In 1986 there were two undisputed facts anchoring any view of world motorsport.
RACING INSTINCT: Probably the most well-liked driver in modern-day F1 (especially since Kimi left for WRC), what possibly possessed Robert Kubica to put his career on the line for a bout of rallying?
Fact one concerned the Lotus F1 team’s Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna who, even at the tender age of 26, was gaining a reputation as a precious once-in-a-lifetime talent. The other was that rallying, configured to the Group B rules, had become essentially more exciting (and dangerous) than F1.
Of course 1986 would be the turning point for rallying as a spectacle to rival F1.
Although the introduction of a Group B in 1982 had effectively erased all logical regulation and reduced the formula to a free-for all, manufacturers remained keen to stay involved; they built cars that quickly became too fast to drive.
Navigators attempted to verbalise pace note commands at the required frequency but generally drivers relied on instinct and an obscene disregard for their own well-being to finish stages on top of the time sheets in these Group B cars.
Audi’s legendary S1 quattro, Ford’s RS200 and, of course, Lancia’s Delta S4, were the chariots of fire from the Group B era. Despite having a silhouette similar to their road car relatives, these Group B rally cars all possessed (well) in excess of 350kW and were capable of vertigo inducing acceleration on roads you would not think of doing more than 80km/h on – at best.
Plainly, these Group B cars make 2011’s WRC hatchback entrants (sporting similar mass profiles, yet with only 220kW on tap) seem awfully tame. Group B rallying was terrifically dangerous and the driving skill (not to mention courage) required to finish events (and not perish trying) attracted an awesome talent pool of drivers. Why did it all end and what does it have to do with F1 and Robert Kubica’s possibly career-ending crash?
SUPERCARS, SUPER DRIVERS: Lancia’s Group B rally cars captured the imagination of like no others. They could have qualified competitively on a F1 grid – on a wet, tight circuit…
SPEED WITHOUT DOWNFORCE
At the start of the 1986 rally season Finland’s mercurial Henri Toivonen (regarded as the outright fastest driver of the Group B era) started expressing doubts as to his ability to keep the dual-charged Lancia Delta S4 rally car under control.
At the firth rally of the season, the Tour de Corsa, Toivonen’s pace on the forbidding tarmac stages, etched high into cliffs of the Corsican countryside, was incomprehensible.
"This rally is insane, even though everything is going well at the moment. If there is trouble, I'm as good as dead."
Toivenen’s words during the opening stages of the rally proved prophetic. He missed a hairpin on stage 18, careered down a ravine and died alongside his American navigator Sergio Cresto as the Delta S4 was engulfed by a fireball.
By the end of 1986 Group B rallying was no more. Henceforth, F1 regained its unchallenged status as the world’s premier motorsport – attracting top driving talent and engineering resources.
A few little-known, faintly documented, events during that fateful year illustrate just how challenging Group B rallying was – even when compared to the pinnacle of motorsport, F1.
Toivonen, during the 1986 Rally of Portugal, took time out one evening to take F1 racer Jonathan Palmer for a few laps of the Estoril circuit in his Delta S4 – while it was raining. Palmer remarked that Toivenen could easily have qualified his S4 in the top third of an F1 grid, with his considerable skill at the helm, in the wet. That is a staggering statement; imagine seeing Sébastien Loeb lining up on a drenched Monaco GP grid in sixth place with his Citroën DS3 wedged between Massa and Rosberg...
Ultimately 1986 proved that, in the right conditions, rally cars were providing an increasing stain on the credibility of F1 being the apex of motorsport. Obviously, if you are the kind of person who cheerfully wakes-up at 3:30am on a Sunday to watch the Japanese GP, you’ll take exception to any inference that rallying could even be comparable to the skill and courage required to drive an F1 car
Problem is, the greatest F1 driver of all time had an opposing view.
F1'S GREAEST GOES OFF-ROAD
Returning to that most significant motorsport year, 1986, there was an event that ironically mirrored the state of affairs that mght now cost Poland’s hugely popular F1 driver, Robert Kubica, his career. In August of 1986 Ayrton Senna, at that stage regarded as the fastest driver in F1, took a drive out to Wales on a rare day off from testing and promotional duties in his position as lead driver for the Lotus team.
