Review: Madness on Wheels – Rallying’s Craziest Years


Madness on Wheels: Group B - Rallying's Craziest Years

I, like countless others, consider Group B to be the epitome of excitement on wheels – they were the most sensational cars ever to have graced the international rally scene. Never before, nor since, have engineers had such freedom of choice to create extreme rally cars as they did during that fantastic era of the early 1980s.

So, imagine my delight when I discovered that the digital TV backwater that is BBC4 were broadcasting a documentary on my favourite subject. And then I found out that it was produced by the same people who made sensationalist guff like Deadliest Crash: The 1955 Le Mans Disaster and Grand Prix: The Killer Years, causing a massive spike on my wary-o-meter.

Madness on Wheels: Rallying’s Craziest Years – a strong contender for the trashiest title of the year – spends an hour focusing on the rise and fall of the Group B beasts, but only in the hugely negative and often factually incorrect way that production company Bigger Picture seems to specialise in.

“In the 1980s rallying became more popular than Formula 1,” the narrator informs us within the first few seconds, which is of course utter codswallop. The basis for this claim is derived from the million punters who trundled through the Welsh forests for the RAC Rally, hardly the best barometer for the sport’s global popularity. And, rather deceptively, they use footage from Rally Portugal to make you believe that all rally spectators at the time were raving lunatics.

Audi Quattro

Aside from the Latin fans – which I will come back to in a minute – Madness on Wheels does an adequate job of detailing the background history of some of the more iconic Group B machinery, if you can ignore some of the gaffes, that is.

The Audi Quattro, for example, was actually powersliding its way around many a special stage prior to the Group B era, as was the Lancia Rally 037, which came before the Quattro. But the way in which the documentary is laid out would make you think otherwise.

What else? Well, Porsche hardly “weighed in with their 939″ as suggested, unless everyone around them trundling around with blindfolds on, and as for referring to the Ford RS200 as an “ugly duckling,” well…

Admittedly, these aren’t the most earth shattering of errors and are less severe than those that featured in the mistake ridden mess that was The Killer Years. Casual rally fans probably won’t batter an eyelid at them, but for aficionados like me, they don’t half grate.

Less forgivable, however, is the negative slant of the entire piece which points the finger of blame for the fatalities and injuries during the period at the drivers and vehicles, which is complete nonsense.

Yes, the cars were difficult to drive and yes they crashed all too frequently. But the main problem with the Group B era was neither the cars nor the drivers, but the lack of anything resembling crowd control.

Safety standards, particularly on the continent, were almost non-existent back then and moronic spectators would try and touch the cars, much like a matador in a bullfight. For reasons unknown, other than to laugh at his stupidity, one such idiot makes an appearance and has the audacity to blame Joaquim Santos for what happened during Rally Portugal in 1986.

For those that don’t know, Santos lost control of his RS200 and plunged into a crowd of spectators, killing three and injuring 30, one of which still harbours a grudge against the Portugese rally driver after all these years.

He comes up with possibly the worst analogy I think I have ever heard in my life. He suggests that Santos was incompetent and that him accidentally ploughing into spectators was akin to hitting a house on the side of the road. Yes, because houses are well known for their ability to jump out on unsuspecting rally drivers, causing them to take evasive action in an attempt to avoid them.

Thankfully, his friend who was also injured at the time has a lot more sense, saying “it was our fault, we were told not to stand there and we did,” which neatly summarises what the main issue was in rallying at the time.

<Deaths were likely irrespective of what was being driven and regardless of their speed. It doesn’t matter if a car is doing 120mph or 70mph, the outcome of going off-track and towards people is likely to always be the same.

But you would never have guessed that from watching Madness on Wheels. You would come away from it thinking that the cars were the biggest problem, not the lacklustre event organisation. You would also think that there had been no fatalities in rallying prior to, or after, the Group B period, and it paints a rather dour picture on what was unquestionably its greatest era.

