McRae of sunshine

As threat of a controversial stages finish evaporated, Britain’s rising star completed a deserved victory – the first such home success since 1976

Eighteen years: a long time for a premier British sporting event to be without a British winner. But that is as long as it has taken for a Briton to repeat the feat of Roger Clark, The 1994 Network Q RAC Rally was won in fine style by Scotsmen Colin McRae and Derek Ringer, who took their Subaru Impreza to a superb victory, more than three and a half minutes ahead of Juha Kankkunen and Nicky Grist’s Toyota Celica GT-Four.

The forces of the World Championship brigades were out in strength, but the only teams nominated for World Championship for Makes points were those of Ford, Toyota, Subaru and Skoda. The battle was going to be between the first three, although in the 2wd Formula Two category there promised to be a splendid fight between the Skodas, the Escorts, the Vauxhall/Opel Astras and the Nissan Sunnys.

Two situations arose during the rally, both of which threatened to change the outcome of the event. Fortunately, depending on the way you look at it, neither threat materialised.

In the first place, the tussle between Toyota and Subaru for the drivers’ World Championship weighed entirely on the result of the rally. After the previous nine rounds, Didier Auriol (Toyota) led with 110 points and the only man capable of beating him was Carlos Sainz (Subaru) who had amassed 99. If Sainz won, Auriol needed to finish no lower than fourth to become the first Frenchman to be World Rally Champion.

The first question arose when McRae and Sainz got their Subarus into first and second places. Would team orders dictate that McRae should give up his win so that Sainz could take both the rally and the championship? This would only arise, of course, if Auriol became close to gaining enough points to stay ahead of Sainz, and when the Frenchman dropped right down the field in the early stages of the rally it seemed unlikely that such orders would become necessary.

However, Auriol made a striking return to the top 10 positions and the matter of team orders again became relevant. There is no doubt that, had it been necessary, McRae would have been told to back off to allow his team-mate to win, for the championship was apparently more important to Subaru than a home RAC victory.

Coupled with this was the presence of Kankkunen in the top three. If he moved up from third to second place, splitting the two Subarus, such a team order by Subaru would be impossible. Having Sainz as World Champion was one thing; having a rival manufacturer, another Japanese one at that, win the rally was quite another.

Complicating the situation was Auriol’s recovery. If he got up to fourth, then it would not matter who won the rally. Furthermore, Kankkunen could easily be told to drop back so that his Toyota teammate would move up a place, and the Finn would have obeyed such instructions just as readily as McRae would have responded to the order to back off.

Kankkunen had two options. The first was to try to separate the two Subarus so that McRae could not be told to slow down and the second was to slow down himself to allow Auriol to move up a place.

In short, Subaru was prepared to sacrifice McRae and Toyota to sacrifice Kankkunen. Such is the modern world of big bucks rallying.

Happily, though not for Sainz, none of the team orders became necessary and the rally was decided on merit alone. Auriol continued his relentless advance (though he admitted that he was driving “not so good”) and, on the final day, Sainz went off the road and blew all his chances of taking the title. No team orders were therefore issued.

Another issue to raise its head during the 1994 Network Q RAC Rally was that of deliberate obstruction of special stage roads. Everyone knows that in the Monte Carlo Rally, where spectators are often seen openly carrying shovels, snow can suddenly appear on otherwise dry roads, but in this case we are referring to the mysterious appearance in the road of rocks, boulders, logs, nails or even diverted streams.

Sainz was completely disconcerted in the first stage of the rally’s last morning when he came upon two logs in the middle of the road through Coed Pantperthog. He avoided them, but the incident may have caused him to be sufficiently rattled to go off on the next stage. The logs were not there when McRae went through ahead of Sainz, nor when Kankkunen passed, the next driver after Sainz.

Rallying tales abound with such mysterious appearances, some based on fact, some not. Which it was in this case is anyone’s guess. Sainz and Moya are not given to inventions such as this, especially as they reported the incident before they went off the road in Dyfi, not afterwards.

Assuming that the logs were deliberately placed, several questions spring to mind. Were they placed by hooligans and, if so, why were they there for the passage of Sainz and no one else? Were they placed at the behest of someone who wanted a Toyota driver to become World Champion? Were French Auriol fans responsible, or were they planted by McRae supporters who realised that Sainz, as a possible World Champion, posed a threat to the Scot?

