How One Corner Ended The Group B Era

August 29, 2023Joe Moore

An incident on May 2nd, 1986 would spell the end of the fan-favorite Group B era, find out more about this incident below.

The Build Up

The 1986 season started with Henri Toivonen winning Rallye Monte Carlo. Making the Lancia Delta S4 two for two-for-two since it debuted in the WRC at the RAC Rally in 1985. Toivonen was on pace to win Rally Sweden as well but an engine failure forced him out of the race. Allowing eventual 1986 champion Juha Kankkunen to win the event as a result. Rally Portugal was the first mass tragedy of 1986. When driver Joaquim Santos crashed into a group of spectators. The incident killed 3 spectators and injured over a dozen more. All works teams withdrew from the rally as a result and the Group B cars were brought under scrutiny. Safari Rally Kenya went off without a hitch with Björn Waldegård taking the win. The next round of the 1986 championship was the legendary Tour De Corse. Known for its long stages, large amounts of turns and extremely narrow roads. This event would also deliver the final blow to the Group B cars and the championship would lose a star in the making. 

The Tragedy 

1986 World Rally Championship.: Tour de Corse, Ajaccio, Corsica, France. 1st – 3rd May 1986. Rd 5. Henri Toivonen/Sergio Cresto (Lancia Delta S4), Fatal accident, here at service, portrait. World Copyright: LAT Photographic. Ref: 86 – 515 – 20A.

The fifth round of the 1986 championship started like any other. Lancia driver Henri Toivonen was where he was expected to be, leading the pack. Toivonen won 11 stages throughout the first 17 stages. Giving himself an over 5-minute lead over Bruno Saby. Stage 18 started like any other, Toivonen was first on the road. The stage didn’t end like any other, however. As just a couple kilometres into the stage tragedy struck. Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto went off the road after a seemingly simple left-hander. The exposed gas tank was punctured by a tree, exploding into flames instantly. Setting the extremely flammable ablaze, allowing no escape for Toivonen or Cresto. The remaining stages of the day would be cancelled due to the incident. The FIA also announced the Group B era would be over after the 1986 season.

First On Scene

The eventual winner Bruno Saby was the first on the scene. However, it took a significant amount of time. As Saby didn’t notice anything wrong until after getting around the raven Toivonen crashed into. Turning around and going through the stage the opposite way to get back to Toivonen. Toivonen’s teammate Miki Biasion was the next driver to get to the crash site. Biasion’s co-driver Tiziano Siviero was the first to call the incident into race control. The stage was immediately halted and the drivers who were on the stage were stopped frantically before reaching the site. Lancia crew members and race control rushed to the scene alongside first responders. By the time they arrived on scene all they could do was put out the flames and tow the roll cage out. Toivonen was 29 years old and left behind a wife, kids and his brother Harri. Cresto was 30 years old. Both were and still are deeply missed by the rally community. 

What Caused The Incident?

The exact cause of the crash is unknown and will never be known. As there were no spectators in the area of the accident and the only known video of it was from the other side of the raven. People have speculated the cause of the crash, coming up with many different possible answers. Below will list some of the most plausible ones.

Stuck Throttle

The Lancia Delta S4 had a known issue with the throttle getting stuck. If this were to have happened Toivonen would have been unable to slow down enough to take the right left-hander. This is what Lancia reportedly believes happened. With a former team member reportedly telling Harri Toivonen this. If you look at the pictures from after the crash Toivonen did make the original corner and went off after the corner. 

Toivonen Had A Medical Incident 

It’s no secret Toivonen had the flu during the event. But that isn’t the issue believed to have affected Toivonen the most. As former driver Malcolm Wilson has said, Toivonen suffered from blackouts and seizures. He just didn’t inform Lancia so he didn’t lose his job. This explanation makes sense with all things considered and what Toivonen said in his last interview. As Toivonen would say Today, we have driven more than the whole distance of the 1000 Lakes Rally (Finnish Rally). After 4 hours of driving- it’s hard to keep up with the speed. So, with a modern car like this, it’s just impossible to race here. It’s physically exhausting and the brains can’t keep up with it anymore.” Now this may sound unlikely to cause an accident on its own. If you factor in all the other issues Toivonen has, however, it becomes more plausible. Seeing as Toivonen was taking medication for his flu, which can make you drowsy, the Group B cars were a workout on their own to drive. Along with his reported blackouts, it was the perfect storm for something to happen. There are however reasons I believe this didn’t happen. With the biggest one being the Lancia Delta S4 Toivonen was driving did turn around the bend before he crashed. Meaning that either he didn’t have a medical emergency, the medical emergency took place right after the corner or co-driver Sergio Cresto somehow managed to get the car around the corner whilst Toivonen’s foot remained on the pedal. 

A Different Medical Emergency 

Toivonen and Cresto had reported heavy smells of gasoline in the car during the event. The issue was not fixed before SS18 however. Making it plausible for Toivonen to have had an issue caused by gasoline fumes. Much like the last sun-section I don’t remain convinced this is what happened either. As the last three points are still questioned. The chances of Cresto being able to turn the car around a corner as much as the car did is unlikely. Given if Toivonen was passed out his foot would’ve most likely been all the way down on the accelerator. The perfect timing also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. Yes, blackouts and such can happen randomly.

Tunnel Vision 

Multiple Group B drivers have reported that driving Group B cars would give a kind of tunnel vision effect. Which would zone drivers out completely at times. This happened to Toivonen before at the 1985 Rally Costa Smeralda. When Toivonen reportedly had this tunnel vision effect and misheard a pace note causing him to ram into a brick wall at nearly full speed. Almost paralyzing him and ending his career. Is it possible Toivonen had this effect on that fateful day in France? Yes absolutely, or even something as simple as Toivonen mishearing the pace note. The corner where Toivonen crashed looks to be about a left 3 tightens into left 2. Toivonen could’ve missed the tightens part or the section half of the note entirely. It’s also plausible Toivonen thought it tightened later and didn’t see the road turn until it was too late. 

We Will Never Know

The answer to what caused Toivonen’s crash will forever be unknown. No matter how many plausible theories come out about the matter nobody will ever truly know. The only two people who probably knew what happened were Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto. The corner will forever be a mystery to those who are interested. It will also be forever known as the corner that ended the high-risk Group B era. 

Photos Courtesy of Motorsport Images