Prior to the first Friday of this month, this section would have been all about Juha Kankkunen chances of landing a fifth world championship. The FIA World Motor Sport Council’s decision to exclude Toyota from this year’s series has cast the final round of the season in a very different light.
Granted, Subaru stars Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz are out front on equal points (check back with DirtFish on Sunday for a preview of the factory Impreza drivers’ chances), but a slip up from either of them would have allowed the wily Finn in with the chance to break his own record number of titles.
But then somebody decided to fiddle with the restrictors aboard the Celica GT-Fours and that was that. Game over for TTE. And we’re one works squad down for next week’s RAC Rally.
Don’t worry, a 176-strong entry list makes this a fitting finale to a season packed with twists and turns.
Andrew Cowan’s Mitsubishi Ralliart team arrives in Chester leading the manufacturers’ title race race by two points from Subaru.
Tommi Mäkinen and Kenneth Eriksson will have their work cut out to land the crown, with just two factory Lancer RS-E3s lining up (Rui Maderia’s Group N version is the final potential point scorer for the Rugby-based outfit) against three Impreza 555s – two of which are crewed by previous winners of the rally in the shape of McRae and Sainz.
The Lancer is, however, a potent weapon on the loose. A brace of victories for Eriksson (Sweden and Australia) have demonstrated that the Swede and the Mitsubishi are more than capable this year.
Had the team not skipped Rally Portugal and run Eriksson on every round, it’s quite possible the likeable Äppelbo driver could have been in the thick of the title fight too.
Subaru aside, Ford is the only other full factory squad competing for outright honours. And we can’t really call this year’s Blue Oval assault a full factory effort, with Boreham supplying the car and know-how while Belgian squad RAS runs the Escort RS Cosworths on-event.
This partnership hasn’t covered itself in glory. By their own admission, there were those inside RAS questioning their own abilities to step up to running François Delecour and Bruno Thiry on every event – the representatives from Essex were equally bemused and frustrated.
Not for the first time, Delecour missed out on a Monte win after a fraught final night, this time with suspension failure costing him his chance of a round one win in the principality.
Arguably, the best chance of an Escort win came with Thiry in Corsica. The Belgian drove brilliantly and was only denied a maiden world championship success when new servicing regulations prohibited the team from fixing a broken wheel bearing two stages from the finish.
Ford hasn’t won on the RAC since Hannu Mikkola’s 1979 victory and, in all honesty, that doesn’t look like changing next week – not even with reported engine improvements coming to the two works cars.
There is, of course, a strong privateer Escort contingent, starting with a two-car entry from Malcolm Wilson Motorsport. Wilson himself drives his usual Michelin Pilot car, while this year’s British Rally Champion Alister McRae steps up from the Nissan Sunny GTI he’s pedalled with title-winning aplomb to drive another Escort Cosworth.
The Formula 2 fight is going to be fascinating next week, with Finnish Junior Team driver Jarmo Kytölehto stepping aboard McRae’s Nissan.
Home favourite for the win has to be Gwyndaf Evans. The Welshman arrives on the back of a sensational British Championship win on the Manx Rally finale and his Gordon Spooner-run Rapid Fit-backed RS2000 will be well worth watching.
Renault fields a pair of Clio Maxis for Robbie Head and Alain Oreille, while Tapio Laukkanen drives an SBG Sport Volkswagen Golf.