production volume of 5000 instead of the specials of Group B. If it wasn’t available off the showroom floor, you couldn’t take it rallying. Horse power limits were also imposed to bring back performance to a level where humans could drive it.

Group A

This was the dawning of Group A rally cars. Most manufacturers had to grab whatever they had in their ranges to take on the stages. The Italians were the most fortunate as they already had a 4WD turbo road car in their showrooms. The Lancia Delta would prove the benchmark for the next few years.

Producing a Group A rally car

It is very easy to dream up an ultimate fantasy rally car, however when it must be built from a road car the game changes. Design rules, safety, production costs and being able to sell the car at a profit all come into the equation.  Time was a major factor too. There’s usually a long process to get a new car to showrooms, 2-3 years is not uncommon.  Also there are millions required in design and development.  All of these issues now faced any car maker wanting to go rallying, particularly if they wanted to win.

More brands at the starting line

Thankfully several manufacturers saw the advantage of rallying and took up the mantle. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that a few factory teams were vying for the wins. Alongside Lancia; Mazda, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Subaru and Ford were the main contenders. Several others also dabbled with Group A such as Audi, BMW and Nissan. Gone from the entry lists were Renault & Peugeot.

Maturing category

With most factory teams fielding two or more works cars at each WRC round, the entry lists looked good at the pointy end. Privateers could also run similar cars if they had the budget. Showing how technology had progressed, the Group A rally cars were now also smashing the stage time records set by the Group B weapons. This was despite lower power outputs of 350 horsepower. Tyres, brakes and electronics were having the biggest impacts. For fans it also meant that they could walk into a dealership and buy a car similar to that of their rally hero.

The decline

Everything that goes up must come down and Group A was no exception. The mega costs to produce a road car that could be turned into a rally car were spiralling. For some manufacturers, sales of their flagship cars were declining. To recoup the costs of producing a specialised machine, the price tag was high. Ford most notably was struggling to sell its Escort Cosworth. Subaru probably did best with the sales of its WRC winning Impreza WRX. Other manufacturers had expressed an interest in entering Group A, however the costs were prohibitive.

The cycle starts again

After a decade, the writing was on the wall and 1996 was the last full year of Group A. After canvassing the manufacturers a new category was developed. The idea was to allow a special rally car that had to be based on a model in the current range. Horsepower would be limited and minimum weights applied. The category would allow freedoms in many areas including greater technology, however the lessons learned from Group B were applied.

World Rally Cars

As 1997 dawned Subaru and Ford were the early adopters of the new specs, modifying their existing Group A machines. Turbo charged 2 litre engines and four wheel drive were allowed along with electronically controlled transmissions. Many other developments would be added to the build sheets in years to come. Toyota brought out the first true world rally car during the 97 season in the form of the Corolla WRC. It looked like the FIA had the formula right when Hyundai, Seat, Citroen, Peugeot and Skoda joined in.

WRC evolution


Rule changes during the mid 00’s were designed to cut costs as manufacturers again complained of spiralling budgets. Engines now had to last two events and some of the electronics in the transmissions and suspension were removed. Other on event part replacements were restricted too.


More rule changes followed in 2011. Engine sizes were reduced from 2L to 1.6L and turbo boost pressure was limited. Also many of the light weight however expensive materials such as titanium, magnesium and ceramics were banned. The use of carbon fibre was also restricted.

During the last two decades, 19 different models from 12 different manufacturers have been classified as World Rally Cars.

The cycle begins again

2016 again saw changes to the spec of cars for the following season. At least the name “World Rally Car” has not changed in 20 years, even if the actual vehicles are completely different.

There is however a slight rumbling with sentiments from 30 years ago.  In 2017 power outputs will be allowed to increase from 300 to 380HP and minimum weights will drop 25kg. Aerodynamics, some electronics and other enhancements are also permitted.

After a process of limiting performance for three decades, it seems the FIA has done somewhat of a back flip.

What does the future hold?

World rally cars have long broken the stage records set by Group B and Group A showing how fast they are. Despite all their heady speed, acceleration and traction, some think the cars need to go faster.

No doubt over the last 30 years safety and technology has advanced dramatically. What hasn’t changed is the human behind the wheel.

Is this a case of recreating Group B under a different name? Time will tell…

Karl Drummond