Monday, 5 December 2011

Lancia Stratos in the Dark

Enjoy the sound of a Lancia Stratos approaching through the trees at the Dunscombe Park night stage of the 2011 Roger Albert Clark Rally.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1997

1997 and everything changes, although you'd be hard pressed to notice.

Group A was no more and now we had World Rally Cars. The key difference was that rather than building 'homologation specials' with all the bits needed to go rallying, manufacturers were now allowed to take a normally aspirated and two wheel drive base model and grow it into turbo-snorting all wheel drive rally car.

However as the their specification was based on the hugely successful formula the cars were virtually the same. The only visible difference was that the cars that didn't have wings now acquired them, and the arches got a bit wider so that ever car had the track of a Toyota Celica.

The end of Group A cars meant that the days of 5000-off road cars with oversized wings, brakes and intercoolers were no more. There wasn't really a market for them outside of Japan any more and whilst the wings gave them some street cred the other bits were just a hassle. They also struggled to meet new environmental regulations coming in in Europe. The Escort Cosworth failed EU regulations on drive-by noise alone.

In due course the World Rally Car rules would bring new manufactures into the sport, but at the start of 1997 it was still Subaru versus Mitsubishi versus Ford as before. More precisely it was Makinen versus McRae take two, with the blue oval trailing along behind.

In fact Ford wasn't really Ford at all any more. Boreham had shut up shop at the end of 1996 and the Escorts were now rallied by Malcolm Wilson's M-Sport. It was the end of one of rallying's greatest institutions. Admittedly they'd been playing catch for a decade and half and had never regained the heights achieved in the 70s with the Escorts. The RS1700T had looked set to be best ever two wheel drive rally car, but was made obsolete by the Quattro. Then the RS200 had looked set to be the Group B pace setter, but the class was abolished before the first evolution had been homologated. The Sierra Cosworth had gained four wheel drive too late to be effective and then the Escort Cosworth, potentially the best Group A car of all, had fallen short for various reasons most seriously its top driver injuring himself in his mate's Ferrari road car.

The FIAs long term plan to reform rallying was complete and we now had more, but shorter, rallies. The season was back up to fourteen rounds and the Monte Carlo and 'RAC' were back, although as three days sprints they were both mere shadows of their former selves.

Subaru started the season by winning the first two rounds, but not with their star driver. Then the duel really began and the two superstars starting racking up wins. It McRae, Makinen, Makinen, McRae then Makinen again.

Sainz finally gave M-Sport a win in Greece after Makinen had thrown his Lancer into the scenery and McRae broke his steering column on a seemingly innocuous bump - the sort of unlucky retirement that the Scot seemed to attract.

Neither driver scored in New Zealand whilst Makinen wrapped up his home event when McRae retired. Both retired in Indonesia and so Makinen was 20 points ahead with 30 points left to play for. Surely this was an impossible mountain for our man to climb?

Next rally was Sanremo, and it seemed McRae's attempt on the title would be over very quickly, as his ill handling car languished in eighth. The leader was Freddy Loix - in a Toyota. Two years after their disgrace Team Toyota Europe were back with a Corolla World Rally Car. The Corolla may be the world's most boring car, but it was always a better size and shape for rallying than the Celica, a point Ove Anderson had made to no avail in the 70s.

McRae though was not giving up. Prodrive tweaked the suspension and he shot round the twisty tarmac stages setting a series of fastest times. Soon he was second behind team mate Liatti with Makinen twenty seconds further back. Team orders gave the victory to McRae whilst Liatti's second denied Makinen two points.

Australia was next up, and more mayhem. McRae led, but was handicapped by running first on the road. Makinen had early problems, but they put him down the field and on clear roads. They were both spectacular on their first run over the Bunnings jumps but Makinen still took 20 seconds off the Scot.

It all came down to the last 20 mile stage and the second run over those jumps. McRae was clearly on fire and flew longer and higher than anyone else, much to the delight of codriver Nicky Grist. Afterwards McRae's comment was "If he can beat that he deserves it." He couldn't, probably nobody could before or since, it was one of those drives that made the McRae legend.

