27 Photos From Germany’s Insane Eifel Rallye Festival
Photography by Simon Childs
Group B, just one little word and one little letter, but combined they create an enormous emotional effect upon motorsport fans of a certain age, reigniting flash fire memories of what was, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest period ever in the World Rally Championship.
In 1982, car manufacturers embarked upon a no-holds-barred, four-wheel drive, turbocharged technological arms race. Engineers indulged in an endless pursuit of power and drivers eagerly deployed it, flinging their cars at truly breath-taking speeds down closed-road gravel, tarmac, forest, ice and snow special stages in the search of championship glory.
By 1986, Audi’s Sport Quattro S1 E2, Lancia’s Delta S4, and Peugeot’s 205 T16 E2 had pushed performance to a whole new level. They were joined by cars such as Austin Rover Group’s MG Metro 6R4, Citroën’s BX 4TC and Ford’s RS 200, which while less successful on the world stage, were still part of the flame-spitting, raucous-bellowing brilliance, some might say madness that was Group B rallying.
And then it all came crashing down. Following the deaths of Finland’s Henri Toivonen and his Italian American co-driver Sergio Cresto in Corsica on May 2 1986, Group B was cancelled, virtually in an instant. The ban, however, did not come into immediate effect and manufacturers were allowed to continue to run their cars until the end of the season. But even though the party may not have been quite over, last orders had definitely been called for at the bar.
Many fans still miss those cars terribly and it turns out so too, despite the risks they knew they were taking, do the drivers and navigators who crewed them, as we found out when we visited last weekend’s Eifel Rallye Festival in Germany.
The event is held in the Eifel Mountains of western Germany over three days. Rally crews tackle eight closed special stages, comprised of gravel tracks and minor country roads. Crucially, the cars are not timed, so there is no pressure on drivers to attack at full speed, thus making the event much safer.
This year, the focus was very much on marking the 30th anniversary of the end of Group B. Many of the cars were sourced by the ’Slowly Sideways’ organisation, formed by legendary rally photographer Reinhard Klein with the purpose of promoting old rally cars. Many are ex-works machines of significant providence, but replicas are welcome too, just as long as they look the part.
OK—so the speeds are not quite what they were back in the day, especially for the cars running at the lower end of the field. As one owner of a Group B car explained, “We know we haven’t got half the talent of the guys who drove these cars originally, but it’s not just that. You just can’t get the parts any more, everything has to be handmade, so if we slide off the road in the rain, which is so easy to do, the car could be unusable for two years”.
So yes, you have to accept that unless you can invent time travel, you are not going to see these cars hurled down the road as they were when young men and women, let’s not forget Michèle Mouton, were paid to drive them within an inch of destruction and, if necessary, within an inch of spectators. Who worried about damaging a front spoiler back then? Not when a chase car, or maybe a helicopter full of engineers, was ready to administer temporary repairs and then chaperone crew and car back to the service area, where teams of crack mechanics were waiting with the skill, gaffer tape and vanloads of parts required to rebuild a wrecked car in 20 minutes.
So you know all that. You know it is now 2016. And yet, sometimes, just for a second, when you hear the ferocious, five-cylinder warble and the cracks and bangs of an Audi Sport Quattro S1 reverberating around the mountains, and then when it bursts into view with double world champion Walter Röhrl at the wheel, travelling at what has to be said is a fair old lick, suddenly you are right back in 1986.
The final E2 evolution version of the S1 produced over 470 horsepower. It remains the most powerful car to ever compete in the World Rally Championship, and Röhrl used it to take victory in San Remo in 1985. “It was a fantastic car,” reflects the sixty-nine year-old German. “It had such a huge amount of power, but after a while you started to think, ’Maybe it could do with a little bit more.’ As a driver you can never have too much power!”
Another double World Champion thoroughly enjoying being reacquainted with pre-’87 levels of power is Massimo ’Miki’ Biasion. The fifty-eight year-old Italian took his titles in 1988 and 1989, during the less powerful Group A era that followed Group B. This weekend, he is a back in the Martini-liveried Delta S4 that he drove in 1986, when he stepped up to the Lancia works team to replace Henri Toivonen.
