Friday | 26 Mar 2021

1997: The tides of change

In 1997 an all-new generation of car was introduced to the WRC - the World Rally Car. But what happened prior to that season to bring about the change and introduce a new era of car that would remain for a quarter of a century?

The arrival of the World Rally Car in 1997 changed the face of the sport.

When Group B was banned a decade earlier, any manufacturer with ambitions in the FIA World Rally Championship was forced down the road of running a Group A car.

And if you wanted to run a Group A at the sport’s highest level, you had to produce at least 5,000 examples of your base car.

Lancia had its turbocharged Delta HF 4WD, Mazda worked with the 323 and Audi utilised the big 200 quattro. All these cars won at WRC level in 1987, the first year Group A ran as world rallying’s main category.

But these cars were a far cry from what had gone just months before them. Lancia’s slimmed-down, aero-less Delta was a road car replica offering less than half the horsepower the insane Delta S4 had generated in 1986.

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When Markku Alén tested the Group A car for the first time, he got out, laughed and said: “OK, where is the real rally car?”

Christian Geistdorfer, Walter Röhrl’s co-driver likened the shift from Audi’s spectacular quattro E2 to the 200 as ‘stepping off a space rocket and onto a bicycle’.

From a safety perspective, Group A had to happen. There was no option.

Eventually, manufacturers were prepared to commit to the required standard production numbers, with Ford delivering the Escort Cosworth and Toyota making rally specific Celicas. Mitsubishi did the same with an evolving Lancer and Subaru re-invented itself quite brilliantly with the Legacy and Impreza.

But still, manufacturers keen to compete sat on the sidelines, not quite able to take the plunge into a full-on WRC effort.

What they needed was a regulatory halfway house between Group B and Group A and that’s precisely what the World Rally Car delivered.

Photo: DPPI Media/Francois Flamand

To make a World Rally Car, a manufacturer needed to use a more mass-produced model with 25,000 units – but crucially, that car didn’t need to be turbocharged or four-wheel drive.

Providing there was a turbo engine in the range of cars, all was good. And the four-wheel drive bit? Buy it off the shelf, carve up the floorpan to make room for an extra differential and a couple more driveshafts and you had yourself a World Rally Car.

As a set of regulations, the World Rally Car has worked brilliantly. The series developed into – and has remained ever since – one of the most cost-effective ways to deliver a high-performance global motorsport programme while deriving maximum value from the world championship, which remains the most recognisable and relevant to the person on the street.

Rallye Monte-Carlo 2021 marked the beginning of the final season of the World Rally Car

Škoda, for example, had been a class charger for decades in the WRC, and was suddenly at the forefront of competition with the Octavia WRC. The manufacturers came in fantastic numbers – with PSA stablemates Citroën and Peugeot embroiled in a fascinating French tussle through the early noughties.

Twenty-five years ago, the World Rally Car broke down the barriers to entry to the sport for manufacturers and opened the door to a golden era for the World Rally Championship.

Cover photo credit: DPPI/Baudin-Saulnier

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