Shaken and stirred – the madness of the Group B Lancia Delta S4

By Nicholas Lette, Dec 16 2015 05:35PM

The eighties were, I’m told, a heady time. Market booms, busts and drugs capable of blowing memories of the latter away, dull moments were discarded along with the flares and afros of an earlier decade.

Music was changing, gone were the infinitely adjustable tones and chords of the analogue world, synthesised on-off beats of a neon green digital phenomenon were here to stay. Style was changing, chrome and curves of the sixties and seventies gave way to sharp edges and cubes as studios had a new design monarch, a new ruler. Inspired by earlier wedged wonders, straight edge style had finally trickled down from lamborghini and lotus to find a happy home as inspiration for the ordinary family hatchback. True petrol heads weren’t left wanting in this new two box world as Kraftwerk were not the only Germanic import of the age and the world was tuning in to the joys of the Golf GTI and driving pleasure was totally revolutionised. Commuting became less about the competition for a parking space and more about baiting Porsches in eighth mile sprints from lights to lights in city centres the world over.

In its more legal form, racing was changing, the world of rallying which had until now been dominated by two wheel-drive supercars like the Stratos and 037, had its first taste of the power of Quattro as the German giant Audi entered the fray. At the hands of some of the most skilled drivers Scandinavia has ever produced, including the original Stig, Group B racing laid the foundations for a truly thrilling future of competition. When four wheel drive proved not too be enough, superchargers, turbos and then twincharged engines proved the way forward and the cars became so fast that wings and splitters were fitted to at least try to keep four wheels on the ground. The past master Lancia had to respond but everyone could see that in a period of hatchback domination, the super-coupes of old would be dead in the water. Even the 037, the last two wheel drive machine to ever win a WRC event had been eclipsed by the Quattro and required some rapid racing evolution.

What came out of the Lancia garage in the spring of 1985 appeared to be a conventional machine, branded a “Delta” this mid-engined flagship bore almost nothing in common with the delta customers could walk into a showroom and buy, it was a real monster but a lucky 200 individuals could drive homologated ”Stradale” specials to work. Using a relatively miniscule 1800cc four cylinder engine lifted from the FIAT parts department but breathed on by the best in the business, a combination of doubly forced induction to reduce lag and a wealth of intercoolers yielded over 1000bhp in extreme tune and acceleration so rapid it could put a surface to air missile to shame. Unsurprisingly the car won its first competitive outing at the ’85 RAC rally and went on to give Markku Alen a second place finish in the drivers’ championship the following year.

In efforts to climb to that final rung on the victory ladder, reduce weight and further increase speed, Lancia among others opted to use magnesium wheels in preparation for further seasons. It was this otherwise trivial detail which was to prove catastrophic for Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto on the ’86 Tour de Corsa. Their car was found at the foot of a ridge, seemingly having flown straight off the road at a hairpin and burst into an horrific fire. Even with a full tank of race-grade fuel the fire seemed impossibly colossal and burnt with an astounding ferocity which much claimed the lives of the two competitors almost instantly but initially there seemed to be no reason for the scale of the inferno. It was found to be fuelled by the wheels Lancia so hoped would prove to be winning material. Magnesium is a powerful oxidiser, it reacts with oxygen in the air violently and with intense heat if exposed to elevated temperatures. The car’s builders hoped these parts would never come into contact with a fire of such a magnitude that they’d show the world their destructive nature but the speed of Toivonen and Cresto’s accident resulted in more an explosion than an uncontrolled burn. The chemical reaction which was to prove so fatal had started and no manner of fire-fighting could have prevented the awful consequences. The FIA had to respond, no longer could the speeds of these cars go unchecked and radical components be introduced without their properties being fully understood.

By 1987 the Group B formula had been disbanded, the cars left to live the rest of their competitive lives dominating rallycross events but far far away from storming through the forest stages that made the series so popular with fans around the world. The end of Group B called into serious question the series which had already been proposed as a replacement, Group S. Designed to sit somewhere between Groups A and B with cars limited to lower power outputs but with less restrictive homologation, innovation was the name of the game but in light of previous accidents, the FIA decided to indefinitely postpone the series, much to the dismay of fans. Lancia had already a prototype built, the ECV but had to focus on development of the Delta Integrale, their legendary Group A car, if they were to remain the sports leading light but never again would rallying see such a wealth of variety as in the days of Group B.

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