Henri Toivonen and the Group B rally car were destined to make and then destroy each other’s life. John Davenport reports
As the song says about love and marriage, they could have been made for one another. Henri Toivonen and the Group B rally cars of the mid-1980s seemed to share the same destiny and, together, produced some of the most fiery displays of driving ever seen on the world rally stage. Sadly, it was that very destiny which was also to take both of them away from us.
It is hard to say when Group B was horn. It was towards the end of ’79 that manufacturers started talks with FlSA about a new set of regulations governing production cars that were raced and rallied. The problem with the old regulations was they had been gradually turned on their head. From being a set of tuning levels to which the competitor could elevate his standard production car, each level had become a separate entrance.
Thus specials like the Lancia Stratos, the Audi Quattro and the Vauxhall Chevette HSR went directly into the highest level, Group 4, and only 400 models had to be produced. Also, the old regulations allowed large freedoms in some areas and none in others, so changes were definitely required.
Manufacture’s wanted exciting cars but not have to build very many of them. Arguments broke out, for while nearly all agreed that Group A, the new ‘standard’ class, needed a minimum limit of 5000 per annum, for Group B there were many opinions. The Germans wanted 2000 units, the French and British 200, and the Italians just 20. Eventually 200 was settled on with just 20 identical cars needed for an `evolution’. This decision came late in 1981, after the initial rules were published at the end of 1980.
Consequently, not many Group B cars were seen in 1982 where old and new were welcomed equally. For 1983, only the new would be accepted. So a compromise was made for Group 4 cars to be passed into Group B. Thus, in these interim years, the rally scene did not change very quickly with Quattros, Lancia 037s and Opel Manta 400s leading the way.
If the birth date of Group B is hard to discern, there’s no difficulty with Henri Toivonen. He was born on August 25th, 1956 in jyvaskyla. His father, Pauli, was on the first rungs of a career that would see him win the 1000 Lakes, the Monte and the European Championship in the ’60s. Toivonen Senior’s business was importing cars into Finland including Citroen, VW, Porsche and Chrysler. It was Chrysler’s little Simca Rally 2 that started Henri’s career and his fast big event was the 1000 Lakes Rally, just before his 19th birthday.
Henri’s early career was Finnish based and, once his Simca days were over, he took to rallying a Chlysler Avenger. He finished fifth on the 1977 1000 Lakes and second on the Arctic Rally the next spring. As a result, he got a couple of works drives fbr Citroen in the Portuguese and the Acropolis Rallies in the unwieldy CX 2400 Gil. In Portugal, he had a Group 1 car and made a spectacular exit, while in Greece he was entrusted with a Group 2 car and ran well until retiring with a fractured fuel pipe. For the 1000 Lakes, he used a Porsche 911, but the engine only lasted 10 stages. To end the year, he finished ninth overall on the MC Rally with his Avenger.
His career languished in ’79 and he only did a few events. On the 1000 Lakes, he had a works Fiat 131 and did fair times considering his lack of competitive driving he was hardly ever out of the fastest five before the inevitable accident. But his style, both behind the wheel and away from it, were attracting attention. He retired on the RAC, but when he went home it was with a contract in his pocket to drive the new Sunbeam Lotus.
Cleared for full-scale competition in April 1979, the Sunbeam was almost the last of the Group 4 cars and it was one of few that actually met the production minimum of 400 cars, but was no supercar like the Lancia Stratos, the 037 or the Quattro. It was a straightforward machine with a 2.2-litre engine at the front driving the rear wheels through a live rear axle.
Henri started 1980 by winning the Arctic Rally in A Sunbeam and went on to a mixture of European and British events. He finished the Welsh and Scottish Rallies and this experience contributed to the result with which he finished the year. Aged just 24 years, he won the RAC Rally by over four minutes from Hannu Mikkola’s Ford Escort. The Mikkola/Escort combination had won the event fir the previous two years.
