Compared to the smooth wine of Formula 1, rallying is harsh and jagged. Taking place on closed public roads over a number of ‘stages’, it is far from the pristine tarmac of its more refined brethren. On surfaces ranging from sand to snow, drivers thread their cars along forest tracks and through village alleys at bowel-loosening speeds. Tight corners and loose surfaces at high speeds made accidents inevitable. Long stages and remote locations made crash recovery difficult. Despite these factors, small engines and production requirements kept accidents uncommon and manageable.
In 1982, the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) introduced Group B, a new class which removed many restrictions from rally cars. Group B had no regulations controlling a car’s power output, and between 1981 and 1986 engine power climbed from 250bhp to over 500bhp. Weight reductions and the development of four-wheel drive, pioneered by Audi’s Quattro A1, poured more fuel on the fire.
This technological development was driven by lower vehicle production requirements. Group B mandated only that eligible cars be produced to 200 vehicles per 12 months, far fewer than equivalent classes in the past. Such a low threshold allowed manufacturers to produce a costlier vehicle and to race, arguably, a ‘purer’ rally car. All the deregulation of the 1980s laid the foundation for rallying’s golden age.
Drivers loved this brave new world. Ari Vatenen, one of the many Finns who have dominated rallying, likened racing a Group B car to being in a jet launching from an aircraft carrier. In carbon-kevlar shells capable of reaching 60mph in under three seconds, he can’t have been far off. “Driving is like music, it takes you. But you need a good piano. And Group B was a fantastic piano,” he said.
FISA had little understanding of quite what they had created with Group B. Rally car racing was moving into uncharted territory. Despite the governing body’s fog, manufacturers grasped the opportunity and seized upon the promotional value of a winning rally car. By helping sell more road cars, Group B sculpted the Quattro into a 1980s icon and gave Peugeot a foothold out of financial ruin. The hope that production cars would capture some of rallying’s magic was strong among companies and their customers. As sales drove investment, drivers raced ever faster cars and drew ever larger crowds. Despite all the money in rallying, safety was a decidedly low priority. Fans would crowd onto hairpin bends and blind crests to catch sight and sound of their idols. Spectators stood so close as to frequently be clipped by cars going sideways. The Portuguese had a special reputation for trying to touch the cars as they sped past.
Fast cars and eager fans mixed with sometimes lethal results. In 1986 during a Rally de Portugal stage, Joaquim Santos crashed his Ford RS200 into spectators, killing two children and a woman and injuring thirty-two. While speed and Santos’ inexperience were undoubtedly factors in the crash, he lost control after swerving around a spectator who, like countless others, stood in the path of the car. Uninjured but in shock, Santos did not move, sitting with his head bowed over the steering wheel.
Later that season, Henri Toivonen, eager to prove that the new Lancia Delta S4 could win on Corsican tarmac, opened up a minute’s lead during the Tour de Corse. Despite feeling unwell, Toivonen held on and broke the Stage 17 record by three minutes. The S4, supercharged and turbocharged, with a Finn behind the wheel, distilled the essence of unrestrained, Group B rallying. However, the combination proved to be too volatile. Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto were killed after they missed a corner and the S4 dove into a ravine.
Why the car left the road is unknown. There were no witnesses to the crash and the car was destroyed by fire. What is known, and what was known by everyone involved, is that the S4’s design dictated that the fuel tank be situated beneath the front seats. The tank’s underside lacked a gravel guard due to the asphalt surface. Trees in the ravine punctured it and the tank exploded. Toivonen and Cresto died in their seats.
Rally drivers and their cars have always held a special mystery. In the words of Michèle Mouton, rallying is about finding “the limit of the car and yourself.” Car and driver converge, the risk and the seeker, never touching but occasionally crossing over into the other’s domain. After which point, as Walter Röhrl put it, “the car is driving with him and not he with the car.”
The fine line between car and driver was the territory of men like Toivonen and Röhrl. Those who veered off reminded us that idols, too, are mortal. Those who kept their balance created an escape that led to a place of dreams and danger, those hidden figures just around the next corner. “It’s up to you to decide what’s the definition of that,” said Ari Vatenen. “Is it crazy or… what else?”