Japan’s Fight for WRC Supremacy

 Welcome to the first in a long line of CLT Editorials; articles longer than your average blog post devoted to some of the finest stories, past and present, from the automotive world. Whether it be for the Saturday morning in bed, the rainy Wednesday evening or the morning commute, sit back, put your feet up and tuck in. Up this week: The fight for 1990s WRC supremacy between Subaru and Mitsubishi; and the creation of two legendary vehicles.

There’s nothing quite like it.  The excited chatter of anticipation that ripples through the hillside, the distant roar of 6000rpm, the pounding of helicopter blades and the aftermath of gravel dust, bitter on the tongue.  I’m talking about the World Rally Championship, of course.

Competitive Edge

It’s changed a lot over the years, most notably the abandonment of the frankly absurd ‘Class B’ competition (which we all adore but must recognise as lethal), but a lot of us late-twenty and early-thirty somethings grew up with the era of Subaru vs. Mitsubishi.  Ahh what a glorious time!  But to understand the intricacies, we first need to go back to 1992.

Celica Success

Carlos Sainz (yeah, the same Carlos Sainz who on 17th January 2020 won his third Dakar Rally!) has just won his second WRC Championship in his Toyota Celica GT-Four ST185, whilst Lancia (remember them?!) were the manufacturers’ champions.  Subaru and Mitsubishi had finished an unacceptable 4th and 5th respectively with their European teams, whilst the best placed driver for either team was Colin Mcrae, who finished 8th in his Subaru Legacy RS. Coinciding with this, Mitsubishi and Subary wanted to revamp their sedan lineup, both physically and from a marketing perspective. The Lancer and Legacy were selling languidly, and neither had the brand power or reputation of anything like their competitors. Something had to change.

New Arrivals

The Evo I (Lancer Evolution I to give it its full title) arrived in September 1992, and the Impreza was announced barely a month later, debuting in Japan in November. Whilst the Evo I was exactly that, an evolution  – they used the existing Lancer platform, altered some key items and shoe-horned the Galant VR-4 powertrain into it – the Impreza was a brand new vehicle with some butchered parts from the Legacy. At the time, WRC regulations meant that any “Works” entrants would be homologated as a Group A vehicle which meant production-derived vehicles that were limited in terms of power, weight, allowed technology and overall cost. To qualify for approval, a minimum of 2500 cars of the competing model had to be built in one year, out of 25,000 for the entire range of the model (e.g.: 2500 Subaru Impreza WRX from 25,000 Subaru Impreza). And to stay within the rules, most teams pulled out whatever tech was absolutely essential, added four-wheel drive, a turbo and called it a day. The emphasis was on the manufacturer to build outstanding foundations that could be built upon. For many manufacturers, it didn’t make commercial sense. And that’s how we came to be blessed with two of the greatest, mid-range sedan vehicles in history. So let’s take each one independently and give you their specs before we go any further.

Mitusbishi Evo I

The Mitsubishi Evo I came with a 2.0L Turbocharged i4 engine up front, All Wheel Drive (AWD) and a 5-speed manual ‘box. The production versions were effectively the same as those entered into 1993’s WRC championship, other than some weight-saving equipment removals and the obvious roll cages and safety equipment. In the first year, 5000 were sold in the two production guises, far more than the minimum 2500 required for homologation.

Subaru Impreza WRX

The Impreza, however, entered in WRX form (World Rally eXperimental), which added a turbocharger to it’s 2.0L boxer engine, up-rated suspension and AWD. The production versions also offered 1.5, 1.6 & 1.8L powertrains, but as with the Evo I, it was a super-usable daily runabout for the whole family with four doors, a sizeable boot and great visibility thanks to the generous glasshouse. And it was this general useability and fantastic performance, for a very reasonable price, that drew so many people into the market. But the WRC was the greatest marketing tool of all, and both brands knew it.  

Work in Progress

Whilst both teams entered their new babies for the 1993 championship, they couldn’t stop the onslaught of Toyota and their Celica GT-Four ST185, Subaru finishing 3rd out of the five registered manufacturers and Mitsubishi finishing last. But with McRae finishing a respectable 5th and Mitsubishi’s very own Kenneth Erickson coming home in 7th, things were looking up.  Cue 1994.

