Friday | 01 Apr 2022

WRC at 50: 1990s

Il Canto degli Italiani. The FIA World Rally Championship had grown entirely familiar with the chant of the Italians as the eighties moved into the nineties.

Between Lancia and Miki Biasion, the Italian national anthem had become something of a series’ soundtrack. Toyota and Carlos Sainz – among others – were ready to change the tune at the dawn of a new decade.

The Spaniard would, however, lead the Japanese charge without legendary Finn Juha Kankkunen by his side in a sister Celica. The then two-time world champion had grown tired of reliability issues which had plagued the GT4’s first full season and started 1990 back in Martini colours with Lancia.

Japanese dreams come true

It seems a touch harsh on Mazda to talk about the 1990s as the start of a new dawn for Japan’s WRC effort. The 323, which replaced the rotary-engined Group B RX7, had been a mainstay of the series for years and was a serious challenger in places like Sweden or Britain. But Achim Warmbold’s team didn’t have the resource to fight the might of Lancia.

Toyota, on the other hand, was a different matter. Run out of Cologne by Ove Andersson, the alliance between one of the world’s biggest car makers, German engineers and a wily Swede was one which would soon bear fruit at the highest level.

The decade’s opener, however, delivered a familiar result as Lancia’s Delta HF Integrale won Rallye Monte-Carlo with Frenchman Didier Auriol behind the wheel.

One new regulation for 1990 was the introduction of turbo restrictors – an effort from the sport’s governing body to keep Group A cars at the prescribed power output of 300bhp.

The 40mm restrictor was in place for round one, but the policing of turbo changes – which came regularly – wasn’t as strict as it might have been. Toyota lodged a protest against Lancia, questioning whether the markings on the Delta’s blowers were as they should have been following pre-event scrutineering.

The protest went nowhere, but FISA immediately implemented the process of turbo sealing.

Fast forward a few years and Toyota would find itself front and centre of a whole new turbo-related story…..

Having level-pegged for much of a bone-dry Monte, Auriol found something extra to move clear through the event’s final six stages. Lancia talked of a new chip in the ECU, but that hike in pace raised further eyebrows with Toyota.

Japanese dreams come true
Auriol was victorious in the opening encounter of the 1990s in Monte-Carlo. Photo: McKlein

The lack of snow which marked the season opener in the French Alps was felt more keenly in Karlstad, where Rally Sweden was lost to a horribly mild winter.

Second place in Portugal allied to a Corsican win had Auriol moving ahead in the drivers’ standings. For Sainz there was more frustration – not least on the French island, where he met a local reversing on one stage and a bull wandering down the road on the next.

Debating the point with outgoing FISA president, Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre, Sainz was told: “Rally drivers should be used to meeting the unexpected…”

Frustrations were forgotten at the following event in Greece, where Sainz delivered his maiden WRC win.

Twenty-five points adrift of Auriol ahead of the Acropolis, the Madrid star narrowed that deficit to five with victory on an event where many feared the ever-increasing speed of European WRC rounds would lay bare the technical frailties of the Celica.

Sainz did suffer power steering and gearbox problems, but both fell within sight of a TTE service barge. El Matador’s luck looked to have changed.

A second victory in a month came in New Zealand, an event Lancia elected to miss, and Sainz hit the top of the table. Nothing and nobody would shift the Spanish-flagged Celica for the rest of the season.

WRC Greatest Drivers: Carlos Sainz

Scoring his first championship title just four years into his WRC career was a huge achievement for Sainz – as was ending the monopoly Lancia drivers enjoyed over the drivers’ crown. The Italians retained the manufacturers’ award through 1990. Just.

Before delving deeper into the decade, it’s impossible not to talk about two pivotal 1990 moments.

The first involves Sainz becoming the first non-Nordic driver to win Finland’s WRC round, the 1000 Lakes Rally. And it wasn’t just the history re-writing success, it was the manner of the victory.

Sainz injured his left ankle in a recce accident on the eve of the event. So bad was the swelling in the foot, he matched his right race boot with a squash shoe on the other side. Left-foot braking was out of the question. Despite all this, Sainz broke Finnish hearts while simultaneously showing sufficient sisu to win over those broken hearts.

Two new cars arriving in the series was the other talking point of the season. Volkswagen’s Golf G60 was an interesting prospect that was quickly and quietly dropped (the Hanover squad would return to the WRC as a far more potent force in years to come…).

The other newbie would go in the opposite direction. Subaru’s Legacy RS landed into the Acropolis Rally, where Markku Alén promptly won the Prodrive-prepared car’s first ever WRC stage. The seeds of Subaru’s flat-four-powered revolution had been sown.

Sainz wasn’t the only first time world championship driver in 1990. The first year of the new decade also heralded the arrival of the Ladies’ Cup. Scotswoman Louise Aitken-Walker was the first winner of the new award, overcoming a terrifying Rally Portugal crash down a mountain and into the lake below to take the crown in her factory Opel Kadett.

Celebrating a fifth win from eight 1991 starts, Sainz’s title defence looked like a slam dunk as he and Toyota flew home from a victorious Rally Argentina.

