It couldn’t last. But while world rallying’s Group B was in play, the axis of motorsport shifted firmly away from F1 and onto the snow, gravel and desert stages that forced the drivers to improvise like crazy. 1982 until 1986 was the golden era, and a time when we all seriously considered learning Finnish. Relatability is important to hook a big audience in sport, and this was another factor in Group B’s impact. This was never clearer than with Peugeot’s huge-selling Eighties 205 supermini, which joined the dots between the GTi road car and T16 rally warrior to spectacular effect. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday?
Peugeot couldn’t make ’em fast enough. The man behind the 205 was Jean Boillot, who decided that entering the WRC would capitalise on the company’s reputation for robustness.
Peugeot Talbot Sport was assembled under the leadership of the now FIA boss Jean Todt, while engineering the 205’s rally incarnation was entrusted to Jean-Claude Vaucard and Bernard Perron, who hired former Alpine man André de Cortanze to oversee the chassis and ex-Renault F1 guy Pierre Boudy to do the engine, having been part of the French giant’s pioneering turbocharging work.
The development driver was Frenchman Jean-Pierre Nicolas. They settled on a 1.8-litre, 16V engine whose block was based on the diesel unit from the XU family (it was practically bulletproof) that initially produced 320bhp, harnessed by the ’box from the Citroen SM but transversely mounted, with a variable front-to-rear torque split for maximum traction.
As per the rules, 200 road-going versions of the T16 had to be produced, and though they looked pretty wild, a power output of 197bhp was just enough to disturb the skin on a rice pudding. The competition version was the real deal, though.
Peugeot tested the car at Mortefontaine circuit, in local quarries, and on a few sections of the San Remo rally. The bosses signed it off on 29 March 1984, but rather than see out the rest of the season, Todt decided to crack on. Ari Vatanen, with Ulster’s finest Terry Harryman co-driving, debuted the T16 in May’s Tour de Corsica, and the die was cast pretty fast: by the third stage, the Finn was quickest, and outpointing the Audi Quattro.
By stage eight, he was leading. A textbook debut was derailed on the first stage of the final morning when the car crashed, and caught fire (its occupants were unhurt, but flaming Group B cars would become a worrying trend).
In fact, Vatanen and Harryman won three in a row as the season progressed. In 1985, the team took constructor’s and driver’s titles with Timo Salonen winning seven of the 11 rounds, while Juha Kankkunen won in 1986, piloting the more powerful Evolution 2 version in an effort to stay ahead of the monstrously powerful Lancia Delta S4 (turbo and supercharged to produce well over 500bhp), Audi Quattro Sport S1, Metro 6R4, and Ford RS200.
That the 205 T16 won the ’86 title, in the face of such intense competition, is overshadowed by the events of that year’s Corsican rally. Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto were killed, along with three spectators, when their Delta S4 plunged off the road and exploded.
The FIA had no option but to ban Group B, and world rallying regrouped. Peugeot switched its focus to the Paris-Dakar rally raid, an unfeasibly tough event into the Sahara and beyond. Vatanen proved he had a surfeit of the right stuff, winning in the 205 T16 in January 1987.
His car, no. 205, suffered serious damage before it had even left the outskirts of Paris, but he battled back from 274th place to win, 13,000km and a fortnight later. In fact, Peugeot won four times back-to-back between 1987 and 1990, racking up 48,125 gruelling kilometres in the process.