The famous 555 Impreza livery

Mitsubishi entered both the Evo I and a very early Evo II, with rollbar, tyre and spoiler upgrades, whilst Subaru increased power output to 280PS with their new STi RA model, reduced luxuries for weight gains and added an electromechanically locking differential. The rally was reduced to only 10 events, but it suited Subaru to the ground, Carlos Sainz having joined from Toyota for some much needed experience. He won the Acropolis Rally in Greece and came 2nd three times, whilst Colin McRae won twice in both Great Britain and New Zealand, but some retirements and exclusions due to mechanical issues poured ice on what seemed to be a fire of progress. Subaru took two of the top five places, Sainz finishing an impressive 2nd, whilst a poor season for Mitsubishi saw Armin Schwarz finish 7th for them and they were well outside the top 3 of the Manufacturers’ Championship.  For both teams, it wasn’t enough, although Subaru had at least seen some progress. And better was yet to come.

Finnish Line

The following year brought genuine success for Subaru with a 1-2 finish, McRae finishing as champion with a slender five point lead over teammate Sainz. The two showed incredible consistency and were 50% of the total drivers to compete in all eight rallies that year, such is the brutality of rallying and the toll it takes on vehicles, teams and drivers. The other two, the Fin Kankkunen and the Frenchman Auriol, both in the Toyota Celica GT, were disqualified. Toyota, likely panicking as their chances of a Driver’s Championship fell by the roadside in a sea of Subaru dust, were caught using illegal turbo restrictors in the year’s penultimate Rally in Catalunya. It gave Mitsubishi’s Kenneth Erickson a 3rd place finish despite only racing in 50% of the rallies and a retirement in the year’s finale in Britain. Subaru also dominated the Manufacturer’s Championship and the expectation was that they would repeat this in 1996. They continued to tweak their recipe for the new season, whilst in production guise the Impreza WRX had a power hike to 260PS and the STi continued to climb past 280PS, along with ventilated discs and a diet programme that brought its weight down to 1240kg. But Mitsubishi had also been making their own tweaks, and through the second half of the ‘95 season they’d switched to the brand-spanking new Evo III, as a learning exercise as much as anything else; one that saw them win the Rally Australia. But that was merely a shot across the bows compared with what lay ahead. Step forward Tommi Mäkinen.

Mäkinen & Evo III in harmony

Mäkinen, who had had no less than three retirements in 1995, arrived full of hope for the ‘96 season and kicked things off with a dominant win in the opening Swedish Rally, beating Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae respectively, the Spaniard now racing for Ford. It was a sign of things to come, with Mäkinen racing in all nine rallies that year and, despite two retirements, he won five (yes…five) of the seven, along with a 2nd place finish in Greece. He stormed to the Driver’s Championship, winning by 31 points, whilst Subaru won the Manufacturer’s Cchampionship thanks, once again, to the impressive consistency of McRae and Erickson who had switched teams for the new season. And then came the ‘97 season, when the WRC board made things interesting.

Rule Change

In celebration of 25 years of the FIA World Rally Championship, the FIA introduced a World Rally Car specification, which essentially removed the requirement for the entrant vehicle to be mass-produced. It was a blatant attempt to encourage manufacturers to jump on the WRC bandwagon and, whilst Subaru and Ford embraced it with WRC vehicles, Mitsubishi stuck with Group A homologation and they were still the only three “Works” teams until Toyota joined halfway through with the brand-new, Repsol-liveried Corolla (later years would validate the WRC’s decision). In addition they tweaked the points system and it would prove to be a great success, with ten points being awarded to the winner, six to second place and a measly four to 3rd, 6th place still worth a solitary one point.

The stunning Impreza WRC of 1997

Subaru gave Prodrive a blank sheet of paper and the first thing they changed was the body style, switching to the new WRX Type R three-door shape, new for ‘97 and both lighter and stiffer than the five-door, although it carried the same dimensions, even down to the wheelbase. The new regulations also enabled significant changes to the powertrain, suspension and exterior styling. Occupying almost an entire inner wing, the newcomer’s huge airbox was complemented by a similarly enlarged intercooler that sat in front of, rather than atop, the charismatic flat-four thus minimising heat soak. The turbocharger itself was slightly altered but revised inlet / exhaust systems saw outputs increase to 300bhp and 347lbft of torque. 

