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.