Whatever they may be, the answers have no bearing whatsoever on the result of the rally. Colin McRae and Derek Ringer emerged victorious after a clean fight, their position hardly ever being challenged, and it is to their immense credit that they remained unruffled and in excellent humour throughout the four days. There are some who said that McRae had yet to mature. Let them say it no more…

In the end there were 178 starters, though it’s sad to say that in Britain’s number one motor sporting event there was not a single car that could be said to be 100 per cent British, unless you consider heritage, when Minis, Rovers and MGs could be considered part of the equation.

There were six Ford Escort RS Cosworths entered by the factory, two of them built at Boreham and driven by Francois Delecour/Daniel Grataloup and Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero. Malcolm Wilson/Bryan Thomas drove a car built at Wilson’s own workshops, whilst the only other Michelin-shod car was that of Bruno Thiry/Stephane Prevot, built by RAS and backed by Giesse, the two Belgians driving on their first RAC Rally. The two Pirelli-shod Escort Cosworths entered by the factory were driven by Stig Blomqvist/Benny Melander (Mike Little Preparations) and Ari Vatanen/Fabrizia Pons (Konrad Schmidt MS). Another Escort was driven by South African visitors Jan Habig/Douglas Judd, whilst Group N versions were in the hands of Jonny Milner/Steve Turvey, Richard Holfeld/Ednyfed Morgan and Matthew Clark/Robert Dyson. A 2wd Escort RS2000, built by Gordon Spooner Engineering, was driven by Gwyndaf Evans/ Howard Davies.

The Toyota team consisted of three cars, one new Celica GT-Four for Juha Kankkunen/Nicky Grist and two older Celica Turbos for Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli and Yoshio Fujimoto/Arne Hertz. Apart from a Group N Celica Turbo driven by Will Hoy/ Mike Corner and a Corolla driven by Don Whitehurst/Terry Atherton, they were the only Toyotas in the entire event.

The Subaru team, represented by Prodrive, brought three Imprezas which were driven by Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya, Colin McRae/Derek Ringer and Richard Burns/Robert Reid, whilst a Group N version was in the hands of Masao Kamioka/lain Stewart.

Mitsubishi Germany entered a Group N Lancer for Isolde Holderied/Tina Thorner, whilst a similar car was brought from Holland by Erwin Doctor/Theo Badenberg. What was called a Mitsubishi Proton Wira came from Malaysia to be driven by Karamjit Singh/Ron Teoh Boon Sim.

Among the two-wheel-drive brigade were two Nissans entered from Holland, each a Sunny, for Tommi Makinen/Seppo Harjanne and Alister McRae/David Senior, whilst David Llewellin/Ian Grindrod were in a Vauxhall Astra GSi and Gregoire de Mevius/ Willy Lux the equivalent Opel. The Skoda team brought two Favorit 136Ls for Emil Triner/liri Klima and Pavel Sibera/Petr Gross, whilst a third car entered by the factory was driven by Timothy Johnson and Roger Burkill A touch of nostalgia was introduced by the Mini Cooper of Russell Brookes/Neil Wilson.

On the Friday evening there was a splendid get-together of past winners of the RAC Rally to celebrate its 50th running (it was first held in 1932) and that occasion alone was well worth a visit to Chester. The only pity was that Erik Carlsson was unable to attend, due to Saab business commitments abroad.

Whilst the RAC Rally ranks were assembling in Chester, so those of the historic brigade were joining forces in Nottingham for the Historic RAC Rally. Among them were three crews in Porsche 911s who finished in the first three places, Ake Andersson/Lars Thorell, Jimmy Mc Rae/ Richard Tuthill and Jerry Larsson/Torbjorn Henrysson. McRae led the event for much of the time but was eventually overhauled by past Gulf London Rally winner Andersson who finished with a 14s margin over the Scot.

Pace notes have now become part of the RAC Rally, and now, with FIA blessing, each competing team which has registered its participation in the World Rally Championship is allowed a maximum of four ‘opening’ cars to travel through the stages prior to the passage of the rally itself, passing on details of conditions to their team drivers and making any required amendments to their pace notes.