This all meant that McRe started the RAC Rally ten points behind with ten to play for. He started as he meant to continue and was soon leading. Patriotic British bugs then did their bit to help Makinen who spent the rally suffering from a severe cold. He was fast enough though, holding sixth place and clinging on for that single point he needed to win.

McRae won, making it three victories from three starts on his home rally and five in the year, against four for Makinen. So did the best man win? It was surely impossible to say with these two. However had the championship positions been reversed I wonder if McRae would have driven such a mature rally? The pattern appeared to be being set; that McRae would do anything to win a rally but Makinen could do what it takes to win a championship.

Friday, 18 November 2011

A rally of my own

Like a lot of petrol heads I'd watch a rally every day if I could, alas even if I had the time there just aren't enough rallies so I decided to recreate the experience in my own garage.

All I do is wait until it gets really cold, stand in a bucket of water, slowly apply a few drop of Castrol GTX to a naked flame and voila!, I could be in Kielder Forest.

Here's Stig Blomqvist on his way to victory on the 1983 RAC.

Bjorn Waldegard negotiates a hairpin under the watchful eye of a farmer on the 1977 event.

Roger Clark passes a Welshman and his sheep in 1976.

However when I'm tired of that I pop on the shades, pour a glass of vino rosso and enkjoy life in San Remo; beautiful cars, beautiful ladies.....

....and fun that continues all night.

And thanks to a miracle of modern road construction the two places are just a short drive away from each other.

Here a class winning Alfa Romeo TZ2 negotiates some unseasonable snow on the 1966 Targa Florio.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1996

The big question at the start of 1996 was, will McRae and Subaru sweep the board or will Sainz revitalise Ford and give the blue oval the title? The big question at the end of the season was, why did we get the question so wrong?

Toyota's disgrace had seemingly left the door wide open for Subaru to clean up. Sainz had left the team to drive for the Ford, who had shown no sign of making the Escort Cosworth into anything other than an occasional rally winner.

But it wasn't to be. Instead, there was a new kid on the block.

Subaru did win the manufacturers title, but this was now very much a consolation prize. The main event was the Drivers title.

Nobody noticed much when Tommi Makinen won the Swedish. He was Scandinavian after all they liked the snow. But when he managed to bring his Mitsubishi home first on the notoriously tricky Safari the rally world took note.

He looked set to do it again on the inaugural Rally Indonesia until his engine let go. This let McRae into the lead, but he left the road permanently and handed victory to Sainz and Ford.

McRae got his revenge in Greece when he nosed ahead of the Lancer and in Finland Kankkunen gave him a run for his money, but for the rest of the season Makinen out pace Sainz and stayed on the road unlike McRae and wrapped up the championship in Australia.

McRae then showed he was just as good on the black stuff as in the dirt to win the last two tarmac rounds and give Subaru their championship, but it was Makinen's year. Run by British endurance rally specialist Andrew Cowan, the Ralliart team was a modest enterprise compared with some and so this was their triumph too.

Finns had been winning rallies since long before the WRC was invented, but Makinen was a new breed of Flying Finn. Mikkola, Alen, Kankkunen and the rest were fast, but they also had a reputation for consistency that southern Europeans lacked. Makinen, like McRae was the type of driver who could turn it up to eleven when it counted. Like McRae he broke cars and crashed, but in the new, shorter, WRC it was speed that counted above consistency.

And this WRC was shorter than in the past. Just nine rounds and, thanks to the FIAs rotation system, there was no Monte Carlo no Rally of Great Britain. Both events still ran and, thanks to being free of the rules about repeated stages and centralised servicing, they were free to revert to their old format.

For the Network Q that meant an escape from South Wales and a return to the northern stages and killer Kielder. To add to the interest the weather turned nasty and covered the tracks with ice and snow. For rally fans though it was just like old times, shivering in the frozen forests.

