On the seafront in Lloret de Mar following the final stage of the Rally Spain, nobody really knew who would win.
On times, Britain’s Colin McRae was ahead. He and Derek Ringer had completed the final stage nine seconds ahead of his Spanish team-mate Carlos Sainz. But few genuinely thought it would be McRae who would top the podium.
Even fewer when he kicked a bin and disappeared into the back of a Subaru truck to be placated by his father Jimmy McRae. David Richards had tried and, apparently, failed to make him see reason.
Subaru’s first-ever world championship 1-2-3 was surely a result worth celebrating, but there were no smiles at the Spanish seaside. The team’s attempts to control the result and bank maximum manufacturers’ championship points had blown up in its face.
Richards’ thinking was entirely understandable. With rivals Mitsubishi and Toyota enduring forgettable rallies, this was a golden opportunity for Subaru to take a sizeable step forwards in its efforts to land a maiden makes’ crown.
His decision, taken at the end of the penultimate day’s stages, was for Sainz and McRae to hold station. The two-time champion was seven seconds ahead. McRae was furious.
For his part, Sainz was quick to admit team orders were the last thing he wanted. He was almost as quick to admit he wouldn’t have settled for second in front of his fans.
Wednesday’s final leg turned into an incredible day of will-they-won’t-they? That incredulity reached fever pitch when – clearly having decided they wouldn’t – three senior Subaru team personnel (John Spiller, Nigel Riddle and John Kennard) were sent onto the final stage to stand in the road to flag the number four Impreza 555 down.
McRae saw the trio, but never flinched. The boxer barked its way by, sending them diving for cover. Onboard footage later showed Ringer raising a hand in acknowledgment. The plot had well and truly thickened.
Three days earlier, it was a different story as the blue-suited Subaru pair exchanged pleasantries while the assembled media focused on the Madrid man, whose recently announced move back to Toyota offered another point of significant discussion.
Once the rally got going, the storylines came thicker. And faster. Winner in Catalunya in 1992, Armin Schwarz was immediately back in the grove, leading after SS1. From stage two onwards, Juha Kankkunen charged to the front. The Toyota man, at times, looked as surprised as anybody at the pace he was managing on a surface he’d never been overly fond of.
Predictions that the Fords and flat fours would usurp the Finn by teatime on day one proved wide of the mark. Kankkunen’s confidence in the Celica grew and he turned a 22-second overnight lead into something approaching a minute when he started SS16 on day two.
Hopes of a first asphalt win for him and the Celica ST205 were shot when he ran out of road on a tighter-than-expected left-hander. The GT-Four rocketed off and rolled into retirement.
Ford’s challenge halved when a front hub failed on Bruno Thiry’s Escort RS Cosworth on the first stage. François Delecour suffered a down-on-power engine before being hindered by a clutch release bearing problem on the second leg. He would finish fourth, once a post-event stewards’ meeting was concluded.
Mitsubishi’s event wasn’t looking much better with early leader Schwarz off the road in SS11. Tommi Mäkinen joined him on the sidelines when he crashed his Lancer into an ambulance on the final day. Their Tar-specification wingman Andrea Aghini was fifth.
Despite some bent metal, the Italian’s result was enough to elevate Andrew Cowan’s Ralliart squad back to the top of the table.
For Subaru, things couldn’t have looked rosier as Sainz and McRae parked their Imprezas up in parc ferme on Tuesday night, running 1-2 with six stages to go.
What could possibly go wrong? How long have you got?
After a brief discussion between themselves ahead of the first stage on the final morning, the team boss’ words were quickly forgotten.
Neither driver was particularly communicative on a final day in the hills around Vic.
McRae reasoned: “Why not just let us drive? We’ll bring the cars home…”
Drive the Lanark man did. He moved into the lead on the third stage and stayed there.
Cue the increasingly uneasy glances at the upper end of the Subaru hierarchy.
Following a highly charged final service, McRae accepted his fate. Or was, at least, resigned to it. What did five-time British Rally Champion McRae Sr say?
“I told him: ‘DR’s the boss. Like it or not, you have to do what he says.’”
Richards had been unequivocal: take the win in Spain and you’ll find yourself with no car in Chester next month. McRae duly picked up a deliberate penalty and dropped to second.
This wasn’t the way Sainz wanted to win his home rally.
“No driver likes this,” he said. “It’s not my decision and I did not ask for this.”
McRae wasn’t interested in plaudits for what had been an exceptional Catalan debut. To come to the rally for the first time and hustle Sainz all the way home was superb.
He wasn’t interested and focused on the apparent injustice.
“I don’t agree with it,” said McRae. “I won the rally. We’re fighting for the championship. Why should I have to finish second?”
The upshot of the decision was the pair landing into the final round on equal points, rather than McRae carrying a 10-point advantage.
And just when the dust had settled on one of the most acrimonious rallies in the history of the world championship, the stewards called on Toyota’s management to explain an interesting finding from post-event scrutineering.
Hours later, Didier Auriol’s Toyota was excluded from fourth place. The turbo’s restrictor had been found not to conform with the homologation papers.
The Japanese firm’s world turned upside down with a catastrophe that made their countrymen at Subaru’s issues look like nothing more than a petty squabble.
1 Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya (Subaru Impreza 555) 5h05m58s
2 Colin McRae/Derek Ringer (Subaru Impreza 555) +51s
3 Piero Liatti/Alessandro Alessandrini (Subaru Impreza 555) +1m58s
4 François Delecour/Catherine François (Ford Escort RS Coworth) +2m40s
5 Andrea Aghini/Sauro Farnocchia (Mitsubishi Lancer RS-E3) +2m54s
6 Gustavo Trelles/Jorge del Buono (Toyota Celica GT-Four) +5m56s
7 Oriol Gómez/Marc Marti (Renault Clio Williams) +12m03s
8 Andrea Navarra/Renzo Casazza (Toyota Celica GT-Four) +12m22s
9 Josep Bassas/Antonio Rodriguez (BMW M3) +22m08s
10 Yvan Postel/Olivier Peyret (Subaru Impreza 555) +26m40s
Monday October 23, Lloret de Mar-Lloret de Mar, 9 stages (100.81 miles)
Tuesday October 24, Lloret de Mar-Lloret de Mar, 8 stages (116.49 miles)
Wednesday October 25, Loret de Mar, 6 stages (77.45 miles)
SS1 Armin Schwarz
SS2-15 Juha Kankkunen
Bruno Thiry/Stephané Prévot (Ford Escort RS Cosworth) – wheel hub SS1
Juha Kankkunen/Nicky Grist (Toyota Celica GT-Four) – accident SS6
Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha (Toyota Celica GT-Four) – accident, SS11
Tommi Mäkinen/Seppo Harjanne (Mitsubishi Lancer RS-E3) – accident, SS19
Drivers’ championship points
= McRae 70
3 Kankkunen 62
4 Auriol 51
5 Kenneth Eriksson 48
6 Delecour 46
Manufacturers’ championship points
1 Mitsubishi 288
2 Subaru 286
3 Toyota 260
4 Ford 205
Next round: RAC Rally (November 19-22)