News of Lotus’ entry in the GT category of the FIA Rally Championship in 2012, got me thinking about the relationship between road and rally cars and whether we, the customer, are still benefiting from the participation of car manufacturers in the sport.

Rallying has had a long and close association with road cars, perhaps more so than any other form of motorsport, but the approachability of today’s WRC owes much to the sport’s blackest day 25 years ago.

Group B

In 1986 the great Finnish rally driver Henry Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto were leading in the World Rally Championship when their Lancia Delta S4 Group B car left the road and plunged down a hillside. The petrol tanks ruptured and it’s assumed that the combination of fuel and a red-hot turbocharger ignited the car and set fire to the surrounding undergrowth.

By the time rescue workers made it to the remote spot (some 30 minutes later) all that remained of the car was a blackened body shell with the remains of Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto still inside.

This tragedy, and the deaths of other drivers in these powerful ‘supercars’ signalled the end of the short but turbulent Group B era.

Group B was established in 1982 to provide manufacturers with the opportunity to chase rally victories and thus promote their brand by building cars for the purpose instead of adapting ‘compromised’ mass production cars. It gave birth to legendary cars such as the Lancia Delta S4, Audi Quattro S1, Peugeot 205 T16, Ford RS200 and the MG Metro 6R4; cars unobtainable to most spectators and probably just as well.

Group B monsters

With little in the way of homologation rules, these monsters often produced over 600 bhp and could accelerate from rest to 100 mph in just a few seconds. It was an insanely dangerous time.

The problem for the spectators, and the sport in general, was that rally cars were pretty much unrecognisable from those that ordinary fans could buy. Group A cars which had previously dominated the series, were modified versions of the cars the punters bought, whereas manufacturers were only obliged to build 200 cars to enter Group B and in many cases didn’t even achieve that.

Back in the mid-80s you could pay upwards of £50,000 for a road-going version of these Group B supercars, which to put in perspective compares with the £37,000 Ferrari asked for its V8-engined Mondial 3.2 QV at the time.

Production car rallying

Following the madness that was Group B, the sport settled down until 1997 saw the introduction of the definitive World Rally Car (WRC) that we know today. These vehicles had to be derived from a production car with a minimum production run of 2500 units.

Obviously, some modifications were allowed notably upgrades to the transmission, suspension and engine but the rules were tightly controlled and we were watching cars which ultimately we could buy in the showroom – albeit with considerably more creature comforts.

Subaru Impreza versus Mitsubishi Evo

It was during this period when the rally icons – Subaru’s Impreza and Mitsubishi Lancer EVO – were born. We celebrated the performances of Colin McRae, Richard Burns, Tommi Mäkinen and Carlos Sainz.

However as costs escalated and Super 2000 rules were introduced, both Mitsubishi and Subaru became less competitive and eventually dropped out of the world stage. As the road cars appeared less on our TV screens, so their appeal waned with buyers, sales then dropped and now they’re future looks very much in doubt.

Mitsubishi initially stated that the Evo series would be discontinued, due to it being out of step with the company’s new environmental focus and Subaru remain quiet about future hot Impreza models, especially if their old sparring partner is no longer up for the fight.

FIA IRC cars

But perhaps all is not lost. The face of rallying is different these days, with Ford, Citroen, Skoda and now MINI grabbing our attention. They remain just as closely linked with road cars as ever and the new S2000 rules should see more manufacturers entering the scene.

VW group now run a very successful works team of Skoda Fabia’s in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge and in the next couple of years they’ll be fielding another works team, this time in the WRC, using a version of the ever popular Polo. These cars aren’t so far away from the mainstream Fabia vRS and Polo GTI that we can buy ourselves.

Which brings us back to Lotus and its Exige R-GT.

GT Category

In Lotus’ announcement at the Frankfurt motor show last week they stated that the R-GT will participate in the newly formed FIA GT category of the FIA Rally Championship, on the asphalt events in Monte Carlo, Tour de Corse and San Remo.

Lotus Exige R-GT

Apparently FIA President, Jean Todt, asked Lotus Director of Motorsport, Claudio Berro to work with his counterparts at Aston Martin and Porsche to devise a set of global rules for a GT category of rallying. GT Rallying is already popular in France, Belgium, Germany and Italy, but each championship runs under different rules. Todt would like to unite these into a world championship event and bring some glamour back into the sport.

This all brings back memories of when the Porsche 911, Renault Alpine, Lancia Stratos and Lancia 037 were all competing in international rallies and Todt can envisage cars such as the Alfa Romeo 4C, the rumoured Renault Alpine and even Nissan’s GT-R becoming a common sight on both tarmac and gravel events in the World Rally Championship.

Presently Berro believes the Exige R-GT would be about “..1.5 secs slower per kilometre than a Super2000 car but on some stages, like asphalt, we could, for sure, be quicker.” Lotus are pricing the R-GT at around £100,000 plus local taxes – considerably less than the £500,000 necessary for a top-line WRC contender – so the GT category could become a more accessible route into WRC for privateer teams.

The future

Motor racing is an important avenue of research for manufacturers. Formula 1 might be a fantastic spectator sport but the cars are designed with one purpose in mind – to win – and bear litte similarity to road cars beyond the 4 round black things which make contact with the road.

But more than any other form of motorsport, the link between competition and mainstream road cars is clearest in rallying.

For 2011/2 rally rules have changed yet again, partly to reduce costs and will return to using mechanical sequential gearshifts and mechanical diffs, whilst engines will drop in size to use 1.6-litre turbocharged units.

Nissan GT-R in the Targa Tasmania

Just as paddle shift controls and electronic differentials have filtering down into our road cars, so will developments such as hybrid powerplants and energy recuperation (KERS) be accelerated by their use in rally cars.

So let’s welcome Lotus and look forward to seeing Alfa Romeo, Nissan and even Porsche join the World Rally scene – rallying leads to better road cars, it’s in their genes.