I appreciate the value of such last-minute information, but there is something intrinsically wrong about note-making in British forests. Some overseas drivers who have not competed in the British championship have, for years, claimed that British drivers have an advantage on the RAC because they have driven so many times over the same stages; so how come no home driver had won for so long? In my book, pace notes have no place in the RAC Rally. Stick maps in the co-drivers’ hands and the men will soon be sorted from the boys.

Rain fell in torrents in the weeks before the rally, but it took place under fairly clear skies. However, the downpours had left their legacies and most of the special stages remained wet, often muddy, very slippery and punctuated with many watersplashes caused by standing water.

The rally started and finished at Chester, but spent its first night at Harrogate, after the opening Sunday of what are still called “Mickey Mouse” stages through parks and private estates in the North and Midlands. After Harrogate came a trip to Kielder via Hamsterley, though not through the famed forests of the Yorkshire Dales, and back to Chester via two stages in Grizedale Forest. Both third and fourth days went into Wales, returning to Chester each night.

On the first day, during which it is far more important not to lose something than it is to win anything, the seven special stages amounted to some 25 miles, not enough to allow the Monday restart to be in classification rather than numerical order.

The first stage was at Carden Park, a few miles outside Chester. Burns hit a post here, damaging a track control arm and hurting a thumb whilst Llewellin got a fright by spinning on to the grass and hurtling through trees, fortunately without hitting any of them. Biasion found that his engine was overheating, due to his fans not working properly, whilst Delecour spun and stopped just inches from a very stout tree.

In Tatton Park Alister McRae moved into the lead of the 2wd category, although that was not to last. Sainz lost a few seconds when he slid straight on at a junction.

In the Chatsworth estate it all went wrong for both Auriol and Sainz. The Frenchman hit a rock in his Toyota (the blame being graciously taken by co-driver Occelli) and finished the stage without his front left wheel, losing some four minutes in all. It was a huge chunk of time and Auriol dropped right down the leader board to finish 32nd at the end of the day.

Sainz damaged his radiator whilst going through a deep ford in Chatsworth and this led to another controversy. No service was allowed for some miles after the stage, but a chase car was despatched to follow the overheating Subaru, its crew having strict instructions not to lay a hand on the rally car until it was clear of the “No Service” zone. The problem was complicated by the loss of a belt, losing both alternator drive and steering power assistance.

The question arose whether the competing Subaru was pushed along by its chase car. Such a practice is strictly forbidden, of course. Other teams lodged queries about the matter, but nothing was done due to the absence of any firm evidence. Again, the matter lost its significance when Sainz crashed on the final day.

The Chatsworth watersplash cost time for the Nissans of both McRae and Makinen, each suffering a misfire, whilst Wilson needed a bent steering arm replaced and Vatanen repairs to his handbrake, the loss of which meant that he had to resort to reverse gear more then once.

In Clumber, partly on tarmac and partly on the dirt roads of the adjacent forest. Delecour lost a few seconds when he spun, whilst Wilson emerged with a car looking like a specimen from a camouflage school. His radiator grill and air intakes were all full of foliage and he admitted afterwards that missing the trees had been “a miracle”.

Will Hoy put his Celica off the road on this one and came to a firm stop against a tree. Jonny Milner’s Escort was having periodical engine stoppages; it was later found, after much work had been done, that it was due to inadvertent flicks of the electrical master switch by the intercom cable to a crash helmet. Needless to say, the switch was moved!

The Escort of Spaniard Jesus Puras might not have been out of place in a wartime convoy as it went around the two stages at Donington, again on mixed surfaces. It was pouring black smoke the whole way. Biasion’s engine cut out for a second or two here, whilst Alister McRae’s Nissan also suffered electrical failure.

The last of Sunday’s stages was at Harewood, and it was here that another of the rally’s controversies arose. Delecour completed the 1.86 miles with a time no less than 34s better than anyone else. It transpired that he had gone off the road and found himself back on the stage route, some distance further along. The outcome was exclusion for the Frenchman when he arrived at Harrogate, a decision which was later that evening confirmed by the stewards.

At the end of the day. Wilson remarked that he had been off the road more times than he had in the whole year, whilst Puras was among those who needed new turbochargers. Nearly everyone expressed relief than the opening day of tricky, non-rhythmical stages was over, although Thiry did actually say that he liked ‘the little stages’. He must have been the only one who felt that way, although he must have been feeling good for he was in fourth place overall, the highest of the six Fords.