If the DVD had the option to turn off the ridiculously melodramatic narration and just marvel at the lovely rally footage – as well as listening to the sport’s various luminaries – then it might have been worth a look. Otherwise, this has hatchet job written all over it.

God forbid if they ever choose to cover the Isle of Man TT.

Rating:  (2/5)

Product Details
Format: PAL No. of discs: 1
Region: All Studio: Bigger Picture
Running time: 60 minutes Release: 02 April 2012
The Madness on Wheels: Rallying’s Craziest Years is available to buy now from Amazon.



  1. I agree with your review. They were making a bigger deal about group b being darker than it really was.
    Like saying “after bettegas crash a cloud was forming over the 1985 season” no there was’nt Bettgas crash was a normal rally accident that went bad. They failed to mention that the 037′s rollcage was’nt up to the job and collapsed on his side. Which after this accident they rectiffied, as provoen by Biasions high speed roll (over 100mph) while practasing for the 1986 Safari. Some of the footage aswell, was different drivers driving the cars than what the narrator wsa saying, the average jow wont notice since its the same car just another driver from the team driving. They needed to point out more that the FIA at the time did nothing about having safety fuel tanks or enforcing crowd control and still expecting 400bhp+ cars to rally on stages from the 1960′s when cars had little over 100bhp. Bit of a missed opertunity.

  2. Dan – this letter is not for you, I have no time for you, it is for your readers.
    People like you irritate me as you write, in minutes, with no care, with no research, no direct contact and no commitment with those involved, total crap. You do not even study the things you write about.
    I have been a film maker for a long time and my documentaries allow the people in the documentary, those that were actually there, to tell their own stories. These people do not talk to anyone, including their own families, about their darkest moments.
    Rare films like ours, that only have an hour to tell the story, use narrators to truncate what others have said, succinctly.
    When you dismiss my film, Deadliest Crash, about the biggest disaster in motorsport ever, as sensationalist, when it took me personally more than three years to make, and gives voice to the victims of this disaster – I realise you really are not worth considering as an authority on anything and your readers really ought to know this.
    As a film maker, I can’t make the judgments you casually make on your site, as my highly trained, highly intelligent lawyer would not allow it. And I know it so would not even try without backing them up from multiple sources.
    Get your facts straight, call up the real people involved and then see how you get on.
    Could do a lot better.
    The Producer
    Deadliest Crash

    • Hello again John/Glenda,

      Thank you for taking the time to launch into a diatribe of utter nonsense and congratulations on being able to handle criticism well.

      I look forward to reviewing your future work.

  3. I actually quite enjoyed this, and the other documentaries. I’m probably closer to the “casual rally fan”, so inaccuracies may have washed over me. I also didn’t find the documentaries as purely sensationalist as Dan.

    But good Christ, producers, that’s not how you respond to criticism. Or at least this kind of criticism, which sets out its arguments for all to see, and either agree with or otherwise. You seem to imply that, without having made the documentary – or a better one – you can’t criticise it. That is, clearly, madness.

  4. In an age of political correctness we should applaud those film makers for saying what they actually think.

    Given that yours if the only review of the documentary which returns on Google, I can understand their sensitivity as I guess your musings could influence people who are considering buying the DVD.

    Another thing to consider is the constant battle between making watch-able television which will appeal to the mass market and pleasing the purists, who are a relatively small group.

    I was as irritated as you when I saw Senna.

    The onboard shots purporting to be Monaco 1988 were actually from 1990. The shots of Senna bent over the Clerk of the Course’s car pleading for pole position to be changed to the other side of the track were from Hockenheim 1990, not Japan as the film would have us believe. The film makers had even gone to the trouble of obscuring the writing on the side of the official’s car. There were countless other such historical fudges.

    Did the film fail? No way, people loved it.

    That said, the ferocity of the film maker’s response is a bit out of order.

    Can’t fault their passion though.

  5. I haven’t seen the Deadliest Crash doco, but I thought Dan’s review on Madness On Wheels was quite fair, and 2 stars out of 5 is spot on. I thought Killer Years was better in that the overall message and tone were accurate even if the details were not.