This time, Miki has his sixteen-year-old daughter Bettina in the co-driver’s seat. “It’s OK, but I want to drive not navigate,” she tells me. “You are still too young, you will have to wait,” her father reminds her. On the first run through the stages Miki appears to be easing himself in gently and at one point overshoots a junction. The following morning in the rain though, the Delta S4 is right on the pace as it comes searing through a village. Clearly, Bettina has got her eye in and her father has got his foot in.
Having lost friends during the Group B era, driving the fearsome turbo and supercharged mid-engined Lancia again brings back bittersweet memories for Biasion. Almost reluctantly, he recalls the mental effort it required to return to the stages on subsequent rallies following the deaths of not only Toivonen and Cresto in 1986, but also Atillio Betega, who lost his live on Corsica in a Lancia 037 in 1985. “Of course, it was hard to start again, but as soon as you have the crash helmet on, and the numbers on the doors, you are trying to go as fast as you can. The S4 was a fantastic rally car, from the adrenaline point of view, it was the best one.”
I agree entirely. But suddenly, a Quattro S1 E2 slams by and I change my mind. Then a blue and white Computervision MG Metro 6R4 skates across the soaking tarmac, its naturally-aspirated V6 engine barking furiously as the driver changes down through the gears and that immediately steals a special place in my heart. Definitely, that is the best one. But hang on. Something else is coming; heralded by a high-pitched wailing noise I’ve not heard before. A rotary-engined Group B Mazda RX 7 shoots into view; I’ve never even seen one of those in the metal before, nor the Toyota Celica TCT that follows it…
Nor is the party confined to Group B cars only, monstrous Pikes Peak and Paris Dakar cars roam the forests, too. Plus there are glimpses of what might have been a possible post-Group B future. Toyota displays two phantom-black 222D MR2s. The Japanese company was developing these cars for Group S, a formula originally muted to replace Group B before it too was scrapped.
Walter Röhrl stuns even the most hardened, seen-it-all-before rally spectators by rocketing through the stages in Audi’s might-have-been Group S car. Built in secret and then hidden in a warehouse before eventually being displayed in a museum, it had not turned a wheel in anger in thirty years before this weekend. We will bring you more on this amazing car and Röhrl’s driving impressions soon…
Everywhere you turn, you see something that steals your breath. While enjoying a fine Apfelstrudel pudding outside a cafe just by the start ramp, I jump as the ear-piercing cry of a Lancia Stratos in full Alitalia battle livery shatters the peace. Later, I wince as a beautiful Ferrari 308 GTB, more suited to the sun-soaked tarmac of the Mediterranean, bangs and crashes its way over a rutted gravel track. I hold my breath as Thomas Kübler drifts his massive, four-door saloon 1963 Mercedes-Benz 300 SE perilously close to the Armco barrier. I cheer as Kurt Kreutz powers by on full opposite-lock for stage after stage in his trusty 1979 Toyota Celica 1600 GT.
While waiting for a Currywurst sausage at one of the numerous and impossible-to-resist BBQ stage-side stalls, I glance up to see a tiny little Clan Crusader flash past. I gasp at the sheer dainty beauty of the numerous pale blue Alpine A110s. And I laugh, as Oliver and Marc Hermans bomb past with all of the gusto but none of the speed of the Group B cars in their Trabant P 800 RS, trailing a cloud of blue two-stroke smoke in their wake. And I puzzle, too, over something called a Jide 1600. I have resisted Googling, so if anyone can enlighten me, it would be much appreciated.
Having watched the cars for three days through thunderstorms and mud befitting of a UK RAC Rally in November, to sunshine and dust reminiscent of an East African Safari Rally, it is a shock to the system to have to head for home on Sunday morning. Ah well, at least I’ve got the Lancia Delta S4 model rally car I purchased, plus a whole host of new Group B memories.