The secret world of Group S rally cars

Group S rallying was set to replace the legendary Group B with hi-tech cars made from exotic materials – but then the new series was itself cancelled

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Group B rallying was an astonishing spectacle, with fire-spitting creations leaping through the air. These near-unrestricted cars pushed drivers and engineers to the limit with ever-increasing average stage speeds – but at a cost.

Death had become a familiar spectre in Group B rallying, and so the decision was taken to disband the series in 1986. A new breed of rally car known as Group S was set to take over the mantle, but these new tech-focused creations were themselves cast out along with Group B.

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Not many people have heard of Group S, and that’s because these cars never had their chance to shine. This new series was to replace Group B, and would shift the focus from mind-boggling levels of power to innovative technologies. Vehicles would ultimately be restricted to 300bhp, forcing manufacturers to come up with clever new ways to lighten their cars to regain performance.

Obviously this exotic engineering didn’t come cheap, and so just ten examples were needed for homologation instead of Group B’s requirement for 200. The new Group S cars were to make their debut in 1988, and so manufacturers quickly got to work preparing the next generation of rally fighters.

Lancia created the ECV, a lightweight car with a carbon-fibre and aluminium honeycomb monocoque. This method made the ECV some 20 percent lighter than if it were made from the conventional aluminium space frame. The bodywork was made from a combination of carbon and Kevlar, both for strength and to keep weight to an absolute minimum. Even the wheels were made from a composite material, with each tipping the scales at a mere 6kg. The car also had an innovative TriFlux supercharged and turbocharged engine that aimed to reduce turbo lag and improve cooling.

Ford aimed to create a less radical competitor that would be based on its current Group B RS200. No RS200S prototypes were built, but the car was set to feature a new sequential gearbox, composite bodywork and reworked aerodynamics.

Audi might have brought all-wheel drive to the world of rallying, but it was starting to fall behind the mid-engined cars of rivals such as Peugeot and Lancia. Audi board members knew this, yet weren’t keen on producing a machine that effectively undermined the concept of the road car it sold. Engineers understood that it was time to change the formula, but knew it would need to be done out of sight and without the knowledge of top Audi brass. The newcomer showed real promise during testing, but having been secretly photographed and outed by the press, the project took just 48 hours to be totally dismantled.

Toyota was working on an MR2-based rally machine dubbed 222D, which would maximise marketing for the mid-engined sports car. The widened composite bodywork shrouded a variety of engines during testing, including a Le Mans GTP prototype unit. Weighing just 750kg and potentially producing 600-750bhp if necessary, the car quickly became known as The Black Monster due to its stealthy paint and raw speed.

Many other manufacturers showed an interest in the new Group S regulations, with Mazda, Opel, Seat and Skoda also creating prototype cars. With so much excitement and interest around the new series, it came as a total shock that Group S plans were scrapped along with Group B. It’s one of motor sport’s ultimate examples of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Some of these ground-breaking cars still exist, but many were cannibalised for parts once made redundant. It was an ignominious end for such a promising spectacle.

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