The Death Of Group B
On the 5th March 1986 in Portugal, Group B was coming to an end on the first stage after the incident of Joaquim Santos. Santos was seeded 12th and the lead drivers were already through the stage and the road was less busy with spectators but still there were occasional spectators standing in middle of the road to cheer on the local drivers. Coming from a fast right hand corner and into a tighter right hander over a small crest on downhill section, Santos lost control of the car after a spectator stepped into the road causing him to swerve and spun right into the crowd. Two children and a woman were killed on the spot and 30 injured, with one of the injured children later dying in the hospital. This saw the start of the end.
The organisers did not stop the stage until about ten more cars had started. The stage was five kilometres long and the accident happened around four kilometers from the start, meaning that delay in stopping was unacceptably long. On top of that, top drivers were informed of the incident only after they had covered two more stages and arrived to rest halt, ready to tackle the those three stages again.
Ford then decided to pull their remaining cars out of the rally. The organisers wanted the rally to continue and only after several appeals were made by teams and drivers they agreed to cancel the repeated stages. Unhappy with the situation, professional drivers from all works teams gathered at the 16th floor meeting room at Hotel Estoril Sol. FISA and rally representatives later arrived to make a visit but left with empty hands. After several hours of deliberation, a joint statement prepared by the drivers was read to press. This can be seen in the first picture on this post. The document was signed by Salonen/Harjanne, Alen/Kivimaki, Rohrl/Geistdorfer, Blomqvist/Bergland, Biasion/Siviero, Pond/Arthur, Kankkunen/Pironen, Toivonen/Cresto, Grundel/Melander, Wilson/Harris and Duez/Lux.
Following is the exact transcript of the actual signed statement drivers presented to media at Hotel Estoril Sol on the 5th March 1986 15:30 local time.
The reasons that all the undersigned drivers do not wish to continue with the Portuguese Rally are as follows:
-As mark of respect for the families of the dead people and for those injured.
-There is a very special situation here in Portugal: we feel it is impossible for us to guarantee the safety of the spectators.
-The accident on Stage 1 was caused by the driver having to try to avoid spectators that were in the road. It was not caused due to the type of car or the speed of it.
-We hope that our sport will ultimately benefit from this decision.
When the drivers decided to withdraw from the event, most certainly unaware what reaction their decision would spark.
Ford’s Peter Ashcroft of course had already decided of withdrawal and hence fully supported the drivers’ decision. Austin’s John Davenport would have continued but allowed drivers to make decision. Peugeot’s Jean Todt was initially against the withdrawal, even calling the local spectators as “Africans with white skin”. Later in the day he however changed his opinion, perhaps scenting the atmosphere and allowed drivers to have their way.
Markku Alen on the accident “I wasn’t surprised that the big accident in 1986 – when a car went into the crowd – happened in Portugal, it was always going to happen at some point somewhere. During the day, it was terrible: you just forced yourself to concentrate on the pace notes. On the night stages it wasn’t too bad: maybe there were fewer people out there, or maybe you just couldn’t see them”
FISA took a hard line, accusing drivers of giving the sport a bad image and threatening them with cancellation of their competition licenses. Fortunately, sensibility won and no such measures were adopted. Unfortunately, no safety measures were adopted either and it was only two rallies later that a new tragedy would strike.
After Portugal FISA started to plan the new rules for 1987. This would eventually be Group A.
On Stage 18 after the service in Corte, Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto were tragically killed when their Lancia Delta S4 left the road on a left hand corner roughly 7km away from Corte. This marked accident brought sadness and shock to many teams, drivers and fans. Henri had won 12 out of 17 stages with stages like Petreto - Aullene 1 averaging speeds of 117.66 km/h. Lancia’s team boss, Cesare Fiorio, later claimed that he was the only driver that could really control and maximise the power of the Delta S4. Henri left behind a wife, Erja, and two young children, Arla and Markus. Sergio was single and had no children.
Within hours of the accident the FISA banned Group B cars from competing in the ’87 season. Audi and Ford withdrew immediately, and the remaining manufacturers mothballed their cars at the end of the season. The proposed Group S regulations were scrapped even though cars from Audi, Toyota, Lancia, and Opel had already been built. Group B was to be terminated at the end of the 1986 season. For the rest of the season a new set of rules were drawn up. This included the banning of side skirts on cars with immediate effect. Jean Marie Balestre the president of FISA was unsure of what to do and asked Fiorio for advice. Fiorio came to the conclusion that it would be the best to end Group B with the death of their driver and co driver.
Group B ended on a small corner in Corsica. This cemented the teams and FISA’s thoughts of ending Group B. FISA introduced the new Group A rules for 1987.
“When Markku Alen was asked what it was like going from Group B cars to Group A at the end of 1986 and beginning of 1987. I can answer that easily: it felt like the world had just ended. I had just lost the championship after 10 days so I was really depressed and then they gave me what was going to be our new car to test, at Ivalo in Finland. I was really shocked: compared to the S4, the Group A Delta felt like a road car. Our S4 was developing about 700 horsepower by the end; the Group A Delta had around 230. It just felt like driving a road car and I was so frustrated by everything I really wondered what the point was in continuing. I never liked that Delta: although we had some good results with it, this was never ‘my’ car and I rolled quite a few of them. The S4 was developed and built around me, so although it was a bit like a NASCAR – all power and noise, really not so sophisticated at all – my feeling with it was a lot better.”
Group A went on to become very successful with stars such as Carlos Sainz, Didier Auriol and Colin Mcrae winning championships in the new era. Group B is still very much missed today and is known as the glory days. Jari Matti Latvala’s idol is Henri and dedicated his win at the 2015 Tour De Corse to Henri Toivonen. Today the cars can still be seen at events like Rally Legend, Goodwood Festival of Speed, Eifel Rally Festival and many others with drivers like Alen, Rohrl, Blomqvist and Biasion at the wheel.