It isn't hard to see why those cars campaigned in the immediate aftermath of Group B's sudden cancellation tend to be overlooked by all but the most ardent of rally fans. Let's face it, as much as those dyed in the wool enthusiasts might enjoy poring over old images of Renault 11 Turbos and Mazda 323s slugging it out against early Deltas and three-door Sierras, they're little more than a footnote to most, lacking the drama of the cars which preceded them and the polished, professional appeal of the mid 90s Group A and WRC kit that came later.
Yet the cars rallied in this period, one spanning 1987 to approximately 1990 or so, were nothing if not fascinating. The manner in which Group A was promoted to the top of the sport, suddenly and with relatively little warning, meant that many of the cars owed a great deal to the WRC thinking which predominated in the '70s and '80s. Strength and reliability once again counted for almost as much as out-and-out performance, and the obstacle represented by a lack of four-wheel drive could, depending on the nature of the rally of course, be overcome through circumstance and talent.
The rallying world was in a state of flux, and a number of truly remarkable results would be scored before the pieces once again fell into position. Many were achieved in cars that would have struggled to bother the top ten of your average WRC even a mere 12 months previously, while the topsy-turvy nature of the championship resulted in giant killing feats, drivers in outwardly inferior cars digging deep to beat the all-wheel drive opposition, which for much of the period meant the Lancia Delta HF.
Jean Ragnotti provided one of the standout examples of this, the French tarmac hero moving from the 5 Maxi to the Renault 11 Turbo with deceptive ease. His most famous outing in the car occurred early on in the 'era' on the 1987 Rally Portugal, when the Deltas had already established themselves as the cars to beat.
A run of damper failures left the Lancia of Markku Alen floundering, which contrasted with the 180bhp, two-wheel drive Renault of Ragnotti, a proven car the Frenchman knew like the back ofhis hand. His decision to plump for semi-slick tyres on one of the mixed surface stages which made up the final day allowed him to muscle into second place, and he then set about taking chunks of time out of the leading Lancia. One of the greatest upsets in world rallying was only prevented when Alen's Delta received a new set of dampers late on the final day, though Ragnotti's second spot on the podium was still a phenomenal achievement, proof of his mastery of front-wheel drive rallying.
Ragnotti was far from alone, and a number of his contemporaries went one better and actually beat the might of Lancia and the Jolly Club, the most famous being Bernard Beguin on the 1987 Tour de Corse. The Frenchman wasted little time in eking out an advantage on the opening leg, taking a full 20 seconds off the dominant Lancias on the 26km run between Levie to Sotta, the fourth stage of the rally.
Corsica is almost as famous for its weather as it is for its corners though, and with rain cloudsbuilding as the opening leg progressed, Beguin and the rest of the Prodrive crew could've been forgiven for feeling a tad apprehensive bearing in mind the M3's two-wheel drive layout. The inevitable happened and the heavens opened, turning the Corsican stages into treacherously slippy tests patently unsuited to the E30, with a smattering of sleet and hail thrown in for good measure.
The Monte-like conditions meant that Beguin couldn't help but shed time on the stages centred around the Col de la Vaccia, and the slick-shod M3 relinquished the lead to the Delta of Loubet on SS5. The Lancia man was able to maintain this advantage for the rest of the opening leg and into the second day of the rally, until he attempted an ambitious 'cut' and incurred a puncture, once again allowing the hard-charging Beguin into the lead. It was a position he was to hold to the end, using the drying stages to his advantage and putting on a spellbinding performance to take a famous victory, the first and last outright WRC win of the M3's career.
Corsica proved a happy hunting ground for those with a lack of traction but a surfeit of commitment in this era, with Didier Auriol taking the first of six Tour de Corse victories in 1988, this time at the wheel of a Sierra Cosworth. This period was also notable in that it saw Audi finally claim overall victory on a rally it had been striving to 'bag' throughout the Group B era, the Safari. Fittingly given he was the first non-local to win the event outright in 1972, it fell to Hannu Mikkola to uphold Ingolstadt honour, and he did it in an Audi with much in common with the tough, resolutely production based Mk1 Escort he'd used 15 years previously, the 200 Quattro.
The 200 was patently unsuited for stage rallying at the end of the 80s; a heavy, ponderous barge with plenty of power but little in the way of handling poise, traits which helped it triumph on the WRC's famous yearly hoon through the East African scrub. It was to mark one of the last times such a car would win this event (though it was actually the first four-wheel drive car to triumph), and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s it became increasingly apparent that not even the Safari was immune from the march of progress.
It wasn't to last, and within four seasons the overall rallying landscape would look markedly different, the rallying hegemony soon re-established and order restored. Lancia's erstwhile domination of the WRC, one built upon ever improved evolutions of the Delta, would be punctured by Toyota and its Celica ST165, in the process becoming the first Japanese team to regularly best an established European 'heavyweight' on home turf. Power figures spiralled (at least until the FIA, alarmed at the pace of forced induction progress, mandated a series of ever more draconian restrictors) and both chassis and transmission technology came on in leaps and bounds, Toyota's Xtrac 4WD system the most obvious example of this.
The seasons in the immediate aftermath of Group B's cancellation are but a fragment of the World Rally Championship's long and storied history, and a frequently overlooked one at that. Yet they represent an interesting period, one where the sport's top tier was effectively flung back in time by a decade or more, at least in terms of the ethos underpinning many of the cars. It represented a glorious throwback to a more innocent rallying era, one utterly alien from the polished, professional sport we have today.
This story was written by Jamie Arkle of The Gravel Crew, which you can find on Facebook here. It's full of weird and wonderful rallying anecdotes, and well worth a look!