Ice made the results a bit random. Early leader Kankkunen disappeared of the road on a patch of ice, the infamous Chatsworth tree stump claimed two victims and Pundershaw was littered with upturned Renault Meganes. Armin Schwartz won in his Toyota Celica - a car banned from the WRC because of TTE's cheating last year - but the drive of the rally came from Swedish ice man Stig Blomqvist who managed third in his little Skoda Felicia 1.6.

The ex-World Champion had been enjoying helping the Czechs develop their second generation front wheel drive cars, and the wintry conditions allowed him to show off his left foot braking skills and show a clean pair of heals to the rest of the two wheel drive field - and a number of four wheel drive competitors too.

It may not have been a WRC event, but it was great fun. Veteran British club driver Vince Wetton said he'd not had so much fun since the cat died, and most fans knew exactly what he meant.

It turned out this was the last of the old 'RAC' rallies. Next year it was back to South Wales, where the Rally of Great Britain is still stuck.

It was also the end of Group A. Brought in in haste after the termination of Group B, the format had at first disappointed, but then thrilled. Nobody could doubt that the Lancers, Imprezas, Cosworths and the rest were real rally cars. Next year it would be World Rally Cars.

1996 FIA World Rally Championship for Manufacturers Results

1996 FIA World Rally Championship for Drivers Results

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1995

So our Colin finally did it!

Hard to think, but just three years earlier us British fans had despaired of ever having another World Rally winner. That Jimmy's boy should become the youngest ever World Champion (a record that still holds) was beyond our wildest imagination.

It was a season of two halves and at the mid point it would have been a rash investor who put his money on the Scot lifting the trophy at the end of the year.

He'd crashed on sheet ice on the Monte, broken down in Sweden, finished a dutiful third in Portugal and struggled to fifth in Corsica and was lying joint sixth in the championship.

Out in front was Carlos Sainz, who's breezed the Monte and snatched victory in Portugal on the last stage from Kankkunen's Toyota. Sweden had belonged to Mitsubishi, whose new Lancer was showing plenty of pace and Corsica had, as usual, been dominated by the French.

That was May, then in June Sainz went mountain biking. A safe enough sport compared to driving a rally car at 100mph you'd think, but not for Carlos. He fell off and tore ligaments in his shoulder. He needed an operation, and physiotherapy, and ended up missing the Rally of New Zealand.

What would have happened if he'd been there is anyone's guess, but New Zealand was where McRae won his first rally and its long stages suited the flamboyant Scot down to the ground. He inherited the lead when Tommi Makinen crashed his Lancer, and he also benefited from Delecour being ill and the Toyotas not being at their best on the twisty stages. However as he was 35 seconds faster than anyone else on the longest stage it would probably have always been McRae's rally. This is what he was best at.

For Australia though Sainz was back. He didn't exactly set the stages alight, and when a fallen tree pierced the radiator his rally was over and so it was back to McRae to uphold Subaru honours. The rally belonged to Kenneth Eriksson in the constantly improving Lancer, but McRae took a solid second.

And so the WRC returned to Europe and the Rally of Catalunya with McRae now second in the championship behind Kankkunen, with Sainz and Auriel just behind him. Something remarkable seemed to be in the offing, but nobody expected what happened next.

The Toyotas set the initial pace, until first Armin Schwarz and then Juha Kankkunen fired themselves off the road. This left Sainz narrowly ahead of Auriel's temperamental Toyota.

Then came the bombshell.

Scrutineers had earlier removed Kankkunen's turbocharger, and a subsequent investigation revealed a device of exceptional inginuity designed to bypass the turbo restrictor and give extra power. This meant Auriel was immediately excluded, but also that Toyota Team Europe's future was distinctly uncertain.

Sharp practise had certainly happened before, Datsun eventually admitted they had run over sized values on the 1979 New Zealand rally and Ford had certainly pushed the boundaries for their Monte cars that year. But that was the old rules, which were always a little vague. This was a far more cynial and calculating attempt to get an advantage, and having been caught Toyota could expect to have the book thrown at them.