McRae led by 11s from Sainz, whilst Kankkunen was another 9s back, 13s ahead of Thiry. Masao Kamioka (Subaru) led the Group N contingent, four seconds ahead of Milner (Ford), whilst Makinen was at the head of the 2wd brigade, 11th overall and marginally ahead of de Mevius and Evans.

The awesome Hamsterley Forest, far way from any other, was the first of Monday’s stages and it was here that both Didier Auriol and Carlos Sainz were delayed. Auriol rolled, got going again, only to lose yet more time when his car, minus its rear window and with its fans not working properly, stalled in a water crossing.

The Frenchman lost a good 10 minutes, his championship situation then looking far from good, but Sainz lost no more than about half a minute when he slid off the road. Biasion had the misfortune to hit a deer, breaking a pipe leading to the gearbox oil-cooling radiator. The pipe could be replaced easily, but any damage to the gearbox itself as a result of oil starvation would have to wait until the end of the leg and there was a whole day to go. Ford’s Italian driver was also troubled afterwards when oil sprayed on to his windscreen and on Hamsterley he was seen driving with his head stuck out of the side window.

Thiry had his clutch release arm break, whilst Evans lost some time when he caught up with both Brookes and Puras. He nevertheless got up to second in the 2wd category, behind Makinen.

On to the five stages around Kielder and the Border country, the first of which was in Shepherdshield. The unfortunate Burns went off here and broke his front left wishbone. No service was allowed after this stage and, when the wheel finally came off on the next stage, he was told on the radio to remain where he was and not to put himself and the car at risk by continuing with a missing front wheel.

Alister McRae stopped in the middle of Shepherdshield with failed electrics, whilst Wilson bent his rear suspension beam by hitting a rock which may well have been the same one which put Burns out. Wilson continued, with a broken halfshaft and out-of-line tracking, and went on through the next stage before he could have service, losing at least two minutes.

Makinen was slowed by a puncture in Pundershaw and handed the 2wd lead to Evans, even though he, too, finished the stage on a flat.

At the 18-minute regrouping stop before Chirdonhead, Auriol remarked, “The car is fine now even though I rolled it. It was not much damage and the mechanics are fantastic.” Kankkunen later said that he chose the wrong tyres for Chirdonhead, whilst Wilson came off that stage with his right rear wheel missing. “I didn’t hit anything. It just fell off.” The Michelin Pilot driver was nevertheless fifth at the end of the day.

After Wauchope, where Biasion hit a rock and broke a front suspension arm, came Kershope, where Auriol lost another crucial four minutes after his turbocharger failed. With the two Grizedale stages to go on the way back through the Lake District to Chester, this was a major setback for the Frenchman, for top-seeded drivers are allowed only one turbocharger replacement per day.

The Grizedale stages have as fearsome a reputation as those of Kidder, especially as no service is allowed between them. Kankkunen spun on the first and collected both front and rear body damage. More significantly, his auxiliary light cluster was torn off and he had to tackle the gloom of the next stage (getting on for 5pm) with minimal front illumination. On the two stages, he lost more than a minute to McRae.

It was here that Ford lost Biasion. On the first of the Grizedale stages, the Italian lost a good two minutes as a result of a bad misfire and, after he had stopped before the next stage (where service was not allowed), Wilson pulled up to offer assistance, without putting a hand on the other car, of course. Unfortunately, the problem could not be resolved and Biasion went no further, the victim of an electronic bug in the fuel system.

Vatanen lost several minutes due to turbocharger failure and laid a trail of dense blue smoke throughout Grizedale Forest. Makinen had trouble with his rear brakes, later found to be due to incorrect front/rear balance, whilst Milner lost some of his gears and had to nurse his Escort Cosworth for the remainder of the day. He got to Chester, however, still leading the Group N category.

What now remained comprised a day and a half in Wales. McRae’s situation was excellent. His car was in good fettle; he felt in even better shape and his lead over Sainz was 1m 16s. Kankkunen had dropped to third. 29s behind Sainz, whilst Thiry, the best of the Ford drivers, was just over three more minutes behind.

The only thing left in question was the matter of team orders, for Auriol had got himself back up to 17th place and looked certain to improve on that during the third day. However, no orders went out, both Toyota and Subaru leaving their decisions until the final day.

