How McRae won WRC’s toughest rally in a brand-new car

Colin McRae and M-Sport defied expectations by giving the Ford Focus WRC its first victory on the 1999 Safari Rally

Safari Rally Nairobi (EAK) 25-28 02 1999

In the history of the World Rally Championship, there are certain truths that have stood the test of time.

You can’t win a rally on the first stage. You can’t find the limit without going over it first.

Oh, and you definitely, categorically, can’t win the Safari Rally with a brand-new car.

But 25 years ago, nobody told M-Sport and Colin McRae that, because that’s exactly what they did.

The 1999 Safari Rally, round three of that year’s WRC, was an historic event for many reasons. It marked McRae’s first win for anyone other than the Subaru brand with which he’d become synonymous. It was Ford’s first WRC win in two seasons, and its first win in Kenya since 1977.

Carlos Sainz Story

Ford had not tasted WRC success since Carlos Sainz's 1997 Indonesia win

But most importantly for M-Sport founder Malcolm Wilson, it was the culmination of the months of effort his team had put in to get the brand-new Ford Focus WRC ready for competition. There’s a reason why the car that took McRae to 1999 Safari victory takes pride of place in Wilson’s personal car collection.

“That car has a very special place in my heart,” said the Cumbrian in 2022 as he looked back on the event. “There’s no question it’s top of the tree [in terms of favorite rally cars] for me.

To win that rally, and the fact that it was Colin’s first win with us, as he’d signed for the ’99 season, that’s why it now has pride of place on display at [Dovenby Hall]. And that’s where I plan for it to remain.”

But just why was McRae and M-Sport’s achievement with the new Focus so unlikely? To understand that, you have to understand the car’s difficult birth.

In 1997, the Cumbrian-based squad was awarded the contract to run Ford’s factory WRC effort. Originally, the deal was for M-Sport to prepare and run the Blue Oval’s cars on the rallies, and not get involved in the design and development of new machinery.

So, when Ford unveiled its plans to develop a World Rally Car based on the all-new Focus for 1999, it was assumed the development would be handled elsewhere.

But as Wilson explains, that isn’t how things panned out.

“We gave Ford our ideas [for the new car],” he said, “and we ended up taking a workshop down at Millbrook Proving Ground [Bedfordshire, UK] to develop the car. The plan was to launch the rally car at the same time as the road car at the Paris Auto Show in October 1998.”

Having only taken up residency at Millbrook in early ’98, Ford’s Paris deadline loomed large for the British company, who had gone from fielding Wilson’s privateer rallying efforts to running the entire WRC show for one of the world’s biggest car firms almost overnight.

Rac Rally Birmingham (GBR) 21-24 11 1993

Wilson's efforts in self-run cars included third on the 1993 RAC Rally

The build of the Focus would be totally from scratch; the team literally started out with an empty workshop, and there were almost no carry-over parts from the Escort WRC which was being campaigned in 1998. Pretty well everything, from the road-car derived engine, to the gearbox, chassis, suspension and beyond, was brand-new.

And to complicate matters further, the rally car was being built at the same time as the road-going Focus was still in development. That meant parts were at a premium; the team had to wait months into the build before they even had a Focus bodyshell, and could actually determine if their planned design for the car would work in reality.

Engines and gearboxes came even later down the road, meaning star signing Colin McRae only got his first test in the car in December 1998 – just weeks before the new season would kick-off in Monte Carlo.

One man who had driven the car prior to McRae was Wilson himself. While the M-Sport team boss would leave performance testing to the 1995 world champion, the Cumbrian would set his focus on one thing: durability.

Rac Rally Chester (GBR) 22-25 11 1992

Wilson was an experienced test driver

“The main reason why I’m doing this is because I want to see if there are any problems with the car,” said Wilson back in ’98. “I want all the problems ironed out before [Colin] gets in the car. [Durability testing] is one thing I’ve done a lot of over the years, with the Ford RS1700T, RS200, Escort Cosworth, Sapphire Cosworth, so it’s not new to me.

“Hopefully I can point the engineers in the right direction if there are any problems.”

Wilson’s experience, and the dedication of his M-Sport team, paid off, and the Focus was not only ready for Monte ’99, it was also on the pace. McRae finished third on his Ford debut, with team-mate Simon Jean-Joseph making it to the finish in 11th, but both were excluded for an illegally-sized and positioned water pump.

Rally Montecarlo Monte Carlo (MC) 17-20 01 1999

McRae was third on the Monte before water-pump exclusion

That niggle dealt with, M-Sport headed for Sweden, where local Thomas Rådström scored the Focus’s first podium with a third-place finish, but McRae hit engine dramas and retired. Reliability, then, was still very much a concern as the team headed for round three, and the toughest rally of them all: the Safari.

Conditions in Kenya were exceptionally hot and dry, with the rally taking place in late-February and therefore just before the seasonal rains that will likely impact the 2024 running of the event. M-Sport’s only goal was to reach the end of the rally with two cars still intact, but a recce accident in which McRae broke his thumb didn’t get proceedings off to a great start.

The Subaru and Toyota pairings led the way on leg one, but it wasn’t long before the Safari lived up to its reputation. Freddy Loix suffered a terrible crash, launching his Mitsubishi end-over-end; Juha Kankkunen suffered electrical issues in his Subaru; world champion Tommi Mäkinen suffered several punctures; and Didier Auriol also dropped heaps of time.

McRae was the beneficiary of all that chaos, as he quietly climbed to third in his Focus by the end of the day.

Safari Rally Nairobi (EAK) 25-28 02 1999

Barring the odd watersplash, 1999 Safari was dry, dusty and rough

Third became first during leg two, as the suspension on Richard Burns’ Subaru failed on the Safari’s rough roads, and Carlos Sainz’s Toyota hit a string of issues, including the unfortunate problem of the hood of his car continually flying open.

With one day remaining, McRae held an incredible near-15 minute lead, having driven a rally that defied many people’s expectations given his trademark flamboyant driving style.

“That’s where Colin was just outstanding,” Wilson commented years later. “He had this incredible mechanical understanding and sympathy, when you needed to have it on a difficult event like the Safari. He knew exactly how he had to manage the car, and we had a clear strategy of what [mechanical parts] we were going to change at certain points [of the rally].”

As the final day of the rally dawned, McRae ventured out into the Kenyan wilderness intent on simply driving smoothly to the end. The entire service park watched on and waited for the Focus to break; after all, you can’t win the Safari with a brand-new car, remember?

But the car just kept going, and although Mäkinen would almost half McRae’s lead over the course of the final day (before being disqualified for receiving outside assistance repairing his car), the Scot cruised to his second Safari Rally victory.

Girardo_Co._Archive_1020326 landscape crop

Co-driven by Nicky Grist (left), McRae conquered 'The World's Toughest Rally'

McRae and M-Sport had done it. From an empty workshop in Millbrook 12 months earlier, to a win on the toughest WRC rally of them all. It was a victory, and a celebration, for the ages – as Wilson can attest.

“That win will live with me forever,” said the proud team founder.

“And certainly, the party afterwards will as well.”