If Mikkola was disappointed to lose his hat trick, he could afford to be generous to his countryman, for Mikkola knew that, the following year, he would drive the last word in rally technology, the fourwheel drive Audi Quattro. This, too, was a Group 4 car, but its appearance fuelled the other manufacturers’ will to build four-wheel drive supercars. And it was Group B that would provide the way.
Henri drove another year with what was now Peugeot-Talbot, increasing his experience in Europe. During ’82, Peugeot killed the Sunbeam Lotus programme to make way for their Group B car, so the Peugeot 205 T16. Thus Henri signed with Opel and drove the Group 4 Ascona 400 and Group B Manta 400. His only outright win for them came on the Manx in 1983.
His co-driver was Fred Gallagher, who recalls that life with Henri could be demanding. On the ’82 Circuit of Ireland they hit a wall and Henri broke a bone in his wrist. “He was taken to hospital from a service point, so when it came to leave I checked out on my own and drove to the next stage. Luckily, before we were due to start, Henri appeared. I had to change gear for the next five stages and drive the road sections thereafter.”
By now Henri had discovered a love for tarmac and decided he should try proper racing. Through Gallagher, he got in contact with Eddie Jordan and asked if he could drive an F3 car at Thruxton. As a bit of practice, Henri did a Formula Libre race at Silverstone where he finished second behind Will Hoy in a Clubmans car. At Thruxton race, he was ninth, the event being won by one Ayrton Senna. Eddie reckons Henri should have persevered at racing, but he was soon to become too busy with rallies.
During this interim period, when it was known that all kinds of Group B cars were being born, a driver had to weigh up who’d come out with the best and make-do with whatever he had for the time being. While he was still at Opel, there was the hope of a four-wheel drive Astra, but the omens were not good. For 1984, Henri cut a deal with Lancia knowing the S4 was on the way. He had known team boss Cesare Fiorio since 1979 and mutual respect already existed. But he also contracted to drive a Porsche 911 SC for the Rothmans team in the European Championship as there was a good chance the Group B Porsche 959 would arrive before the Lancia.
To start, Henri did not get on well with the lowslung Lancia Rally 037 and terminated both his early outings with accidents. But the outings in the Porsche went much better and, by the middle of the year, he’d won three events and was leading the European Championship.
The Porsche programme was not without problems. His co-driver, Ian Grindrod, recalls that on the Circuit of Ireland they led at Waterford. “Then Henri broke his ankle driving on a local kart track. He had his ankle in plaster and drove the stages, but the gearbox didn’t last long and we retired.” He was denied the European Championship through another injury, this time to his back, sustained in the Lancia over the jumps of the 1000 Lakes.
Even so, he finished that event third overall, just behind his Lancia team leader Markku Alen, but eclipsed by the Peugeot 205 T16 of An Vatanen. This was the Peugeot’s first victory on a World Championship rally and it went on to win the next five rallies that it contested. It was clear a new generation of purpose-built rally cars was on its way.
For Henri, the choice for 1985 was simple. Fiorio promised the arrival of the S4 during the season, and Henri’s new maturity, on show for all to see at the 1000 Lakes, made him a much more desirable catch. His volatile character seemed to fit the Italian team and produce results that his skill deserved. His drive to sixth in Monte Carlo was a masterpiece against the all-wheel drive Peugeots and Audis that finished ahead of him.
Gradually, as 1985 passed, the Peugeot was joined by other Group B cars the Audi Sport Quattro, the MG Metro 6R4 and the Delta S4. This four-wheel drive Lancia had everything. To start with, the Italians used all they knew about supercharging from the 037 to equip the engine with a turbo and supercharger, the former to lift performance at high revs, the latter to ensure it lacked nothing low down. From the moment he first drove it, Henri knew that this was going to be the car for him.
And he proved it on its debut, the 1985 RAC, which he won outright. But more than the mere result it was the visual appeal of Toivonen’s attacking style in the 450bhp S4 that endeared him to the crowds and confirmed what everyone suspected, namely that Group B would increase spectator appeal out ()fall proportion to anything that had come before.
