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