At face value, the 1996 World Rally Championship season was hardly a barnstormer.
Three teams, Subaru, Mitsubishi and Ford, were entered into the manufacturers’ championship and there were only nine rallies due to this being a brief era where events rotated year upon year. And the world champion took the title at a canter.
But, pour over the now 50-year-old WRC history book, and you’ll notice something that, retrospectively, marks this often forgotten year out.
Across the season, every rally was won by a driver who already was a World Rally champion or would become one that year. Nobody else got a look in bar Tommi Mäkinen, Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz.
You won’t find another WRC season that can match that.
At the beginning of ’96, Mäkinen wasn’t a world champion. He’d never even won a rally with his current employer Mitsubishi. But he was very clearly the number one Lancer driver as his team-mates pivoted throughout the year.
McRae was the natural favorite for success, thanks to his famous title win against his then-Subaru team-mate Carlos Sainz a few months earlier. But it was a Subaru team that was now firmly his own, with Sainz moving on to Ford and Kenneth Eriksson jumping over from Mitsubishi to back McRae up – as did Piero Liatti.
Toyota was in the midst of its one-year ban for its infamous and ingenious turbo cheat of 1995. But it still had presence in the service park, just not in the manufacturers’ standings, and lead driver Juha Kankkunen was at several of the rounds.
Due to the rotating nature of the calendar, it was Rally Sweden that kickstarted the season and Mäkinen made a bright start. In 1995 he had been the pacesetter on the Swedish snow, but was ordered to let team-mate Eriksson by to claim Mitsubishi’s first ever WRC victory with the Lancer.
But there were no such qualms in 1996. Kankkunen’s Celica may have led after SS3, but otherwise Mäkinen was never headed at the front of the pack in the 27-stage rally.
Sainz was stunning everyone with a spirited drive in second place – some feat given he was still learning his Escort RS Cosworth and didn’t really have any business troubling the Scandinavians.
But the sting was swiped from Sainz’s threat when transmission trouble on the final morning affected his pace, and Mäkinen just had to cruise his Mitsubshi home to a statement victory.
McRae was fourth in Sweden, over a minute down, so must have longed for a strong strikeback in Kenya; the second round of the championship. But driveshaft problems on the opening day, and then an intercom problem that led to a mistake, meant he would have to settle for fourth again – this time over an hour off the winner.
That winner? Mäkinen.
And all common rally logic suggested he shouldn’t have been. You weren’t really supposed to go to any rally for the first time and win back in the 1990s, let alone the Safari.
But Mäkinen and his Mitsubishi team were canny and redefined how you win a Safari. The tactic was best exemplified by the strategy of Kenyan local and 1994 Safari winner Ian Duncan, who slowly guided his Toyota through the stages, anticipating problems for the #7 Evo III.
But that hope never materialized. Eriksson’s Impreza gave Mäkinen the best race, but Mäkinen kept his foot pinned to the floor and avoided any significant drama, aided by his team replacing all corners – and their major components – at each service.
When Eriksson picked up a puncture on the final day and gave up 11 minutes, the outcome of the rally was clear. Two from two for Mäkinen, and on two polarizing events. The smiles just grew and grew as Sainz failed to make the finish too – suspension trouble leaving him crawling and, as a result, the engine overheated in the high temperatures.
Round three in Indonesia marked the WRC’s inaugural visit to Asia, and pre-event rain made the stages slick, slippery and unbelievably slimy.
But this was where McRae’s season appeared to be bursting into life. Utilizing the experience he gleaned from winning the rally the previous year (when it wasn’t in the WRC schedule), McRae was leading and seemingly had the rally in his pocket. Right up until the moment that he didn’t.
An intercom failure was a mitigating factor – co-driver Derek Ringer resorting to hand signals to guide McRae through – but with such a lead, the overwhelming feeling was that McRae’s crash was needless.
Bouncing between banks, McRae rolled his Subaru and faced a rather displeased David Richards back at the service park.
Sainz was the one to pounce. Although Kankkunen was the immediate beneficiary, Sainz quickly deposed him and was on for an important victory with Mäkinen out with engine problems.
But it all looked to be in jeopardy when the rally organizer excluded Sainz for an alleged servicing irregularity. Ford appealed, and won, and Sainz was therefore declared the victor.
Greece’s Acropolis Rally was round four, and McRae desperately needed a win if he had any serious designs on keeping the #1 plates on the sides of his Subaru in 1997. And a victory was exactly what was delivered – the only scare a broken bearing in the propshaft on the final day that necessitated a big job from the Subaru mechanics in service; McRae arriving at the exit time control with just three seconds to spare.
Bruno Thiry became Sainz's sacrificial lamb
Mäkinen was soundly beaten but second represented important championship points – but there was a fear creeping in. In a straight fight, could he keep pace with the flamboyant McRae?
If this was a genuine concern of Mäkinen’s, it needn’t have been because McRae never put his best foot forward. Another crash, this time on a soft, sandy hairpin of Rally Argentina, wasn’t exactly what the doctor had ordered. Dealing with the added scrutiny as reigning champion – on top of the poor run of form – was sapping the swagger out of the charismatic Scot.