Senna was invited by the late (great) motoring writer Russell Bulgin, then editor of the (now) defunct British publication Cars and Car Conversions, to sample a collection of rally machines on some choice Welsh forest roads. Although Senna showed poor form on his debut run (understeering slowly off-line on his first corner) he spent the rest of the day familiarising himself with the more intimate nature, and variable behaviour, of driving a rally car at speed.
Here the grip was never true and there was no downforce to rely on, it was pure car control all of the time.
The 26-year old Senna was intrigued by his rallying experience. “It’s difficult because here there is much more excitement, I think. It’s much more exciting here than in a Formula 1 car because here you don’t have the top, top speed... you have a tremendous acceleration. In the Escort, unbelievable acceleration – and it’s rough.”
Those fortunate enough to have witnessed Senna’s driving towards the end of that overcast day in Wales said the progress he made was remarkable.
RALLY ART: To most, Ayrton Senna remains (justifiably) the greatest F1 driver of all time. His respect for rallying was considerable…
The Brazilian though, remained humbled.
“It’s still very, very hard to judge. I don’t have enough capability to judge exactly what I am doing. You overdo one place because you don’t pay enough attention, the steering goes a bit light and then…”
Rumour has it Lotus team management was not at all impressed when Senna returned for a test session later that week with badly blistered hands…
F1 DRIVERS BORED AT WORK?
My point? Well, it all relates to the relative tedium that surrounds much of contemporary F1 racing. Modern F1 circuits have hardly any notable topography, with an emphasis on flat terrain to be as TV-friendly as possible. Beyond Spa, Suzuka and Silverstone, there's arguably no challenge left for drivers.
The cars have seen such rampant technology creep, too. Aerodynamics and grip are so true that drivers merely have to possess superior co-ordination and peripheral vision instead of car control to make it "stick" through high-speed corners. Drivers are, to my mind, simply bored. Why else would the greatest driving talent (in terms of raw speed) since Senna, Kimi Raikkonen, choose to leave the glamour world of Ferrari F1 to check his own tyre pressures in the snow as part of Citroën’s WRC rally team?
There will be many opinions questioning the lack of foresight by both Renault Lotus and Robert Kubica, in his personal capacity, for the decision to go rallying and have a section of Armco impale his Skoda Fabia, nearly severing his hand. Truthfully, though, who can really blame Kubica, one of the most likeable F1 drivers around, for seeking to regain some of the speed-rush he lives for, yet is in negligible supply at his current workplace – the cockpit of a F1 car.
Witness the skill that legendary WRC drivers such as Ari Vatanen and Walter Röhrl displayed lapping up towards Arizona’s legendary Pikes Peak and the obvious question is why neither of them ever donned the full-faced helmet and balaclava of an F1 team?
Peruse the evidence and it is quite simple: why lap a circuit as part of a procession when you could speed into the unknown on the ragged edge?
For years many people, me included, speculated that the top rally stars from the sport’s most notorious era (Group B), drivers such as Vatanen and Röhrl, stayed away from F1 racing because they were too bulky to fit into the narrow confines of open-wheel race cars.
REAL CHAMPION? Each year, when the Race of Champions unites the leading drivers from a number of racing formulas, the winner receives a trophy bearing the name of a rally driver, Henri Toivonen, instead of a F1 legend…
Perhaps they lacked the levels of fitness required to race 70 laps at F1 pace. We were all wrong.
Vatenen and Röhrl stayed involved as long as possible with rallying because, as Senna had so perceptibly observed during his single day of rallying back in August 1986, is was the ultimate challenge for a driver.
If you think I'm wrong, then why else would the allure of driving a rally car prove strong enough to have Robert Kubica put his entire career at risk for the possibility of little (or no) reward?
I wish Kubica a very speedy recovery, and hope that by the time he returns to F1, the sport’s technical rules will have been amended to put the thrill of competing back in hands of the drivers instead of the aerodynamicists…