This left Subaru manager David Sutton in the enviable position of being able to line up a 1-2-3 finish, but also the unenviable task of giving team orders to his two top drivers. The deal had been that positions would be maintained as the car lay after end of the second day, which meant Sainz first and McRae second. However the Scotsman was hard wired to drive at ten tenths he was soon ahead. Mr Richards bravely stood in the middle of the penultimate stage to try to slow the charging McRae, and was nearly mown down for his trouble. In the end some fatherly advice from Jimmy persuaded Colin to take a road penalty, but the young man was clearly miffed.

This arrangement ensured that the the two top Subaru men entered the RAC equal on points. Seemingly a very fair compromise from David Richards, but it probably didn't seem that way to Sainz. He'd also had some bad news a couple of weeks before the rally started when the World Motorsport Council banned Toyota Team Europe for a year for the turbocharger-gate scandal. Sainz had just signed to drive for them in 1996.

And so the two Subarus set off from Chester to see which one of them would become champion. A second day puncture in Kielder which cost McRae three minutes just added to the drama, but the writing was clearly on the wall for the Spaniard. McRae had luck with him for once. In Kershaw his suspension collapsed, but he was close enough to the end of the stage to still set a faster time than his rival. He effected repairs on the road section with the aid of log and carried on.

>I caught the action in Hafren where a football match sized crowd waving Union Flags and Saltires filled the tree line waiting for our man. We heard the unmistakable sound of a flat four Subaru gunning its way up hill, followed two minutes later by the sound of a second one. Sainz slithered first and then one minute and forty seconds later McRae shot thought, twice as sideways and utterly committed.

He passed Sainz on the third day and then cruised home to a clear, and very popular, victory.

It was an amazing turn around from May and Toyotas absence meant that three former World Champions would be without a drive in 1996. Would Colin be able to do it again?

1995 FIA World Rally Championship for Manufacturers Results

1995 FIA World Rally Championship for Drivers Results

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1994

It was hard to know who was happiest man in Chester when the Network Q Rally finished off the 1994 World Rally Championship: the young man on the bonnet of his car spraying the champagne or the chap who'd struggled home in sixth.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The year had started with the Monte Carlo as usual, never a lucky event for British teams. From 1966, when the French excluded the first four cars, to 1979 when spectators stopped Ford from winning by placing rocks on the road, to 1993 when the Escort Cosworth's debut win was stolen by Auriel's last night blast, it always seemed to go wrong at the eleventh hour.

However in 1994 we finally made it and Francois Delecour gave Ford a win on the most famous rally in the world. Other British crews though weren't so lucky.

The four Minis specially homologated by Rover (or whatever they were called that year) to commemorate the little car's first win on the event all failed to finish - Timo Makinen's version even failing to start as it was stolen before the rally began.

Somewhat worse was what happened to Colin McRae. The French spectators had been as badly behaved as ever, causing scares for plenty of drivers, and on the Burzet stage they shovelled snow onto the road causing the Scotsman to crash.

But Delecour had no such problems. Was this going to be Frenchman's year? It could have been. After the Monte he was leading in Portugal before the gremlins struck. Then in April he decided to take a friends Ferrari F40 for a spin. Unfortunately he met a local rally driver coming the other way in the ensuing accident a very expensive Italian car was written off and an even more valuable pair of French feet suffered injuries that would keep their owner out of rallying for the rest of the year.

With their main driver hors de combat Ford then became a support act to the battle between Toyota and Subaru. Toyota had Kankkanen and Auriel, whilst Subaru had Sainz and McRae.

The Scotsman had a difficult year, following his Monte troubles by going up in flames in Portugal, crashing in Corsica and Argentina and being excluded in bizarre circumstances in Greece after leading for half the rally. The latter was the sort of thing that only ever happened to McRae. First scrutineers had failed to shut his bonnet properly, leading to it flying up and smashing the windscreen. He'd been allowed to change it without dropping down the field by friendly organisers, only to later be accused of holding up other competitors and disqualified.

However in New Zealand again it all went right for Colin. True, he inherited the lead when team mate Sainz's engine went bang, but after that he wiped the floor with the opposition. Once again, on the longest stage of the rally he was in a league of his own and took 30 seconds out of Kankkunen. The four times world champion, two minutes down by the end of the rally, was stunned at the following press conference when McRae said he's never had to drive very hard.

