Inside Toyota’s banned 1996 season

In the wake of its turbo cheat in 1995 Toyota Team Europe couldn't compete in the WRC, but Toyota Celicas continued

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Twenty-five years ago, life as part of Toyota’s World Rally Championship program was very different to how it is today.

Contrast the double title-winning success and admirable team synergy of 2021 to a team reeling – caught, shamed and banned from the WRC for a clever cheat in 1995.

That famous and ingenious turbo trick, that was spotted and subsequently outlawed after Rally Spain 1995, was met with a strong sanction from the FIA who took it upon themselves to bar Toyota Team Europe from competition in ’96 by way of a punishment.

But what that didn’t do is stop Toyota Celica ST205s from competing in the WRC. They just couldn’t be part of an official manufacturer effort.

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“We could still represent Toyota but we couldn’t enter under the TTE entrant’s license, so we entered under Toyota Team Belgium on events like Ypres and did similar on the WRC rallies that we did,” Toyota’s sporting manager at the time, George Donaldson, tells DirtFish.

“We got budget from Marlboro,” he continues, “so we entered the rallies where we either got sponsorship or some contribution from either an importer, the rally itself or Marlboro.”

It therefore wasn’t the usual concerted effort due to Toyota Team Europe’s suspension, but the Celica was still out there on the stages and claimed three podium finishes from the nine rounds – two of them thanks to Juha Kankkunen who had been in contention for the previous year’s title before the team’s exclusion.

“We had a contract and basically while Toyota Team Europe was banned from the world championship we still had the opportunity to do different things with different teams,” remembers Kankkunen’s co-driver Nicky Grist.

“So we did Sweden with Toyota Team Sweden and I remember we went to Indonesia and we were entered by Toyota Team Australia, and in Finland it was Toyota Castrol Finland.

“But then we did some other events as well, things like with Grifone from Italy, we did Rally du Valais in Switzerland.”

Kankkunen was the only one of Toyota’s drivers from ’95 to compete in the WRC in a Celica the following year. Didier Auriol was – in Donaldson’s words “rested” that season and indeed made cameos for Subaru and Mitsubishi – while Armin Schwarz focused on a European Rally Championship program.

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“I had more or less a commitment from Toyota for ’96 but when they got banned by the FIA I think it was quite difficult to convince people internally to start and proceed with a new target,” Schwarz says.

“It was not a fear of mine that I can’t get anything together but it was more a worry of when I can get something together.

“At that point I must say I always remember the support from Castrol because Castrol at the time was very, very much into the Toyota WRC and rally relationship and since I was probably the only driver because Juha and Didier, they did not really push so much for a program, they were more ‘it is what it is let’s see what is coming up’, but I didn’t have the patience to wait for something.

“So I was running around and trying to get the German importer to do some kind of program because the importer could do something. I went between Ove Andersson, Toyota Germany and Castrol and then we could firm up this European championship program.

In the rally family there was absolutely nobody that said 'yes you need to be banned' Armin Schwarz

“But it took a while and we only had a couple of rallies left where we could compete and it meant we needed to win all of them.”

The 1996 year presented everyone at Toyota with a new challenge though, regardless of what its precise program was. In Schwarz’s case, he “always sees the positive side of the negative things because I could do rallies I never would have thought to do”.

And Grist agrees: “In many ways it was actually quite enjoyable doing these different rallies we’d never done before.”

Donaldson enjoyed the freshness of the challenge too: “To be honest we were over it straight away, it didn’t really worry us that much.”

Personally, Donaldson was present on WRC rounds with the various importer teams but also on ERC events as well as rallies in the Asia Pacific championship too with Yoshio Fujimoto.

“It was similar, we ran it a bit tighter, so we took less development engineers things like that,” Donaldson says of the size of the team that worked on rallies.

“We weren’t doing a full WRC so we had capacity, and we were anxious to keep the team exercised.”

And crucially, despite the controversial events of the year before, there was no sense of distrust directed towards the Toyota team. Rallying isn’t traditionally too toxic but rivals would be forgiven for harboring a degree of suspicion – but it wasn’t like that at all.

“Absolutely nobody. Nobody,” says Schwarz emphatically when asked if anybody treated him or the team any differently in 1996.

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“It was more let’s say a kind of, how to say it, bad luck sympathy? Everyone came up and said ‘hey we’re really, really we are sorry that Toyota is out’.

