In the mid-1990s, world rallying was struggling. Few manufacturers had four-wheel drive machinery fit for the stages and the sport was beginning to lose some of its appeal. The answer was the World Rally Car.
And last week’s Wales Rally GB was the final round for that formula as we know it. From next year, there will be 400ccs fewer under the bonnets of the cars competing.
The original World Rally Car idea was simple, to allow manufacturers to use a car of which they produced 25,000 and 2,500 versions of the basic engine. Crucially, as long as the car fitted the basic requirements of being more than four-metres long with an engine no bigger than two litres, then it was fair game for a WRC.
The manufacturer could then slot in a four-wheel drive system, slap on some aero bolt a big blower to the side of the engine and go rallying at the highest level. All they had to do was produce 20 of the kit of parts they were fitting to their ‘standard’ car.
It was a formula which revolutionised the sport, allowing manufacturers like Seat, Hyundai and Skoda, firms with little of no experience of four-wheel drive to come into the sport with competitive machinery.
The first World Rally Car turned its first competitive kilometre on the first stage of the Monte Carlo Rally in 1997. On the second stage, Armin Schwarz had the dubious honour of being the first to bin one, when the German dropped his Ford Escort WRC and biffed the rockface after missing a particularly slushy right-hander.
Early cars from existing manufacturers in the sport, such as Ford and Subaru were evolutions of their Group A cars. Both cars looked similar inside, but from the outside, certainly, the Impreza WRC97 was a staggeringly different motor. It was a thing of beauty. And it went as well as it looked, as Piero Liatti’s Monte win in 1997 demonstrated.
Seat joined the party in 1998, with Skoda coming a year later. Without being cruel to the Czech Republic and the largely bullet-proof Octavia WRC, 1999 will probably be more remembered for the arrival of two other World Rally Cars: the 206 WRC and the Focus WRC.
Just two years into the FIA’s rule change and the results were being felt as seven manufacturers competed in the sport’s highest level - the WRC had never known such massive popularity. World Rally Cars were everywhere. And they were getting quicker.