McRae wasn't the only young driver wining. Ford's B Team scored a win on the 100o Lakes thanks to Tommi Makinen, a young lad we'd be seeing a lot more of. Apart from that though the winning was done by old trio of Auriel, Kankkanen and Sainz.

Auriel and Kankkanen had the Manufacturers Championship wrapped up for Toyota after the 1000 Lakes, but as the crews went into the Network Q Rally all three still had a chance of the Driver's title.

Auriel had an eleven point lead but almost immediately things started to go wrong. He lost four minutes when he hit a rock and then ten minutes when he rolled - and that was just the first day. He then lost another four minutes when the turbo failed. He continued, but in 94th place.

Subaru meanwhile had McRae in front and Sainz in second. McRae was easily the fastest driver in the rally and had had an untypically trouble free event, but he knew that team orders could see the win given to Sainz so he could secure the world title.

Then Sainz sailed off the road in Dovey. It was a result that pleased everyone except him. The British fans saw the first home winner since 1976, but they also saw Didier Auriel, who'd fought back to sixth, crowned World Champion. It was a great result for them both, drivers who'd promised more over the last few years but who had both been dogged by bad luck.

So Auriel and Toyota were crowned, but there was a third championship up for grabs. This was the second ever Formula 2 championship for manufacturers of normally aspirated, up to 2 litre, two wheel drive cars, and to everyone's surprise it went to Skoda. Perhaps this is less of a shock today, but then the the Czech's top model was the 1.3 Favourate. However reliability and consistency, as well as some seriously hard peddling by the drivers, brought them the title.

This was good news for people like me who found themselves driving a World Championship winning rally car to work, but rather bad news for the series. The likes of Opel and VW were quite prepared to spend serious money trying to beat each other, but weren't so keen to spend real cash trying to beat Skoda, especially as they might not be able to.

But back to the main event. Sainz and Kankkanen had been passing the World Championship back and forth between themselves for the last four years. Now their monopoly was broken, who would take the laurels next year?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1993

And so the old order changes. Lancia, who by this time had won half of the 20 World Rally Championships for Manufacturers held, not only lost the championship but failed to win a rally.

But this wasn't the main story of the year.

Nor was it the wave of new rally cars arriving on the scene with Subaru, Mitsubishi and Ford ditching their oversized Legacies, Galants and Sierras in favour of nimbler Imprezas, Lancers and Escorts - the latter being the nearest thing Group A produced to a homologation special.

Nor was it Auriel's last night heroics on the Monte to deny the Escort Cosworth a win on its debut, nor how Juha Kankkunen won his twentieth rally and fourth World Title, or how Francois Cunico emerged from 15 years as an underdog to win the Sanremo rally or how rally got its first Japanese champion manufacturer or that Lombard ceased to sponsor the RAC rally leading to a name change for Britain's round (although this was pretty earth shattering stuff that I'm still getting use to).

No, as a British rally fan the news of the year was how Colin McRae won his first World Rally, at a stroke doubling Britain's haul of world wins.

We'd been one of rallying's top nations in so many ways, yet old Roger Albert Clark had been our only top level winner for seventeen years. As three of the top four teams in rallying were based in England and the RAC (sorry, Network Q) Rally was regularly vying with the Monte Carlo to be the most popular of the year, this just didn't seem right.

Colin didn't exactly walk the event; he inherited the lead when Sainz had engine trouble and Vatanen hit a rock, but his blast from 4th to 1st on the 44km Motu stage, the longest of the rally, was legendary stuff. He eventually came home 27 seconds of Francois Delecour, with three World Champions trailing in his wake.

As for the championship itself, Toyota and Lancia had swapped drivers in the closed season. Sainz and Aurial had bad luck all year leaving Kankkunen to lead the battle against Delecour in the Ford Escort Cosworth. Delecour hadn't exactly come from nowhere. He'd been on his way for years and Auriel had originally been called 'the next Delecour'. However it wasn't until Ford gave him the keys to the new Escort that he really started to fly.