“Internally in the rally family there was absolutely nobody that said ‘yes you need to be banned, you need to stop, you cannot compete because you’re a cheater.’ It was nobody, absolutely.”

“No far from it,” Donaldson adds on the same topic. “Most of the WRC’s on-event FIA officials were very happy to see TTE survive and appreciated our presence on the events.

“The situation had been put to bed – done, dusted, finished.”

The Celica ST205 was broadly finished too. Although a MacPherson strut was homologated instead of the super-strut system that was, according to Donaldson, “far, far, far too complex for a rally car” and that change meant the Celica “became a much better car” as a result, it basically went untouched beyond that.

That’s chiefly because 1996 was the final year of the Group A ruleset and so Toyota was busy designing, testing and developing its World Rally Car: the Corolla WRC.

The absence of an official program in ’96 allowed it a leg-up in that process.

“There was a huge development team,” Donaldson explains. “They spent a year and a half developing that Corolla, it was basically the same transmission as the Celica so the rear end of it was very similar.

“But I didn’t go to that many because we were quite busy on the events.”

Success was a little hard to come by though. Although Grist admits the car “could do the job” he also concedes “when you look at all the Celicas that TTE produced, the most successful was the [ST]185 Celica. The [ST]205 was never really at the races.”

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Indeed, over its two-year lifecycle in the WRC it only ever won one event – Corsica 1995 with Auriol. Kankkunen could’ve won in Indonesia ’96 though, leading into the final day, as Donaldson recalls.

“We had a good lead and we pulled a flanker because we’d taken the right tires, the mud tires, and nobody else had.

“And Juha went for it, kept the lead longer than we thought he would. The roads dried out on the last day but he still pushed like a man possessed.

“Finally he broke the intercooler at the front, lost all the water and so we lost power – just because he jumped the car because he wasn’t going to give it away. He took a jump he’d normally take in third gear in sixth.”

Ian Duncan was in the frame for a Safari Rally victory too before a rear strut mount broke.

“He could have managed that problem,” Donaldson says, “but the problem was the rear strut broke the rear window because the shock absorber went up through the rear window and the car filled with that fesh-fesh dust.

“He looked like a ghost when he got out the car, how he made it down I don’t know.”

A young Freddy Loix showed great prowess, particularly in Ypres, but Schwarz’s season was ultimately the most prosperous as he brought home some major silverware in the form of the European title. But it was far from easy.

“I was addressing all these rallies very seriously because on those rallies you had like one local hero,” he explains.

“For example, when I went to the Isle of Man there was Bertie Fisher at the time and he was bloody quick, and he knew the rally. He was forcing everything out of me to win the rally because it was not an easy task just to go to let’s say European level and say ‘I can win all the rallies because I’m coming from the world championship.’”

Winning felt good but Schwarz was aware “it was not on the level of World Rally Championship events”. However his success prompted Castrol to ask him to do the RAC Rally at the end of the season (that year not in the WRC) as the European champion.

“I saw my chance there and when I got to the RAC I must say I had like in my mind ‘I’m going to win and nobody else will win.’” Schwarz says.

“I would’ve been very disappointed if I could not win the RAC that year because with all these difficulties, there was no development of the car, there was no testing of the car, it was very silent. In ’96 it was only doing recce, rally and go – and that’s it.

But it builds something up, self-confidence, because I knew I needed to hit the target and I could not fail. If I failed it would be terrible for my career.”

1996 RAC Rallycopyright:Mcklein

Kankkunen retired from the RAC – Toyota Team Europe’s first official event after its 12-month ban had lifted – on what was ultimately his final rally with Toyota, and his last with Grist too who was off to join Colin McRae at Subaru.

Schwarz wouldn’t compete for Toyota again either, joining Carlos Sainz – who was supposed to drive for Toyota in ’96 but went to Ford as the team was banned – at Ford where Kankkunen eventually ended up too.

Auriol though returned from the wilderness and, along with Marcus Grönholm, gave the Corolla WRC its debut on Rally Finland 1997 before he and Sainz drove for the team in 1998 and 1999, winning the ’99 constructors’ title.

As Grist puts it, 1996 was “an unhappy period in Toyota Team Europe’s existence”. How couldn’t it be when it was banned from competition?

But it’s an equally fascinating period that, although certainly unplanned, didn’t actually end up too disastrously all things considered.