Rally Portugal’s memorable 1990s moments

Two Scots, two years, two moments of disbelief in the WRC

990323P McRaec 20 cm

Two stories, both Scottish, bookend the Nineties on Rally Portugal. Both are incredibly dramatic and both well worthy of their place in #DirtFishPortugalweek, but which to go for? Let’s make an exception. Let’s go for both.

Earlier this year, DirtFish offered fresh insight into Ott Tänak’s 2015 Rally México accident which ended with the Estonian rolling into a lake. That wasn’t, of course, the first time we’d seen a rally car end up in the water. Some 25 years earlier, precisely the same fate befell Louise Aitken-Walker and her co-driver Tina Thörner on the first full day of Rally Portugal competition.

Caught out in horribly wet conditions, the Scotswoman’s Opel Kadett GSi slid off the road, tumbled down a mountain and into the lake below. Both Aitken-Walker and Thörner were in the car when it hit the bottom of the lake 30 feet below the surface.

Aitken-Walker said: “We came off the edge of the cliff and I thought: ‘this is going to hurt’. You just shut your eyes and hang on. We waited until the car got to the bottom, but it took a long time to sink in that we were actually in the water. I was trying to get my breath, but you’re just breathing in water. It’s a hell of a feeling.

“The car was full of water when we got to the bottom, but we got out through a broken window.

“The best thing we did was not panic and just think: “OK, this is it. Let’s try our best to get out, one last effort and we swum to the top, thank goodness.

“After that, I had to think about what I was doing. I’d had this horrendous accident and it was a miracle we both got out alive, but there’s something inside me that wanted me to get back in the car. We were fighting for a world championship, we couldn’t just give up.”

They didn’t and, by the end of the season, Aitken-Walker and Thörner were crowned Ladies world champions.


Photo: Ford

Eight years on from that and there was more Scottish success in Portugal, when Colin McRae won the event for the first time for Subaru. That’s not the focus of this section of this story though. We’re going to fast-forward 12 months from there to what was a dream victory for the 1995 world champion and Malcolm Wilson’s Martini Ford team.

McRae arrived in Portugal off the back of winning the Safari, an exceptional result a Focus WRC which was on only its third competitive outing. Kenya had shown the car was strong, but Portugal would determine if it was fast or not.

With the car still early in its development cycle, it was slightly heavier than some of the competition, and the Scot wasn’t sure what to expect as he arrived in Iberia.

“Portugal was a fast rally,” said McRae at the time. “We’d not done all that much testing with the car and we didn’t really know what would happen. All we could do was attack and push. Portugal’s that sort of rally, the sort where you could get in there and have a go.”

McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist did just that. In just two stages, they’d taken more than half a minute out of everybody. By the end of day one, they’d won six from nine stages and built a 50.1s lead.

Back then, the rally leader ran first on the road and McRae knew he’d have his work cut out defending that advantage – especially given the warm, dry and gravelly conditions. He was helped slightly by the cancellation of the final two stages in the Açor Mountains on day two, which deprived his rivals of a further 24 miles to reel him in.

At the finish, McRae headed Toyota driver Carlos Sainz by 12.3s. Wilson was euphoric.

“That remains one of the best memories of that driver and that car,” he said. “Colin was just fantastic on that event. We’d come from winning the Safari, showing how durable the Focus was and then we came to Portugal and showed just how fast it was as well. To take back-to-back wins there was an incredible start for the Focus. And so much of that Portugal win came from Colin; he’d matured into the sort of driver who go off, set this amazing pace and then control a rally.”

Even better news for Lanark was Alister McRae’s World 2-Litre Cup win in a Hyundai Coupe Kit Car Evo 2.