The ’86 season started with great promise for both the commercial future of rallying and the chance for Henri to become the youngest ever World Rally Champion. On the Monte Carlo, there were no fewer than six factory teams running fourwheel drive Group B cars Peugeot, Audi, Citroen, Mazda, Lancia and Austin Rover. Toivonen won, though not without some typical drama after he chose studded tyres for a dry test and hit a non-competing car on the subsequent road section. At the finish, he was over four minutes clear of his nearest challenger, Tirno Salonen’s 116.
On the Swedish Rally, Henri was leading when his engine failed, while Alen went on to finish second behind Juha Kankkunen’s Peugeot. The circus moved to Portugal and the first signs that the popularity of the spectacular new machines was to bring trouble. On the first stages there were several accidents of which the most serious was that of Joaquim Santos in a Ford RS 200. He lost control and crashed into a group of spectators, killing several of them and injuring many more.
For some reason, the organisers did not stop the stage, resulting in later crews being attacked at the scene for their apparent lack of concern at what had happened. Elsewhere, when the distraught drivers decided to back off, they got things thrown at them for going slowly by spectators who’d not heard of the accident. By the end of the first leg, the drivers were in no mood for compromise. After a bitter session with the organisers who could not give assurances about crowd control on the rest of the rally, they withdrew. Thus 11 factory crews sat it out. Group B cars got the blame.
Audi went so far as to withdraw completely from rallying, a decision confirmed in their eyes as being right when another accident involving a Ford RS 200 occurred on the Hessen Rally in Germany. Racing driver Marc Surer crashed into a tree, his codriver dying in the ensuing fire.
Lancia went to the Safari with Markku Alen, local drivers and the old 037, while Henri was sent with the S4 to the Costa Smeralda Rally in Sardinia where he won again. The next World Championship rally on the calendar was the Tour of Corsica and here Henri was in a league of his own. After four stages he took the lead, and by the end of the first leg he was a minute and half ahead of Bruno Saby’s Peugeot and more than eight minutes in front of his team-mate, Miki Biasion.
The following morning before lunch, he extended his lead to almost three minutes. But he appeared ill and his friends were worried that he had ‘flu. He set off from Corte but on the next stage left the road. The S4 fell on its roof and burst into flames, both its occupants losing their lives in the fire. The rally proceeded to the end of the leg where his teammates, Alen, Biasion and Alex Fiorio, withdrew.
Almost immediately, the President of FlSA, Jean-Marie Balestre, called a press conference and announced Group B cars would be banned from the end of the year. Later FlSA made restrictions on the length and speeds of special stages and Peugeot announced it was suing FISA for the costs of cancelling Group B. For those involved, FISA’s reaction seemed too great, but the climate of opinion had already been formed by other accidents in 1985. Attilio Bettega had been killed in Corsica in an 037 and Vatanen had nearly lost his life when he rolled his 116 in Argentina.
The sad truth is the Group B concept was correct. Today a manufacturer can have a World Rally Car recognised on the basis of one complete car and nineteen sets of parts. What was wrong with Group B was there were no controls over features on the cars that made them unsafe. No one enquired as to whether they would catch fire or disintegrate on violent impact. And no one questioned the nature of the fuel in their tanks. Today, the FIA takes that aspect of the rally business much more seriously and goes to great lengths to enforce spectator control. The consequence is that, though modem cars are quicker than the Group B monsters, they are safer beasts and, should a driver make a mistake, it is less likely to be fatal for him or for someone else.
Spectator numbers dwindled when Group B died. The sight of a barking, whistling Audi Sport Quattro or a Lancia S4 through a stage accompanied by flames a yard long captured the imagination and brought the crowds. And never more so when someone with that special talent, such as Henri Toivonen, was guiding it. Rallying lost a lot on that day in May 1986.