Kankkunen and Delecour swapped wins and positions in the championship all year until a crash in Sanremo left the door open for Kankkunen to seal the Drivers and Manufacturers Championships for himself and Toyota with third on the tarmac of Catalunya. In a year of firsts, this was the first crown for a Japanese team.

With Drivers and Manufacturers titles already decided, the teams came to Britain racing for pride only. Now he's broken his duck, surely this was going to be McRae's year?

Once again his Subaru led the field as the rally into Wales, but once again it all went wrong. He was heading Kankkunen comfortably when the smell of anti-freeze told him something was amiss up front. The radiator was holed and the car struggled on for one more stage before finally expiring.

Kankkunen inherited the lead and won his twentieth rally, equalling Markku Alen's record. Sportingly he reminded a gutted McRae that it had taken him eleven years before he'd won his home rally.

Top Brit turned out to be Malcolm Wilson in his Escort Cosworth, his best result in seventeen years of trying. With Vatanen coming fifth the average age of the top six was 35 - further evidence that in Britain's treacherous forests the experience of age usually beats the speed of youth.

But even if there were still familiar faces behind the wheel, there was plenty of new technology under the bonnet. In 1993 we had Subaru pioneering semi-automatic gearboxes, Toyota trying our traction control and also the first 'bang-bang' devices - much to the delight of spectators.

With both Sanremo and Catalunya now all-tarmac, the WRC was now much more balanced between different surfaces, although it now didn't matter so much as by the end of the season all the top teams had four wheel drive cars with viscous coupling central differentials.

Rallying was certainly on a roll. The Lancia-Toyota battles had been fun, but now was had a four way fight between Toyota, Ford, Subaru and Mitsibishi things looked like they were goig to get even more exciting. Which one would end up on top twelve months hence was anyone's guess.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1992

The 1992 RAC rally was probably the most keenly anticipated in years.

The last round of the series, three drivers still had a chance of taking the title. That Lancia had wrapped up the Manufacturers title in August mattered little. The world was watching as Juha Kankkunen, Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriel left Chester, but the eyes British fans were on Colin McRae in his blue and white Subaru Legacy.

The Integrale had turned into the Intergrale Evolutione at the end of the last season, a winged monster a full 15cm wider that the original Delta of 1987. Toyota though had unveiled the Celica Turbo 4WD, which was a genuine step forward sin rallycar technology. the key to a performance four wheel drive vehicle, as opposed to a mud plugger like a Land Rover, is a the central differential.

The previous Celica, like the Lancia, had a complicated mechanical device called a Torsen. The new Celica had a simpler and cheaper, but at least as effective, viscous coupling differential. If you drive a performance all wheel drive car today it will have a viscous coupling diff. The result was that whilst the Lancias understeered round the bends, the Toyotas drifted like real rally cars.

This had made for an interesting season. The Toyotas appeared to have the edge on asphelt and the Lancia on gravel. The season started with Lancia's two star drivers swapping wins and the manufacturers crown was again the Italian's after the 1000 Lakes Rally.

But Sainz then started his fightback. On the mixed surface Catalunya Rally he'd shot ahead on the tarmac and then held off Kankkunen's challenge on the gravel to put him three points ahead of the Finn, and four ahead of his French team mate, going into the RAC.

Sainz was using the same tactics in Great Britain, and as the rally left the spectator stages behind and headed into Wales he was in the lead. However this wasn't to last, and but the time the cars arrived in the Lake District Colin McRae had forced himself into the lead proving, that on home ground at least, there was nobody in the world who was faster.

He only managed five stages in the lead before his adventures began. A road accident and a puncture took its toll on the car and he soon found himself driving a front wheel drive, rear wheel braked Legacy through the forests, a challenging task. Eventually he found a corner with his name on it, and as he left the road for good, where he was soon joined by Juha Kankkunen.