What McRae really didn’t need was for Mäkinen to take charge. But hungry for his first win since Easter, Mitsubishi’s Finn was rapidly becoming the obvious candidate for the title.
Early Argentine woe for Sainz added further weight to that theory. Ford’s number one was effectively in three-wheel-drive as a transmission broke and wasn’t sending drive to both front wheels.
Team-mate Bruno Thiry became Sainz’s sacrificial lamb. The offending part on Sainz’s Escort was swapped with the functioning part on Thiry’s, and therefore it was Thiry that was forced to struggle in the afternoon.
Sainz was eventually able to recover to second, over a minute-and-a-half down on Mäkinen, but the final day had a sting in the tail in the form of controversy.
There’d been a similar situation on the previous round in Greece where the designated stage route had been blocked off and instead drivers were ushered the long way around a hairpin.
A second strike in as many rallies angered the WRC’s leading figures.
Mäkinen explained: “On the road book we should turn to the left but we couldn’t because it was blocked with some loose stones, so we had to take the long loop to the right, [driving] one kilometer without the notes.”
Eriksson, meanwhile, powered through the blocked off route anyway. Exasperated by the situation and never afraid to speak his mind, Sainz’s co-driver Luis Moya didn’t hold back.
“My view is that I risked my life,” he said. “I tried to be professional.
“Maybe I’m not the best but I tried to be professional and the organizers this year are proving that they are not professionals. They’re just amateurs.”
There was further ire when, unlike in Greece, the decision was taken not to cancel the stage. Ironically, in both of these two circumstances, Eriksson suffered drama. In Greece he broke his steering but the effect was nullified when the stage was scrapped. But a puncture in Argentina, with the stage times still standing, cost him a place to Sainz.
Any thoughts that that would be the end of the politics evaporated though. This time, it was the world champion at the center of it.
During Rally Argentina, McRae clipped a spectator who had been kneeling on a corner on the opening stage, and emerged with a coat sleeve hanging off his door mirror. Then, unaware this had even happened, he left service with vigor after some emergency repairs – too much vigor in the eyes of the officials, and McRae was summoned to meet the FIA in Paris.
He was sanctioned with a $250,000 fine; $50,000 of that leaving his account immediately with the rest hanging over his head should he commit any similar offenses throughout the season.
But the real rub was the timing of McRae’s trip to France. Falling within the Rally Finland recce, he had missed the chance to drive through some of the stages and that cost him. Badly.
Sure enough, on one of those sections that weren’t covered in McRae’s notes, McRae ran wide and fell off the road, pitching his Subaru off the road and retired from his third rally from six. Were his title hopes now completely over? “Well they are after that, yeah.”
At the sharp end of the field, Mäkinen was doing his best to ensure that was the case for McRae. Battling Kankkunen, whose part-time status meant he wasn’t a championship threat, in a battle of the Finns, Mäkinen found the edge and won his home event – his fourth win of the season.
That meant he boarded the long haul flight to Australia with a very real chance of sealing his first world title two rounds early. And that’s exactly what he did.
McRae wasn’t in the picture – either in the championship standings or on the rally’s timesheets. He didn’t hide the fact his confidence was shot after such a barren run and his objective was simply just to make it home safe, which he did in fourth.
Ahead, had team-mate Eriksson not beaten Sainz then Mäkinen’s coronation would’ve been delayed. But Eriksson, chasing a second successive Asia Pacific title against Mäkinen’s team-mate Richard Burns, resisted Sainz’s final day pressure to secure the runner-up spot.
There was of course that famous Bunnings watersplash drama where, even here, Mäkinen showed his class as he negotiated his Lancer safely through the overflowing ford that McRae described as “not a ford but a river”.
Sainz, Eriksson and McRae all came unstuck before the stage was canceled so it was all ultimately irrelevant, but it was a clear example of Mäkinen’s superiority – akin to the fine margins this year’s world champion Kalle Rovanperä exploited.
Mäkinen saved his one major mistake of the year for after his world championship success. His Sanremo Rally lasted just one kilometer as he ran wide and crashed out of the event.
McRae, though, was back on song. Powering to an important victory over Sainz and Thiry’s Fords, McRae carried that momentum into the Spanish season finale and duly converted there too. If the world needed to be reminded, it was clear that he’d lost none of his talent.
Team-mate Liatti gave McRae a good race in Spain though, and almost threatened the existence of this very feature. Two stages from home it was the #3 Impreza that led the #1, but McRae turned on the afterburners on the final pair of tests to snatch victory from Liatti’s grasp by a mere seven seconds.
That late-season revival was enough to lift McRae up to second in the championship standings, ahead of Sainz but 31 points down on Mäkinen who concluded his season with a muted fifth alongside stand-in co-driver Juha Repo – Seppo Harjanne injuring his back in their Italian mishap.
But there you have it, 1996: the only WRC season where only (current or future) world champions won. Take that knowledge down to your local pub quiz and blow your mates away!
That’s, of course, if any pub quiz still asks rallying questions these days…