Unfortunately for him, a monstrous accident ruled him out of Australia and left him in a neck brace for the following round in Sanremo. Power steering problems strained neck muscles further and left Sainz in a painful sixth place.

Competing at home for the first time at the inaugural Catalunya Rally brought more misfortune. Leading early, the local hero was forced out when his Celica refused to fire out of parc fermé.

A 40-point lead was reduced to the smallest possible advantage over Kankkunen with just the RAC remaining. Engine problems in Kielder killed the Toyota man’s hopes of back-to-back titles and delivered a first 1990s crown for Kankkunen.

Sainz created history with his 1990 Finland triumph. Photo: McKlein

Big change, same results

As president of FISA Manufacturers’ Commission, Max Mosley wanted to see change in the WRC. He wanted more compact events which would be even more attractive to car makers.

Pre-event reconnaissance was cut by three days and the events themselves were shortened by a day, with less service opportunity.

Seeing the ongoing development of cars and levels of power growing towards those outlawed in Group B, the 40mm restrictor was cut to 38mm.

Those were the rule changes. The biggest change as far as the fans were concerned had taken place in a boardroom on the outskirts of Turin: Lancia’s participation in the World Rally Championship was at an end.

From 1992, the firm’s WRC effort would be taken over by the Jolly Club team, albeit with no shortage of know-how and assistance from Abarth.

Ironically, Lancia saved the best until last. The 1992 Delta HF Integrale, better known as the Deltona, was, without doubt, one of the most competition-focused production cars of the Group A era. It was wider, faster, offered more suspension travel and looked more beautiful than any of its predecessors. While it delivered another manufacturers’ title to northern Italy, it failed its drivers in their bid for season-long glory.

Somehow, Lancia man Auriol broke WRC records with six wins in a season, but still missed the 1992 crown at a three-way RAC Rally shoot-out between team-mate Kankkunen and Sainz’s Toyota.

Sainz eclipsed the miserable memory of the 1991 autumn by winning both his home round in Spain and the RAC to lift a second title in three years.

Jumping ship back to Toyota for 1993, Kankkunen became the first driver to win four world championships, while Sainz’s decision to go with a private Delta backfired. Shorn of factory support, the Lancia was outgunned as Toyota’s Celica Turbo 4WD came fully on song.

Big change, same results
Juha Kankkunen became the first driver to win four world championships

And it wasn’t just Toyota now. Ford’s overdue Escort RS Cosworth finally arrived and came within an ace of winning with François Delecour on its Monte debut. By Portugal it was a winner and Boreham would celebrate four more times through a spectacular maiden season, raising Blue Oval hopes that the Escort’s return would bring back the halcyon days of two decades earlier.

In all honesty, the full force of Ford’s challenge was never realised. On paper, the Escort was the closest thing the WRC came to a sure-fire winner. A longitudinal engine and gearbox offered fabulous weight distribution, the roadgoing Escort had a bigger turbo bolted to it and that turbo came with water injection.

Throw into the mix aero that delivered genuine downforce and reworked suspension geometry that offered the car superb poise and the ability to change direction in the blink of an eye.

What went wrong? Ford struggled to match the resource Toyota pumped into its programme and continued political wranglings behind the scenes at Boreham made it difficult for the team to operate in the same dynamic way its rivals managed.

But the biggest drama of all centred on Delecour. Following his performance through 1993, he was considered by many as the favourite for the drivers’ title. Unfortunately, a serious leg injury sustained in a road accident shortly after Rally Portugal ruled him out for much of 1994.

The combination of the above ensured the Ford Escort RS Cosworth never truly delivered on its promise.

That’s not to say 1994 was a washout for French fans. Far from, as Auriol finally took the title. In his second year aboard a Celica Turbo 4WD, Didier demonstrated consistent speed to become the first ever French world champion.

Subaru and a Scotsman

Having despatched the early part of the decade already, it’s worth dashing back to the 1990 RAC for the start of a story which would hit the mid-90s headlines and stay there.

While Sainz secured his maiden drivers’ title with victory in Harrogate, a Scotsman called Colin finished sixth in a Sierra called ‘The Shed’. McRae had arrived. To be more accurate, McRae Junior had arrived – father Jimmy had been around the sport and winning since the seventies.

Subaru team principal David Richards signed Colin McRae for the British Championship in 1991. The 22-year-old Lanark lad dominated his home series for the next two years, while opening eyes wider and wider in the world championship. He led the RAC in 1991, 1992 and 1993 before finally winning it in 1994.

McRae’s maiden success on the global stage had come a season earlier, however, when he guided a Legacy RS to a famous Rally New Zealand win. It was that victory which triggered the deployment of Subaru’s Impreza 555 – a car McRae made his own. And a car with which he would win his 1995 world championship.

Subaru and a Scotsman
Colin McRae clinched the 1995 title with a stunning drive on his home round in Britain

The Scot battled with team-mate and rival Sainz through the season, with their intra-team rivalry coming to a head in Catalunya, when Richards favoured Sainz for the win and told a reluctant McRae to slow down. The enraged Brit eventually took a time penalty, meaning he and Sainz went to the season-closing RAC Rally tied on points.

