Group B: Motorheaded Heroism
What happens when one takes motorcar racing, puts it on a selection of winding country lanes across the world, and throws out most of the rulebook governing the cars hurtling down said lanes? You get something called Group B. Then what happens when the actions of both the drivers and spectators in this already unorthodox situation begin straddling the line between courage and insanity? Well, you end up with what some argue to be the golden era of rally racing and an inviting case study of the heroic in modern guise.
Running from 1982 to 1986, Group B was more or less madness on four wheels. The main rule was a minimum weight restriction relative to the size of the engine. Wikipedia (please excuse me) informs that engine displacement is “a loose indicator of the power an engine might be capable of producing.” One assumes this is what the people who set the rules thought would stop things from getting out of control. Instead, the power of the engines in these cars more than doubled in half a decade. Other than the aforementioned engine rule and a few safety measures to attempt to not kill the drivers of these things, it was open season on how these cars could be built. Want to construct a Ford out of fibreglass, a Lancia out of Kevlar or a MG out of whatever they had in the factory that day? Go for it! The year before Group B was introduced, the winning cars in the World Rally Championship had 250hp going for them; several could push 500hp and beyond by 1986. Build your car right and one could put an engine of that power into a vehicle which weighed 890kg, substantially less than most cars on the market today.
The rapid improvements made to these vehicles introduced an inherently revolutionary element into Group B. I urge readers to look up the video footage available online. It is nothing like, for example, modern Formula One’s nearly identical vehicles and eagerness for safety cars. Group B was consciously vicious, its cars a raw expression of mechanical power and strength. For the manufacturers, the annually escalating danger of the speed-based arms race seemingly mattered little compared to the glory of victory. The Peugeot 205 T16 which won in 1985 was markedly different to the Audi Quattro which dominated in 1984, and so on with the Lancia 037 in 1983 and Opel Ascona 400 in 1982. No two cars were alike, and innovation outpaced homogenisation at such a pace that the competition was always unpredictable. Had Group B continued a year or two longer, there would have been the mildly cursed spectacle of a boxy MG Metro 6R4 racing against supercars from Porsche and Ferrari. Nothing was sacred, virtually all boundaries set by the road versions of these machines could be transgressed, and the forces of psychics could be consistently willed to bend ever further to man.
Therefore, who else could control these mechanical beasts but the figure of the hero? The motorheaded hero had complete dominance over their metal steed in their quest for glory. For the best racers, there was no choice in this – it was quite often a matter of inches between winning and crashing, perhaps even death. If anything, their heroic status was confirmed by the role the spectators played in the danger of these courses. These were public roads with few barriers and no ability to control onlookers, so contemporary recordings regularly show them right next to or in the middle of routes as cars approached. Here the racer, in unison with their vehicle, assumed an almost transcendent and Moses-like quality in parting these seas of beings without slowing down. The motorheaded hero is seen therefore to evoke the Nietzschean overman in the representation or enforcement of a certain vital spirit and will over this mass, albeit in a mechanically assisted form. The nature of Group B demanded absolute courage, absolute control and absolute dedication, or else failure awaited.
It took a couple of fatal accidents in 1986 to bring all this to an end. Many Group B cars featured in lesser championships for several years afterwards, but all subsequent rulesets in the World Rally Championship have limited engine power far below their progenitors. Overall performance has improved in the nearly forty years since Group B was banned, since the lessened power improved handling and the proliferation of electronics assisted in multiple areas. Yet general improvement is equally true for mass-market cars. What this signifies is a shift from revolution to plainer iteration, thus the stifling of much of the ingenuity which characterised the Group B years and a reduction of difference. The greater safetyism in rallying in recent decades has also attenuated the assumed heroism of drivers. As with many aspects of modern life, risk has been strenuously contained to the detriment of the more compelling and vital alternative.