Two Horse Race

For Mitsubishi, it was another year, another evolution (pardon the pun), this time the Evo IV. And yet it wasn’t so much a tweak as a full blown “rip it up and start again” to quote a famous, if slightly cheesy, song. September ‘96 saw the debut of a brand new Lancer platform and completely new styling, for me the iconic styling of the Mitsubhi Evo, with its diamond shaped rear lamps, ultra tall rear wing, subtly tapering front headlamps and huge front fogs. In production form, power matched the Subaru at 300PS although, thanks to the gentlemen’s agreement between the two, only 280PS was ever officially announced by both OEMs. Torque from the four-pot was 260lbft at 3000rpm, it was turbocharged as standard and came with 4WD and a 5 speed manual. It was a great basis from which to build on and, as the ‘97 season progressed, the competition between the two vehicles would prove to be as close as ever.

Evo IV in full flow

Another rule change for the WRC’s 25th anniversary was an increase in the stages, abandoning the previous year’s rotation policy in favour of covering all fourteen destinations. But, as always, the Monte Carlo rally would be the opener, and whilst one of the favourites, McRae, struggled to get to grips with his new Impreza and the icy conditions, being forced to retire after an icy corner saw him skid into a tree, Mäkinen was enjoying the Evo IV immensely and finished day two in pole position. But Subaru’s other driver, Piero Liatti, was right behind him and enjoying his favourite surface, tarmac, and it was the Italian who would go on to win the opening rally of the ‘97 season, comfortably beating both Sainz in Ford’s WRC Escort and Mäkinen in the Group A Evo IV.

Time-trials and Tribulations

In the snow of Sweden, the Subarus really found their pace, Kenneth Erickson adapting well to the snow and finishing his home rally as champion, whilst McRae, who had shown exceptional pace as the ice began to melt, had a terrible last day and finished fourth, Sainz’s Escort once again separating Mäkinen in third from Subaru’s specialist driver, this time the Swede. Kenya’s safari rally destroyed a good portion of the field, the brutal environment testing every car, driver and team to it’s limit; Mäkinen, Sainz and Erickson were all forced into relatively early retirements, leaving Burns to finish second in the Evo IV (Galant GT for Marketing purposes apparently!) and McRae first, moving him up to the top of the driver’s championship as Subaru held 3 of the top 4 positions.

 The fourth rally of the year saw the teams up sticks all the way across Africa to the south of Europe and Portugal, 80,000 fans crowded onto the dusty roads making it more like a scene from Alpe D’Huez and the Tour de France than a WRC event. McRae had a great start but an electrical fault forced him out, and Mäkinen was in inspired form, leading from Erickson until night fell, when the Subaru got faster and the Evo IV faded. Day two saw Mitsubishi’s Finnish driver back to his quickest and Erickson fall back, before being forced to retire with an unknown fault as Mäkinen upped it further and was fastest in every single race of the day. The final day was a parade for the Finn, and Mitsubishi had their first rally victory of the year.

“Smile!”

 Thanks to mechanical problems for others and an almost faultless performance from Mäkinen, he took his second first place in a row in the Rally of Catalunya, before retiring in the Rally of Corsica in one of the biggest accidents in recent memory as he smashed through two cows on a narrow mountain pass at almost full speed, before careering down the side and destroying the car. McRae took advantage in an exciting four-horse finale, winning by eight seconds and clawing back some ground in the driver’s championship before leaving Europe for South America, and Argentina, for the 7th event. And with the two drivers bringing the very best from each other, it was Mäkinen that came out on top, pipping McRae to first and winning three from his last four rallies. Impressive. And the next four would see the Driver’s Championship effectively settled, as Subaru’s team leader would retire from all of them, thanks to a combination of geography, mechanical faults and mistakes, whilst Mäkinen would go on to take 3rd in the Rally of Greece and, of course, win the Rally of Finland. Despite retiring himself in both New Zealand and Indonesia, by the time the teams arrived in Italy for the 12th rally of the year, Mäkinen had an eight point gap to Sainz in 2nd, but a whopping 20 point gap to McRae in 3rd. McRae needed to find some form. And boy did he!