Kankkunen got going again, but too far behind to catch Sainz unless he struck trouble. The other challenger had suffered more serious trouble. After previous experience Didier Auriel always packs too pairs of overhauls for the Kielder stages,a s it can get very cold whilst waiting for your car to get towed out. Unfortunately he needed them too as the Integrale's engine let go.

Poor old Auriel. He'd won six rallies, but the world title had once again eluded him. When the car was right he was unbeatable, but when it wasn't he had no luck.

Colin McRae's performance though wasn't the only British success. Lifelong Ford man, and future team manager, Malcolm Wilson set just as many fastest times as McRae and was only prevented from challening for the lead by propshaft problems in Wales. Colin's younger brother Alistair was also doing well, and brought his Sierra home as the winning Group N car. Another hero for British fans to cheer was Ari Vatanen, having a tremendous run in his Legacy.Profiting from others misfortune, was second, his best result for three years. The next year would show he wasn't a spent force yet.

Sainz though didn't put a foot wrong and at full speed until the end of the final stage, won the rally and his second world title.

There were some new names and cars on the rally. My first view of Tommi Makinen in the little Nissan Sunny GTi-R was of him going backwards into the arnco at Old Hall Corner on the Castle Donnington stage. we'd be seeing a lot more of him, but not too much of the Nissan. it was nimble and the road car was possibly the best of the bunch, but was too small to get sufficient cooling to the turbo.

Whilst the Sunny had speed but not reliability, the opposite was true of Michael Kahlfuss's car - his little 42bhp Trabant. Along the way fans waited it the cold for it to pass before going home and rally HQ set up a 'Trabiline' so they could ring in to find out where he was. Troubled only by the limited availability of two stroke oil, he eventually came home 98th, just behind young Richard Tuthill's Reebok coloured VW Beetle and ahead of a Nova GSi, an Astra GTE and an MG Maestro.

It was the most exciting RAC ever and although Roger Clark's record as the only Brit to win a world rally still stood, it surely couldn't be long before we had one of our own on the top of the podium.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1991

1990 had been a cracking season and nobody would have minded if 1991 had been a rerun.

By mid season this appeared to be exactly what was happening. Lancia's all star team appeared to be walking away with the Manufacturers Championship and Sainz appeared to have the Drivers crown in the bag too after winning in Monte Carlo, Portugal, Corsia, New Zealand and Argentina.

Kankkunen was Lancia's top driver, and he freely admitted to journalists that he didn't think he could overhaul Sainz. Kankkunen was a driver who bridges the gap between rallying's generations. He'd had to beat Markku Alen, Walter Rohrl, Hannu Mikkola and the other first generation WRC heros to get his first two world titles, and now he was up against Sainz and team mate Auriel for his third.

A typical Scandinavian driver he was better on gravel than tarmac and although fast, he was very safe. Leaving the road after hitting ice on the 1990 RAC was his only retirement through accident in the last two years, and in 1991 that consistency started to pay off.

He's already won the toughest two rounds of the year so far, the Safari and the Acroplis, and now he was putting on a spurt for the finish. Victory in Finland and Australia and runner up spot on his least favourite surface in Catalunya put him seven points ahead of Sainz going into the RAC rally.

We were fairly sure that it would be a straight fight between Lancia and Toyota. Mitsubishi had won two mor erallies with the Galant, but they were both against minimal opposition. Ford had struggled all year with their big Sierras and the Subarus had also been off the pace.

But this was neither Sainz's favourite, not luckiest rally, and he soon found himself trailing the Lancia by an increasing margin.

At the start of the rally Britain's best hope seemed to be Malcolm Wilson. World Rallying was on a high, but we still lacked a Brit at the top table. Wilson though never quite got on the pace and then stuffed the majestic Sierra into the trees. It must have been a close fight, but the trees won.

But the British fans had a new hero in Colin McRae. As the rally headed into Wales Kankkunen, driving all out for the championship, found himself trailing the Scotsman's Legacy. The double World Champion was utterly perplexed as to where McRae's extra speed had come from.

