Motorsport in the 80s: New directions in rally and touring car racing

Lancia Delta S4

The 80s were a formative decade for motorsport. Especially in rally and touring car racing, new records were set and great but sometimes tragic stories were written.


When one thinks of motorsport today, the cars and drivers of the 80s usually come to mind. This is hardly surprising, as the vehicles of this era are in many respects among the most extreme that rallying brought to the road. “The 80s were the heyday of the rally era. The enthusiasm of the fans was immense, especially in the southern countries,” says Jörg Pattermann.

From 1976 to 2000, the Austrian was a co-pilot in the rally circus. He also drove the routes shortly before the races as a “spy”. Walter Röhrl, among others, was able to turn his information about the current conditions of the underground into two victories in motorsport at the Rally Monte Carlo.

Viewed through the German motorsport lens, the decade began very successfully. Walter Röhrl became world champion in 1980 with a clear lead in his FIAT 131 Abarth. The following year, the reigning title holder had to take a break after his new partner Mercedes-Benz backed out shortly before the first round at the Rally Monte Carlo. So the way was clear for the Finn Ari Vatanen in the Ford Escort RS1800.

In 1982, it was again the turn of the “Tall Man” from Bavaria. In the Opel Ascona 400, he left the renowned competitors Michèle Mouton, Hannu Mikkola (both Audi quattro) and Stig Blomqvist (Talbot Sunbeam Lotus) behind in the annual standings.

With the constructors’ title for Audi, 1982 already heralded the turning point in rallying, which was then reflected in the 1983 WRC drivers’ title for Hannu Mikkola (Audi quattro): the abandonment of rear-wheel drive and the dominance of all-wheel drive, as well as, above all, the introduction of Group B.

The rear-wheel-drive cars, however, managed to go out with dignity, by winning the constructors’ title for Lancia. Thanks to the driving class of Walter Röhrl, Markku Alén and Attilio Bettega as well as the shrewd sporting management of the Lancia team, which knew how to use the grey area of the regulations quite creatively, they were able to win the constructors’ championship. Especially in the asphalt rallies with narrow serpentines, the Lancia 037 was able to outsmart its competitors time and again.

But already in 1984, Stig Blomqvist won the drivers’ and constructors’ titles in the Audi quattro. In any case, 1984 was the year of competing systems. Audi with a front engine and four-wheel drive, Lancia with a mid-engine and rear-wheel drive, and in the middle of it all was the Peugeot 205 T16 with a mid-engine and four-wheel drive. With the Finn Timo Salonen at the wheel, Peugeot hit the big time with the world championship title for driver and team in 1985.

Mercedes-Benz Motorsport

THE END OF GROUP B – The end of a motorsport legend

There was a break in the development of rallying and racing cars in 1986. After the Group B cars introduced in 1982 had been pushed further and further, the acknowledgment came delayed but vehemently. The proximity to large-scale production cars was secured through homologation. Whereas 400 identical road-going cars had previously been required for the homologation of a racing version, the governing body FIA reduced this number by half to 200.

For the homologation of evolutions, i.e. further developments of existing racing cars, only 20 were required. In addition, the softened regulations on the subject of “proximity to series production” allowed for a very lax interpretation of this. Peugeot 205 T16, Renault Turbo or MG Metro 6R4 had very little in common with production small cars. Mid-engine, all-wheel drive and exuberant power made the racing cars true poison dwarfs in motorsport.

Curiously, one of the key points that sealed the end of Group B was also one of the milestones in its development. The switch to all-wheel drive and the use of turbo engines marked a major step forward.

With this concept, Audi outpaced the competition and every manufacturer copied the approach. The beautiful drifts of rear-wheel-drive cars may make an impression, but all-wheel drive with good aerodynamics will usually come out on top. The absurd thing about better aerodynamics and wings was that the faster you went, the more controllable the cars seemed. The spoilers and baffles increased the downforce.

However, the grip on solid asphalt is simply something else than on loose ground. In combination with the increasing power up to more than 500 hp, the cars were still bullets that were increasingly difficult to control, even for exceptionally good rally drivers. “It was really very demanding for everyone involved. The cars were difficult for the pilots to control and even the route description could not really prepare the teams for when there were spectators on the road behind the next bend or crest,” Jörg Pattermann also confirms.

So the toxic development of rallying had less to do with the cars than with the general conditions. From a safety point of view, the tracks could not keep up and the behaviour of the spectators was more daring and careless than was appropriate for the racing action.

One of the advantages for the spectators was that they could stand close to the rally tracks. However, this was also a great danger due to the lack of run-off zones and tyre piles, as is usual on circuits. The big drama started at the Rally Portugal 1986. On 5 March 1986, Joaquím Santos with his Ford RS200 swerved to avoid spectators who were on the track, lost control of the car and crashed into the spectators who were close to the track.

