DirtFish is reliving the 1995 World Rally Championship season in real-time. And after a long lay-off post-Corsica, the crews are finally back in action on Rally New Zealand.
Championship leader Carlos Sainz is out injured, Toyota has brought four works Celicas down under, and all eyes are on two-time New Zealand winner Colin McRae, who needs to get his season back on track with only one podium in four events so far. Here’s what happened next…
Didier Auriol knew what was coming. He’d seen it all before. Everybody had. At least for the last two years. The road through the Motu Gorge, just off the Gisborne-bound State Highway 2, belonged to one man. Colin McRae.
To stand any chance of keeping the Scot off the top step of the Rally New Zealand podium for a third year in succession, being ahead at the end of day two was vital. Lining up to go into the control at Pio Pio after two legs, the #4 Subaru Impreza 555 was 17 seconds ahead.
“Tomorrow,” said Auriol, “We wave goodbye [to McRae].”
The 27-mile Motu isn’t exactly your typical curvy, camber-cruising New Zealand territory. There are some flowing sections, but the guts of this one take crews up the hill and through the woods through some of the tightest and most technical tests in the year. Second and third gear are the meat and drink of the thing and the priority for a driver is patience.
“You’ve to think of it more like a Tarmac stage,” McRae said on the eve of the event, showing no signs of tiring of questions about the place where he’d crafted his maiden WRC win two years earlier.
“You have brake earlier,” he added “and get your braking done in a straight line before you turn into the corner. It’s very important to look after the tyres as well.”
McRae’s Pirellis were made for the job. The Italian firm had historically had the edge on damp gravel and beneath the trees inland from the east coast of the North Island, there were stretches of road which rarely dried completely.
Lining up at the start of the stage, Auriol was asked for a prediction of what the next 27 miles would mean.
“I think we’ll lose half a minute,” he observed quietly. “Maybe 35 seconds.”
This was the Toyota Celica GT-Four’s first trip to New Zealand and the longer wheelbase of the ST205 wasn’t coping with the switchback Aotearoa roads nearly as well as the Impreza.
McRae’s dominant wins in 1993 and 1994 had led the Prodrive team to view the Auckland-based event on the far side of planet earth with the sort of secure contentment that comes from competing on your home rally.
The only downside for Subaru as a manufacturer was the absence of Carlos Sainz, still recovering from the shoulder injury he suffered falling off a mountain bike last month. Richard Burns was drafted into a three-car entry which also included local hero ‘Possum’ Bourne. Unfortunately for Burns, his Impreza broke the radiator and ingested water in the watersplash in Motu. He retired a handful of miles further down the road.
Like most of the cars, the Imprezas featured a transmission update, with all the factory cars now featuring an active centre differential – vital for the ever changing direction, camber and grip level featured on the NZ roads.
The RAS Sport Fords also ran with electronic developments offering traction control and revised anti-lag mapping. But none of that would help factory Escort Cosworth drivers François Delecour, Bruno Thiry and local man Neil Allport.
Thiry retired with electrical problems early on day two, while illness blighted Delecour’s event – his mood further darkened when he smashed the left-rear suspension on his car. Asked what happened, the Frenchman stared down the camera defiantly, before he replied testily: “I saw you like when there’s a problem like that. Sorry there’s no blood.”
He would end the event sixth, with Allport eighth. The two Boreham-built Fords were split by Bourne’s Impreza.
One place ahead of Delecour was Kenneth Eriksson. This year’s Rally Sweden winner was frustrated by his lack of speed – and four spins and the last two days – aboard his Mitsubishi Lancer RS-E3.
Mitsubishi’s time at the top of the manufacturers’ championship table was ended by Toyota in Auckland; partly due to the Swede’s lowly fifth, but more a reflection on Tommi Mäkinen’s early bath.
Unwilling to wait for McRae to make his move, the Finn was out of the blocks and into the lead from the fourth stage. Toyota man Armin Schwarz was running behind the Mäkinen Mitsubishi and admitted the leader was earning his early advantage.
