Rarely has a WRC season delivered as much drama and scandal as 1995. And Colin McRae was at the centre of it all
It was all about Colin McRae v Carlos Sainz. As team-mates, Subaru expected – or rather demanded success from its drivers. The Impreza was now into its third year of competition and, having invested heavily, the Japanese firm needed to demonstrate a return.
Sainz was Subaru’s star signing. He was already a world rally champion for Toyota with a willingness to develop cars and a well warranted reputation for attention to detail. In the other blue corner was McRae. His speed was unquestioned, but it came with hot-headedness.
Round one in Monte Carlo went to the Spaniard. It seemed that winter development had generated a car better suited to Sainz’s driving style, particularly on tarmac. Round two (Sweden) brought the team down to earth with a bump, as both cars retired with engine failure. A subsequent post-mortem of the EJ20 flat-four revealed that usually hard-wearing coating on the cylinder liners had begun to flake off, jamming the oil pump and leading to a massive (read terminal) pressure spike.
As a result McRae failed to trouble the scoreboard on either round – made worse for the Scotsman when his team-mate won the next round, Portugal, at a canter. McRae had to make do with the bottom step of the podium but at least had some points on the board, with a few more added thanks to a fifth next time out on the Tour de Corse. One might have been tempted to write McRae off at this point, but fate had other ideas.
FIRST OF ALL, Sainz was thrown from his pushbike and broke his collarbone, and was forced to miss New Zealand, McRae’s happy hunting ground. The somewhat inevitable happened; McRae romped to yet another Kiwi victory, his third on the trot, and followed it up with a second on the next round, Australia, where Sainz failed to score. Then, when the WRC circus pitched up in Spain, Toyota’s ingeniously devious adjustable turbo restrictor scam was discovered by the FIA and the team was booted from the championship as a result.
The fluctuations of the campaign meant that both Subaru drivers went into the final two rallies of 1995 with a good chance of taking the biggest prize in rallying, with both seeking to do well in front of their respective home crowds. The tarmac of Catalunya came first, and the rally will forever be known as one of the most contentious of them all thanks to team orders enforced by Subaru during the event’s final day.
It all came to a head when team principal David Richards instructed the Imprezas to hold station, Sainz in the lead and with no opposition from any other driver bar his team-mates, McRae in second and Piero Liatti in third. McRae was stung by this decision and didn’t bother to hide his displeasure, well aware that the 20 points on offer for victory would give him a handy lead heading into the final rally of the year, the RAC.
Fireworks duly flew when McRae refused either to back down or hold station, blasting through the remaining stages and narrowly missing a pair of Prodrive employees sent out to slow him, even upshifting as he went by to ram the point home. Only some choice words from David Richards and some wise ones from his father, Jimmy, convinced McRae to accept a time penalty and gift the win back to a less-than-pleased Sainz. It did nothing to quell the bad feeling between the two Subaru drivers or the immense pressure now bearing down upon the team. And to add to the tension – the final rally and championship decider would be in the UK, Colin and Prodrive’s home event. A nation expected.
During the run-up to the event, Sainz dropped a bombshell. He announced that he would not be at Subaru in 1996, having opted to decamp to Toyota (though he would eventually wind up at Ford in the wake of the turbo scandal), something which might well have had an impact on team orders had Prodrive felt the need to impose them. They weren’t required, but it undoubtedly added spice to one of the most intriguing title fights in the WRC’s history.
THE McRAE of old might well have let the pressure get to him, and at first it did indeed appear to be taking its toll, with Colin off the pace compared to the Mitsubishi Evo IIIs of Tommi Mäkinen and Kenneth Eriksson. While their charge ultimately faded, McRae’s own chances were dealt a blow when he hit a rock and incurred a puncture in the 37 miles of Pundershaw. He lost a full two minutes but, thanks to some frenetic spannering at the road side, lived to fight another day.
Sainz’s progress was far from smooth thanks to a sickly, overheating Impreza. He’d damaged the radiator in the Donington Park water-splash on Sunday afternoon, but it didn’t prevent him from carving out a 39sec lead by the end of the second day, ahead of McRae and Eriksson. It wasn’t to last; McRae, the bit between his teeth, set out to make the third leg his own, blasting through the Welsh forests in a manner which has subsequently gone down in rallying lore. He reversed the overnight order to end the day with a 17sec lead, a position he was to hold over the remaining stages on leg four, finally taking the win in Chester.
McRae’s performance didn’t merely give Subaru its first championship for manufacturers (with help from Sainz and Burns, in second and third respectively), it made him Britain’s first, and the sport’s youngest, world rally champion.