Those of us watching in the forests knew exactly where McRae's speed came from, and seeing the angles his cars was making through the corners we suspected it couldn't last. Sure enough, Colin soon ended up in a ditch. Heroic efforts by the fans got him going again but he was ten minutes down and straining to catch up he did it again and this time stayed there for good. It was a legendary performance, and British petrolheads had a new hero.

With McRae out Kankkunen picked up not only a record third World Championship but the rally as well. Lancia, who had apparently peaked two years ago, once more achieved the double, giving them a fourth straight Manufacturers title, to add to the three won with the Stratos and one with the Rally. They were truly the kings of rallying.

But the end was almost nigh for the team. An increasingly anonymous part of the Fiat empire, many motor sports fans would have struggled to name a car in their range other than the Integrale. It was increasingly hard for Turin to justify the Lira spent on rallying. The Integrale was quietly retired by the Abarth competitions department. The following year the cars would be entered by the private Jolly Club team only.

As Toyota had a new car waiting in the wings it promised to be a tough year for them.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

The History of the World Rally Championship: 1990

Rallying finally gets its groove back.

True, it was only a two horse race, with Toyota and Lancia winning every round between them, something that had never happened before even in the Fiat-Ford and Audi-Peugeot years, but that was one horse more than we'd had for the last three years.

The cars has also got their pace back. Teams were a little coy about admitting their power outputs lest the authorities introduce even smaller turbo restrictors, but the Lancias were probably pushing 400bhp again and with improvements in tires and transmissions, the cars were probably as fast over the stages as the old Group B cars. My own rather subjective experience of standing behind trees and watching the cars flash past is that these years saw the fastest rallying ever.

The year began with the Lancia steamroller continuing as before, winning the Monte and taking the first five places in Portugal. Bjorn Waldegard then rained on their picnic by giving Toyota another Safari victory, becoming the oldest driver to win a WCR at 46.

On the shorter rallies though it was the youngsters who set the pace. Kankkunen had returned to Lancia, teaming up with Biasion and Auriel in a triple headed Lancia assault on the championship. Up against them was young Spanish hotshot Carlos Sainz. A natural athlete, he could have had a career in football had he not been lured away by the petrolheads.

Sainz lost an exciting duel with Auriel in Corsica. His adventures included narrowly avoiding a confused Corsican driving his road car up the stage the wrong way and having a bull run across the road in front of him.

In Greece though Sainz finally won his first world rally, narrowly beating Kankkunen. The rally also marked the debut of the Prodrive Subaru team, with former Lancia man Markku Alen putting the car into joint first place on the opening stage, so Lancia now had four Japanese teams snapping at their heels.

In the end Lancia's stellar driving talent gave them the Manufacturers Championship, with each of their three top drivers winning at least one event, and they wrapped up the championship in Sanremo. But Sainz was always there on the podium with them, and he was on the top spot in New Zealand and Finland, and it Italy he put the Drivers crown out of reach of the Lancia drivers.

It was a tremendous achievement for the driver and the team. At the start of the year the Celica had only finished one rally and at the start of June Sainz still hadn't won a world event.

With both championships already decided, the teams came to Britain for honour only. Never-the-less they put on a good show. Vatanen put the Galant ahead on the first stage, but Alen in the Legacy was once more the leader at the end of the 'Mickey Mouse' stages.

Once the real rally began Kankkunen put his Lancia ahead, whilst Sainz clung on to his tail. It was exciting stuff, and fast too. The previous year the cars had been on sheet ice so weren't performing at full potential. Now it was apparent that they were at least as quick as the old Group B machines. Indeed the times for one stage had to be canned after several drivers averaged over 70mph.

British fans also got to cheer on a local boy again. Colin McRae was in Ford's stately Sierra Sapphire Cosworth 4X4. Not for the last time the car was a little the worse for ware after rolling, but he set three fastest times on the way to sixth.

Eight stages from the end it looked like Sainz was again going to be runner up. But his luck had changed and on the next stage Kankkunen hit ice and left the road. It was bitter disappointment for the Finn, but a terrific end to the season for the Spaniard.

Rallying was exciting again, and everyone was looking forwards to the next season.