August was a busy month for Colin McRae in 1993. He turned 25. He changed British rallying history forever. And he began a three-year reign as the king of New Zealand.
McRae had experience of the North Island roads, having competed at the event while simultaneously successfully defending his British Rally Championship title in 1992. That maiden voyage to Auckland didn’t go well. The engine on his Subaru Legacy RS failed five stages in. The Scot had barely had a chance to get into gear.
McRae’s 1993 campaign blended the World Rally Championship with an Asia Pacific program. Prodrive had taken engine development off the hands of the Japanese and the Legacy’s replacement, the Impreza, was waiting in the wings.
But it couldn’t – and wouldn’t – be used. Not until the Legacy had won. That was the directive from Subaru Tecnica International.
The world was very well aware of Colin McRae by now. He’d finished second in Sweden the year before, rolled his way through Finland a few months later, led the RAC and won the season-closing Bettega Memorial for the second year in succession.
But New Zealand? Then, as now, it was a tough one to fathom with its cambered roads and quick, but technical stages.
Unlike today, 29 years ago, the event ran up and down the North Island roads heading as far south as Rotorua and up north to Whangārei and beyond. The second day’s 153 competitive mile loop in itself was just 17 miles shy of this year’s entire event.
McRae had history with five stages. Frenchman François Delecour didn’t even have that.
The Ford man assured the watching media, points were the only thing on offer for him and his Escort RS Cosworth.
“For me,” said Delecour, “here is harder than Finland. In Finland you learn because you make the recce and drive the stages 10 times. Here we only did them four times…”
No such luxury for the newcomers this time around.
Delecour overturned his own formbook by moving into an early lead in 1993, but he was by no means convinced of his chances. So much so that he booked into the final day one control two minutes late, incurring 20s penalties. In those days, the rally leader led the field through the stages in classification order.
“I know it’s crazy,” he said, “but I don’t want to be first on the road tomorrow. There will be some ice around and, like I told you, I don’t know these roads. And this rally will start tomorrow.”
He wasn’t wrong. With 10 stages and all those miles, anything could happen. And Delecour’s weather prediction was bang on. Run in the middle of a Kiwi winter, the August date meant snow on some of the stages ahead of the start. But a clear and crisp Thursday August 5 night, meant plenty of ice the following morning.
Starting his second day of WRC action as a 25-year-old, McRae made his move where it was least expected: the Motu.
Coming through the 30-miler, Didier Auriol was confident in his time and effort. Tweaks to the Toyota Celica Turbo 4WD’s front differential a day earlier had given him the feeling he wanted.
“It drives like a Lancia now,” he smiled.
Nothing prepared him for the time he saw from the Scottish-flagged Subaru. McRae demolished everybody, leap-frogging his way to the front. Well more than a second a mile quicker than anybody, he’d hauled an astonishing 52s from Juha Kankkunen’s Celica.
“I’m not sure,” was McRae’s response to the obvious question of where the speed had come from in an achingly twisty stage.
“It’s such a difficult stage, really hard to keep the concentration. It was really slippery towards the end, maybe there was some ice.”
Subaru had been able to run a softer Michelin (FB80 rather than the FB92 the others used) and that helped offer some compound grip, but McRae’s rivals were left slack jawed at what they’d seen.
But Delecour and Auriol weren’t for giving up. Both pushed, with the Toyota driver relieving McRae of the lead as Friday became Saturday.
Day three delivered the biggest scare for McRae. A bolt came loose on the cam cover near the end of the Boddies stage and all the oil drained from the flat four.
Unaware of what had gone on, McRae feared the worst at the stage end. Smoke emerged from beneath the Legacy’s bonnet and the oil pressure warning light beamed bright with 10psi showing on the gauge.
Fortunately, his emergency service car was just two miles down the road. And those two miles were downhill.
Oil was everywhere. It took five minutes for the Prodrive squad to establish what had gone on, then 20 minutes – they had to take the gearbox out to get to the source of the issue – to fix it.
Back on the road, McRae arrived at the start of the next stage with a wry smile.
“Aye,” he said, “we were quite lucky…”
As we’ve seen from this season, when a driver’s riding his luck, anything’s possible. McRae got on it and destroyed the Gallic opposition. Auriol faded as his Toyota’s transmission wilted and robbed him of the handling and traction he needed, while Delecour admitted staying ahead of countryman was his only priority, with one eye to the 1993 title.
It was left to Kankkunen to put McRae’s charge in context.
Once you understand you can’t drive this rally sideways. I haven’t been any less attacking,Colin McRae
“Seeing his lines in the stages,” said the soon-to-be four-time world champion, “he is completely crazy and cutting like hell. In one corner, he went completely over it!”
Kankkunen’s admiration was as obvious as his frustration.
For McRae, his job was clear.
“I’ve just got to stay on it,” he said.
And stay on it he did.
Oil or no oil, the Legacy held together for McRae to deliver a first WRC win for a Brit since 1976.
His assessment? Typically laid back and relaxed.
“It wasn’t difficult,” he said. “Once you understand you can’t drive this rally sideways. I haven’t been any less attacking, just staying on the line and keeping the car straight.”
As eureka moments go, this one was appreciated all around. McRae, Scotland and Britain had its world rally winner, but the lasting legacy would be Subaru’s switch to the all-conquering Impreza 555.