“We’ve seen a few of his tyre marks,” said Schwarz. “I think he’s a little bit on the edge.”
The leader at the end of day one was happy to see the back of the first six stages. Mäkinen said: “These were older stages, everybody knew these roads a little bit better – I haven’t been here since 1991. Tomorrow is better, new for everybody.”
Fastest on the first three stages of day two, Mäkinen looked to have found him mojo as the gap opened up last the 10-second mark.
Then, disaster. The 10th stage – Mahoe – was about as twisty as they come and not known as ‘Mini Motu’ for nothing. Mäkinen fell foul of a right-hander that was tighter than he’d noted.
“My fault,” he said, walking away from a ditched Lancer which looked largely undamaged, sitting on its side between the trees.
“This was not bad luck at all. This came from my mistake in the notes.”
From SS10 onwards, McRae was the point man.
Fast forward to the end of Motu a day later and Auriol couldn’t have been more on the money. He was second-fastest and 35 seconds behind.
From then on, McRae’s priority was controling the gap. A frosty, icy start to the final day’s run through the Bay of Plenty over to Raglan and the famous Whaanga Coast on the road back up to Auckland could have provided a sting in the tail.
But it didn’t.
First on the road, McRae and co-driver Derek Ringer drove a perfectly measured final day to deliver a first win of the season.
“It’s good to equal Carlos’s record of three wins here,” said McRae at the finish, “but it would be even better to come back and beat it next year!”
Auriol was second, a result good enough to move him into the championship lead by one point from the absent Sainz. Toyota team-mates Juha Kankkunen and Schwarz ensured the rest of the top four would all be Celicas. While they had no answer to McRae’s speed, Toyota’s points haul was enough for it to move to the front of the makes’ races.
Colin boarded the plane north safe in the knowledge that another superlative Kiwi performance had been enough to play him into this year’s championship race. A similar result when the series returns down under for the Perth-based Rally Australia could be enough to take him to the top of the table.
A certain returning Spaniard is, however, likely to have a thing or two to say about that.
1 Colin McRae/Derek Ringer (Subaru Impreza 555) 5h33m06s
2 Didier Auriol/Denis Giraudet (Toyota Celica GT-Four) +44s
3 Juha Kankkunen/Nicky Grist (Toyota Celica GT-Four) +1m09s
4 Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha (Toyota Celica GT-Four) +1m44s
5 Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander (Mitsubishi Lancer RS-E3) +2m32s
6 François Delecour/Catherine François (Ford Escort RS Cosworth) +4m24s
7 ‘Possum’ Bourne/Tony Sircombe (Subaru Impreza 555) +8m55s
8 Neil Allport/Craig Vincent (Ford Escort RS Cosworth) +21m41s
9 Jorge Recalde/Martin Christie (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo II Gp N) +24m39s
10 Rui Madeira/Nuno Rodrigues da Silva (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo II Gp N) +25m10s
Thursday July 27: Auckland-Auckland, 6 stages (45.41 miles)
Friday July 28: Auckland-Rotorua, 11 stages (107.70 miles)
Saturday July 29: Rotorua-Rotorua, 9 stages (129.39 miles)
Sunday July 30: Rotorua-Auckland, 7 stages (66.01 miles)
Marcus Grönholm/Timo Rautiainen (Toyota Celica Turbo 4WD); engine SS8
Bruno Thiry/Stéphane Prévot (Ford Escort RS Cosworth); electronics SS9
Tommi Mäkinen/Seppo Harjanne (Mitsubishi Lancer RS-E3); accident SS9
Richard Burns/Robert Reid (Subaru Impreza 555); broken radiator SS18
Drivers’ championship points
1 Auriol 51
= Kankkunen 50
4 McRae 40
5 Deleçour 36
= Eriksson 28
Manufacturers’ championship points
1 Toyota 217
2 Mitsubishi 199
3 Subaru 193
4 Ford 169
Next round: Telstra Rally Australia (September 15-18)