McRae then demolished Sainz with a drive of sheer brilliance in what was undoubtedly one of the drives of the decade.

Incidentally, remember that instance of Toyota questioning Lancia’s turbo in Monte Carlo, almost six years earlier? That came back to haunt them when the restrictor on the Celica GT-Four was found to sit well outside the regulations in Lloret de Mar. Toyota was struck from the 1995 results and banned for a season.

As for McRae, mechanical misfortune cost him at least one more title (1997) and ultimately saw him depart Subaru for Ford and its all-new Malcolm Wilson built and run Focus from 1999. There was one other reason that McRae didn’t land more silverware in the late 1990s…

Tommi Mäkinen's red and white Mitsubishi livery became iconic. Photo: McKlein

Time for the Mäk attack

At the start of the nineties, a little-known Finn from Puuppola was busy trying to fund a Group N Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 on a selection of WRC rounds. Ten seasons on and Tommi Mäkinen was still in a Mitsubishi. But he’d subsequently become the first driver to win four world championship drivers’ titles on the bounce.

Mäkinen followed McRae as champion in 1996 and remained unbeaten for the rest of the decade. Just as McRae became synonymous with Subaru, Mäkinen made Andrew Cowan’s Ralliart Mitsubishi squad his own.

Not that all his success was born out of Rugby. Tommi’s first WRC win came aboard a factory Escort RS Cosworth as Ford benched Miki Biasion and took a flier on the Finn instead. It paid off handsomely in Jyväskylä.

Prior to that success, Mäkinen had come within a whisker of knocking the whole thing on the head after he’d tried and failed to make the step to the WRC. Suddenly, his world opened up and he signed with Mitsubishi.

Ralliart’s Galant had given Mitsubishi a moderate level of success, but the Lancer was where things really got going. As the years and Evolutions rolled by, Mäkinen just kept on laying down the wins and the titles.

And with such a successful road car base, Mitsubishi’s success continued past 1997, when other manufacturers had gone down the route of building World Rally Cars instead of conventional Group A machinery.

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The new era

The switch in regulations to sanction World Rally Cars was a stroke of genius by the FIA.

Gone was the requirement to make 5,000 turbocharged, four-wheel drive cars to build your rally programme from. A World Rally Car was required to come from a steel-bodied, front-engined family of cars that was produced in a minimum of 25,000 units per year.

The engine didn’t necessarily have to come from the same family, but it did have to be produced in numbers totalling at least 2,500. The base car didn’t need to be turbo or four-wheel drive. Those parts could be bought off the shelf and added into a chassis massaged to include double the driveshafts and an extra differential or two.

Once a manufacturer had decided on their kit of parts, they had to commit to producing 20 of them. Do that and they were fit for the frontline of the World Rally Championship.

Manufacturers flocked to the series, with seven or eight makes competing at the same time.

Mitsubishi might have given the 1990s a conventional Group A send-off, but Subaru and the returning Toyota teams had already demonstrated the potency of the new World Rally Car formula with the 1997 and 1999 titles respectively.

The new era
Piero Liatti won the first round of the World Rally Car era in 1997

The Experts' View

We enlisted the help of six WRC experts, whose knowledge of the sport’s history is encyclopaedic, to tell us their Greatest Moments from the 1990s – and what a wonderfully wide range of views we received.

Carlos Sainz, crowned the Greatest WRC Driver on in 2020, made his breakthrough with a jaw-dropping 1990 season at Toyota Team Europe.

The Spaniard won his first rally in Greece and then achieved what had previously been deemed impossible. Co-driven by Luis Moya, he became the first non-Nordic driver to win Finland’s 1000 Lakes Rally, earning the plaudits of Reiner Kuhn, Jari-Matti Latvala, Marco Giordo and Julian Porter. He was the only non-Nordic driver in the top 14 positions. 

Sainz went on to win his maiden title that season and followed up with a second crown two years later. It marked the first of three consecutive triumphs for Toyota’s Celica ST185, each with a different driver. Juha Kankkunen won in 1993 and Didier Auriol a year later, as Latvala remembers. 

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Colin McRae’s press on regardless style endeared him to fans and Porter and David Evans highlight his RAC Rally win in 1995 that made the Scot the youngest world champion – a record he still holds. 

His attacking style was typified two years later in Corsica, as Giordo recalls. McRae started the final day in fourth, but a stunning drive over the closing 34km test relegated leader Sainz and kept the snarling Peugeot 306 Maxis of Gilles Panizzi and François Delecour behind to snatch an unlikely win.

Michel Lizin also highlights McRae from the well-documented incident in Spain in 1995, when the reluctant Subaru man was ordered to slow down to allow team-mate Sainz to win.

Two drivers claimed their fourth WRC titles in the 1990s. Latvala was drawn to Tommi Mäkinen’s quadruple while Porter spotlights Kankkunen’s similar achievement in 1993.

Another prominent highlight for Lizin was WRC's back-to-back trips to Indonesia in the mid-nineties, in which the drivers were met by almost undrivable conditions deep in the rainforest.

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