    Madness On Wheels was poor, to be blunt, and smacked of a producer and director who didn’t really understand the sport at all.

    Having seen the response from Glenda Hill Wilson, I will now make sure I don’t ever bother watching Deadliest Crash.

  6. To John/Glenda,

    Are you seriously suggesting that viewers of any film or, for that matter, television programmes or documentaries, are not able to make their own conclusions as to whether or not they liked it unless they first telephone the producers?

    Yours Sincerely,
    Flabbergasted mere viewer without years of “experience” in the film industry who previously thought that she was quite free to form her own opinions

  7. … Deadliest Crash was nominated for a Grierson Award 2010 [see below] – it is lots of things but it most certainly is not sensationalist – anyone who says so I would have to ask if they had in fact seen the film or if they have, if they paid any attention to its contents

    the Grierson’s celebrate contributions to the documentary genre and the craft and dedication of those involved

    ref ‘those involved’ ie those involved in the story itself, not the ruddy film making!

    nothing else to add – just do some direct research – just do some work, put some effort in man!

    • Glenda,

      I am beginning to wonder if your incoherent comments are nothing more than an elaborate ploy in which to entice readers into viewing your documentaries.

      If it is, then I applaud you. They say any publicity is good publicity, and your outbursts this morning have managed to attract almost a thousand page views today.

      And if it is not, then I am flabbergasted that you are unable to see the damage you are inflicting upon your company’s reputation.

  8. ‘the Grierson Awards recognise and celebrate documentaries from Britain and abroad that have made a significant contribution to the genre and that demonstrate quality, integrity, creativity, originality and overall excellence.’

    • Titanic received 11 Oscars.

      ” … the Oscar statuette – a symbol admired around the world – acknowledges the very highest level of achievement, every form of Academy recognition, be it a certificate, plaque or other form of trophy, carries significance like none other in the world of movies.”

      I hated that film.

      So, what exactly is your point?

  9. Is worth mentioning. The version shown on bbc has more footage in it and extended interviews than the version released on dvd for some odd reason.

  10. John & Glenda – Producers of Madness on Wheels

    You are obviously fiercely protective of your creation. That is understandable. But to not be able to accept constructive criticism quite frankly shows a lack of maturity which I find astonishing from intelligent people such as you.

    I actually enjoyed the documentary on a specific level. I enjoyed seeing the cars again from a period that to my mind, and to many others, was the most exciting time in the sport. I remember this all too brief era very well and I have to say I have never followed Rallying so passionately before or since.

    But Dan is quite correct. There are many factual inaccuracies in your view of this period. That is ok. One can forgive you having some licence to get your point across but to then vilify and attack those who point out those historical inaccuracies is churlish.

    You have made a compelling piece of television enjoyed by many, but the way you have reacted to a well a constructed review of your work discredits you.

  11. Glenda, since Dan wasn’t reviewing your doco in this article, you may want to stop now in case he does decide to review it…

    As I said, I have no intention of buying it after your tantrum on here, but I will happily sit down to review it properly and constructively if you would like to send me a copy.

  12. Ha! I liked it and didn’t notice any inaccuracies, I reckon the producers should calm down, if you and others like it – good, if it was nominated for a prize that’s good too. Critisism’s best used constructively whether it’s contructive critisism or not – you could have chatted about it, got peoples views on it, learnt from it, gotten your point of view across….

    Back to the cars anyway- group B was amazing, spectators should really have been controlled a bit more but how exciting!! I still want an Integrale, maybe one day….. If I get so rich i can afford to throw thousands at it every year. Saving for a ten year old Transit at the moment, not quite the same but it’s exciting enough for me for a while.

  13. I agree with mr cross’s opinion
    In particular I did not enjoy the censorious commentary upon guys, some of them legends actually, like Vatanen, Toivonen, Bettega and Santos.
    Rohrl and Geistdorfer did not come out of it too well.
    Tho I would suppose their comments were subject to a liberal amount of editing

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