McRae, Impreza & Italian countryside

The Slimmest Margin

 Revitalised in San Remo, Italy, the all-tarmac rally saw Liatti back, replacing Erickson for Subaru, whilst Mäkinen and Burns remained the consistent pair of drivers for Mitsubishi. At the end of the first day, McRae was all the way down in 8th, whilst Mäkinen was 3rd, a distance behind the leader Liatti, in the Subaru. But tweaks to McRae’s suspension saw him leap into 2nd by the end of day two, Mäkinen in 3rd but caught in a dogfight with Sainz in 4th. They would end the rally in those same positions, separated by barely two seconds, whilst McRae benefited from team orders to pip Liatti to the victory, 12 seconds ahead of Mäkinen in 3rd. Round 13, unlucky for some, proved lucky for McRae on the gravel of Australia as he won his second rally in a row to move to within 10 points of Mäkinen in the Evo IV, who finished 2ns, only six seconds behind the Impreza.  With victory worth 10 points, It would go down to the final race in Britain, the Subaru team needing both a McRae win and a Mäkinen retirement. One thing was for sure, however; Subaru were the Manufacturer’s champions for another year.

 So it was over to a rainy Britain where McRae and Burns dominated on home turf, the Englishman in his Mitsubishi finishing second, unable to stop McRae and his Impreza WRX as they marched to a third rally in a row. But it was all in vain, Mäkinen holding onto 6th place and a solitary point, all that he needed to give him the driver’s championship by that one, measly point, the tightest championship in 18 years.

Celebrations all round

New Millennium

 It had been an incredible Championship, a wonderful way to celebrate 25 years of the sport and a sign of things to come, the rivalry between the Japanese manufacturers’ intensifying further as the millenium accelerated to a close, Mäkinen winning the ‘98 & ‘99 championships easily, along with the Manufacturer’s title in ‘98.

 Whilst the Ford Escort had also been a strong and consistent competitor during these years, it was the Impreza and Evo that was gaining a cult following with incredible performance for a very reasonable price. Not just that, but the flexibility of the base vehicles to be individually tuned, upgraded, adapted and improved meant it was the dream of car enthusiasts and mechanics alike.

 There can be no doubt that, on the World Rally Championship circuit, there was only one winner; the Mitusbishi Evo. But like two great boxers, their consistency, pace and determination pushed each other to greater limits. In the year 2000, Peugeot won the title with their 206 WRC and, in 2001, Mitsubishi finally gave in and submitted an Evo to WRC regulations, rather than Group A, but couldn’t finish higher than third, one point behind the second placed Ford Focus RS WRC 01 of McRae and 3 points behind Burns’ Impreza WRC 2001. There were seven Manufacturers teams entered that year, compared with the 3 of 1999, and the World Rally Championship had irreversibly changed. By 2003, Mitsubishi had pulled out and Subaru had reduced their team to two sets of racers, although both competed full-time, and as the first decade of the new millenium came to an end, it was clear that there was no competition for Citroën and Sébastien Loeb. The battles that had signified the end of the 90s were lost forever, but whilst the days of them competing for victory on gravel, snow and ice were over, their popularity in the buyers’ market saw the competition only increase in ferocity as the first decade of the new millenium progressed. Variable Valve Timing, dual-clutch gearboxes and sub 4.0 second 0-60mph all crept into the spec sheet, but the basic formula for both vehicles never changed; a short wheelbase, usable family sedan with plenty of turbo-assisted horsepower and four-wheel drive, all wrapped up in an attractive body for the cost of a VW Passat. And whilst the ‘97 Impreza WRC goes down, for me, as one of the best proportioned vehicles ever made, there is no doubting that both the Mitsubishi Evolution and Subaru Impreza took us all on a wonderful journey throughout the 1990s. Sadly, as of 2015, the Evo is no more, even if the Impreza continues to be built in different guises.

Extinction for the Evolution

 So let’s be grateful for what we had and accept that the likes of those vehicles might never be replicated, especially as we move into an era of inevitable electrification. And we should look forward; progress or die, right? But there’s also nothing wrong with looking back, with nostalgic smiles, and thanking both Mitsubishi and Subaru for their contributions to the world of motoring greatness. Arigatou!

L’Alpe D’Huez or Portugal?

2 Replies to “Japan’s Fight for WRC Supremacy”

  1. British people spell Travelled with two L’s.

    From: Cars Less Traveled To: ian.widdowson@ntlworld.com Sent: Sunday, April 26, 2020 5:23 PM Subject: [New post] Japan’s Fight for WRC Supremacy

    Dominic Jennings posted: ” Welcome to the first in a long line of CLT Editorials; articles longer than your average blog post devoted to some of the finest stories, past and present, from the automotive world. Whether it be for the Saturday morning in bed, the rainy Wed”

    Like

    1. Hahahaha. Oh, I know. But Drake brought the domain and a lot of our articles will be for the US, European cars they never got and whatnot. But thank you, you cheeky git!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s