Denied it’s shot at rallying greatness through poor circumstance and timing, Ford’s Group B challenger nevertheless became a cult favourite and, eventually, a rallycross icon
To say that the Ford Motorsport of the mid ‘80s was unaccustomed to winning at rallying’s highest level would be an understatement. After all, this was a team which had spent most of the previous decade fighting tooth and nail with Fiat and Lancia, and often coming out on top.
Ari Vatanen’s 1981 success with the David Sutton prepared, Rothmans sponsored RS1800 was effectively the Mk2 Escort’s last gasp, a victory snatched against the odds and put beyond doubt through the Finn’s tenacious driving. It was a remarkable result for a largely independent outfit, even if Sutton did benefit from a degree of Works support on the sly.
Yet Boreham had failed to take heed of the way the rallying winds were blowing, and this despite the team having effectively taken a multi-season to prepare the Mk2’s successor, the ill-fated RS1700T. There was no denying that the BDT-powered Mk3 was a far more potent proposition than its naturally aspirated forebearer, but it also sent its power to the rear axle and the rear axle alone. It didn’t take long for Ford to realise that the debut of the Quattro, not to mention its ever increasing reliability, was the new benchmark. RS1700T development was thus halted in unceremonious fashion by Stuart Turner.
Ford might’ve been forced back to the drawing board having effectively wasted a good portion of the early ‘80s, yet the delay did at least give Boreham the chance to take stock, to fully assess the Group B rules and make changes to their formula based on what its rivals were doing. The most important lesson Ford learned was that the Quattro, while the yardstick until 1984, had had its moment in the sun. Peugeot’s mid-engined 205 T16 was the new force to be reckoned with by dint of its mid-engined layout. PSA had grasped the full potential of the Group B formula and had reduced the Ingolstadt cars to also-ran status at a stroke.
The car which formed around the mid-engined principle was the RS200. It drew upon the team’s experience with the Cosworth BDT, albeit mounted amidships and with its capacity increased to 1803cc. Ford had also noted that this engine’s basic power output of 425bhp was small beer by the beginning of the 1985 season and therefore commenced development of an Evo variant right away. While the 20 Evo cars (denoted by their ‘ears’ above the cabin) would benefit from a 2137cc BDT-E good for 600bhp or more, they’d be denied the chance to prove their worth in the WRC.
The RS200’s trio of viscous Limited Slip Differentials was also far more nuanced than anything found beneath a Quattro, with the ability to toggle the percentage of torque sent to either axle depending on the nature of the rally. Standard was 33:67 front to rear, though drivers could also specify a 50:50 split for loose gravel or snow, or, in a nod to the fairly rudimentary nature of all wheel drive setups at the time, 0:100 for sealed surface work.
Ford paid attention to the new machine’s weight distribution and opted to locate the Getrag gearbox at the front of the car. Doing so involved the design of a complex secondary prop-shaft to route power from the front of the car, back to the rear. This was twinned with equally advanced suspension, including double uprights and double wishbones to give the kind of damping flexibility Ford’s rivals could only dream of. The above was hung from a tubular space-frame, again pointing to the RS200’s elongated gestation period and Ford’s ability to learn from Audi’s mistakes.
The RS200 was effectively engineered into existence by Tony Southgate and John Wheeler, both of whom had cut their teeth in F1, while the striking bodywork was penned by Ghia of Italy. The Ford parts bin was raided for more prosaic parts, including the windscreen, tail lights and various interior fixings, all of which were liberated from the Sierra.
Now for the bit you’ll likely all be aware of, the RS200’s disappointingly short rally career and its role in the sport’s darkest season, 1986. The new car debuted near the beginning of the season, in Sweden, in the hands of Stig Blomqvist and Kalle Grundel, the former having been poached from Audi specially for the task. The mix of local talent and the snowy conditions proved fruitful, the latter allowing the RS200 to demonstrate its potential in low grip conditions, and Grundel drove a measured event to come home in 3rd. Little did he or Ford know that this would be the car’s best WRC result.
The nadir would come mere weeks later, on Rally Portugal. Joachim Santos, a privateer competing on his home rally, had dug deep to purchase an RS200 of his own. While there was no denying he was a talented driver, the new Group B car represented a quantum leap in performance compared to the Mk2 Escort he’d hitherto been used to.
The final piece of rallying’s ‘perfect storm’ was put in place by it being Rally Portugal, notorious even in the WRC’s Group B era as being akin to the wild west. It is from Portugal that grim tales of mechanics digging lost digits from the vents of Group B cars were born, a legacy of the willingness of some spectators to prove their machismo by attempting to touch the cars as they sped by.
Thus one of the darkest days in WRC history played out amongst the Portuguese hills around Sintra, with Santos plunging off the road on the very first stage, right into a bank of tightly packed spectators. 3 were killed and at least 30 more injured, a situation compounded by the reticence of the organisers to stop the stage until at least a further 10 cars had completed it. Ford, along with all other Works teams, pulled out of the event immediately.
The Portuguese incident was soon followed by the deaths of Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresta on the Tour de Corse, after which FISA decreed that Group B would die at the end of the year. As such the RS200s were seen only sporadically thereafter, with decent performances in Greece and the RAC once again demonstrating the car’s potential in low grip conditions.
The death of Group B rather pulled the rug from under Ford’s feet, and RS200 development naturally suffered as a result. Ford had planned a raft of revisions and the debut of the lighter, more powerful Evo variant for Rally Sweden the following year, and while there was some discussion about re-purposing the RS200 for use in Group S, the plans (and the category) never materialised.
All of which left in something of a quandary. In common with MG Rover and slew of former Group B teams, Boreham now had a glut (though not quite the 200 demanded by homologation rules) of largely useless rally cars to sell, some of which didn’t find homes until 1990!
Still, there was some comfort in the RS200’s post-WRC rallycross career, a discipline in which it proved both popular (by dint of being relatively simple to keep going) and competitive. The most successful of these was campaigned by Martin Schanche, ‘Mr Rallycross’ himself and a stalwart Ford man. His was one of the few Evo versions built and thus benefited from the 2.1 engine, a unit able to make as much as 900bhp at full boost – though rarely for long. Schanche won the 1991 European Rallycross Championship with the car, and persisted with it until the banning of Group B machinery the following year.
Undoubtedly the oddest post-rally career for the RS200 was in the American IMSA GTO series, a championship in which it competed sporadically from 1989 to 1991. Drivers Joe Varde and Wayne Cerbo were met with little success despite having a rumoured 700bhp at their disposal, and the car was soon retired and repurposed as a Pikes Peak hillclimber.
So, the RS200. Hardly the most successful of rally cars and one unfairly forever linked to a tragic day in the annals of motorsport history, but an immensely capable, technologically advanced bit of kit nonetheless. Oh, and a Retropower Hero shoe-in, naturally.