Three people died and more than 30 people were seriously injured. As a result, all works teams withdrew from the Rally Portugal due to safety deficiencies and a lack of track closures. Nevertheless, the next serious accident occurred already at the Corsica Rally in May. On 2 May, the Finn Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto (USA) went off the road in their Lancia Delta S4 and crashed into a tree below the road. The explosion of the petrol tanks burnt the car almost completely and left the occupants with no chance of survival.

In addition to the other also serious accidents of Marc Surer in 1986 and before that of Attilio Bettega in 1985, this danger was no longer acceptable for most teams. Most of the works teams withdrew from the championship, only Peugeot, Lancia and MG as well as a few private teams continued the 1986 season.

For the next season, the FIA banned Group B cars in the World Rally Championship. However, the cars of this era have shaped the face of the sport for decades. When a former racing car or “only” a homologation model comes onto the market today, they achieve top values at sale or auction. In 2019, for example, an Audi sport quattro was sold via Classic Trader for EUR 425,000.


If you look at Formula 1 today, for example, the same points of criticism have been evident for years: hardly any overtaking manoeuvres and too great a difference in the performance of the cars. In short, the racing series is often seen as too predictable, too boring.

The answer may not be easily accepted in the current context, but actually the solutions are obvious: a balanced field of participants, wheel-to-wheel duels, racing cars with a connection to reality and events on race tracks steeped in history.

All these attributes of “real” racing were present when in the 1980s and 1990s the German Touring Car Championship ensured full crowds at the Nürburgring, the AVUS and the Norisring, in addition to the numerous TV viewers who followed the races in the media.

DTM Motorsport


As early as 1972, the German Racing Championship (DRM) was popular with its FIA Group 2 racing cars and later also with the turbo-powered Group 5 bolides. At the latest, with the switch to the wickedly expensive Group C sports cars, the point was reached where the series could not be developed in a meaningful way because the starting field kept shrinking due to the high costs.

The solution could only be a return to production-based, low-cost touring cars. Based on the FIA Group A racing cars, the Supreme National Sports Commission for Automobile Sport in Germany (ONS) developed regulations for close-to-production touring cars, which were initially run as the German Production Car Championship (DPM) for the first two years and were marketed as the German Touring Car Championship from 1986 onwards.

The idea was also to create a “classless” society in the DTM or DPM. By regulating the weights and tyre widths in relation to the engine capacity, a level playing field was to be created. For the spectators, this had the pleasant effect that whoever crossed the finish line first was actually the winner, be it a light VW Golf GTI or a heavy Ford Mustang.


Even though the constructors’ title went to BMW in the first seven years, this does not hide the fact that the starting field was colourful and that almost every starter, from the works team to the “small” privateer, could also cross the finish line first.

Thus, in the first year 1984, seven different cars were able to take the victories: Alfa Romeo GTV6, BMW 635 CSi (E24), BMW 325i (E30), Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang, Rover Vitesse and Volvo 240 Turbo. The very first race was won by Harald Grohs in his BMW 635 CSi. He also won four more races. Curiously, Volker Strycek, also driving an E24, became champion without having won a single race.

In the second year of the DPM, the championship was announced internationally, so that non-German drivers were also eligible for points. Promptly, the Swede Per Stureson won in his Volvo 240 Turbo. Eric van de Poele (Belgium) in a BMW M3 (E30) in 1987, Klaus Ludwig (Germany) in a Ford Sierra RS 500 Cosworth in 1988 and Roberto Ravaglia (Italy) in a BMW M3 Evo in 1989 were the other champions of the 1980s.

At the end of the decade, Ford left the DTM, but Audi was another manufacturer with an affinity for racing. Due to the V8 engine and the all-wheel drive, compromises had to be found again to reconcile the different drive concepts.

In any case, it has to be said that throughout the years, the DTM has always had to master the challenge of adapting to new conditions. This was the case with the turbo engines, which had significantly more power for the same displacement. Therefore, a suitable “turbo factor” had to be found by which the engine capacity was multiplied in order to find the upper limit for the naturally aspirated engines. But both the factor and later the air volume limiter did not lead to a fair solution, so the turbo engines were completely banned in 1991. Ford then dropped out and Audi joined in. Later, Opel and Alfa Romeo joined as factory teams.

In any case, the share of factory teams in motorsport had increased over time. Between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, the number of privateer cars had roughly halved. At the latest from the introduction of “Class 1” and the accompanying departure from the production-based Group A, the path led away from touring car racing and towards prototype racing cars.

All the changes and innovations did not dampen the enthusiasm of the public. Also due to the good television deals, motorsport in the form of the DTM was present in German living rooms. In addition to the enthusiasm on the packed grandstands at the race tracks. It remains to be seen whether today’s DTM will succeed in reinventing itself once again and continuing the touring car tradition after the withdrawal of Audi and Mercedes-Benz at the end of 2020.

Photos BMW AG, Daimler AG

Author: Paolo Ollig

As editor-in-chief Paolo regularly writes about all the big and small stories related to classic cars and motorbikes. Classic dreams: Lamborghini Countach and Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

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