The first Welsh stage was in Coed Dyfnant. The temperature was still very much on the mild side for November, and, although a light drizzle fell occasionally, serious rain kept away.

Kankkunen, who, strangely enough for a Finn, prefers mud to snow, set best time in Dyfnant, whilst Thiry and Prevot were really beaming with enjoyment of their first RAC experience. De Mevius lost some time when he had to resort to reverse gear to emerge from a slight excursion, whilst Makinen was fastest of the 2wd runners. Llewellin also went off for a few seconds. Down the field, Innes Marlow had a couple of sticky soles when a chocolate bar got under his pedals and melted!

Several of the works drivers reported not having made contact with their ‘opening cars’ before the Dyfnant stage, which suggests that there was much traffic in the locality, hardly surprising for the Welsh stages of the RAC.

After Hafren, where Vatanen got stuck momentarily at a hairpin, came two stages in Brechfa, scene of that terrible incident years ago when Per-Inge Walfridsson rolled his Stratos during a Welsh Rally, he and co-driver John Jensen only surviving because watchers who defied a no-spectator decree were there to drag them clear of the inferno.

In that case, the presence of spectators was a godsend, but on this year’s RAC Rally one wonders. It is no disgrace for a driver to go off the road. Spectators must therefore position themselves accordingly, not where one hapless gentleman placed himself in Brechfa, right in the path of Habig’s Escort when it went off the road, his leg being broken in the collision. The stage was held up as a cas-evac operation took place and was not then recommenced when the evacuation was over 35 minutes later.

Rather than being sent through the stage as a road section, subsequent cars were diverted to the second Brechfa stage. In theory, this sounded fine, but that diversionary road was in heavy use by service and spectator traffic and many competing cars had trouble getting through.

Evans, having lost a few gears, was given a new gearbox in 10 minutes flat, whilst Wilson had to replace his electronic crankshaft sensor after his engine stalled and refused to restart. The engine did not run properly, however, and it was some time before it was made to give full power. Blomqvist was slowed by overheating due to fan failure. It was noticeable after the stage that Sainz, Kankkunen and Auriol were tense, stern-faced and saying little. The only affable driver among the leading group was leader McRae. He was very relaxed.

One of Toyota’s trio went out in the first Brechfa stage when Fujimoto put his works Celica down a very steep bank and couldn’t regain the road.

After a brief stop at Llandovery, the rally moved to Coed Crychan. Kankkunen had his turbocharger intercooler radiator break, but did not lose much time, whilst Steve Hill was struggling on with a cracked sump on his Mitsubishi Galant.

Moving back towards Chester, the rally made a return visit to Hafren, and we echo the doubts expressed by many of the wisdom of visiting a forest twice during a rally of this magnitude. The surface was certainly smoothed over by the time cars got there for the second time, and tyre choice was tricky. The roads around the stage were thronged by spectators’ cars, which were parked bumper-to-bumper even five or more miles from the nearest stage access point.

Kankkunen came out of Dyfnant with his throttle jammed, whilst Wilson lost a place to Blomqvist when he slid into a ditch and spent a good three minutes as the ever obliging spectators heaved the car back to the road.

Due to the delay at Brechfa, the fading light towards the end of the day was even more faded than it should have been. Habig got into trouble because of this when he failed to find his service car and was not able to fit his auxiliary lights. He thus tackled the second Hafren with just one headlamp!

After another run through Dyfnant, the rally arrived back in Chester with McRae’s lead then up to 1m 45s. But the man behind him was Sainz, so the possibility of team orders being issued on the final day became very real. To make matters more delicate, Auriol had got himself up to ninth place, with the prospect of climbing higher on the last day.

Would he get up to fourth? Would Kankkunen be told to slow to let his teammate gain a place? Would McRae be told to hang back so that Sainz would have a better chance of getting the world title? These were questions in everyone’s minds, but there is no doubt that British fans would have gone berserk had McRae been told to forfeit his undeniably deserved victory.

McRae set himself apart from the controversy by confining himself to saying, “Mud needs one tyre. Dry dirt needs another. It’s difficult to make the right choice.” Kankkunen was another 1m 8s behind McRae and Sainz, while Thiry remained the best Ford driver, another 4m 46s adrift, leading Blomqvist by 3m 21s. Wilson was just another 13s back, nearly four minutes ahead of Vatanen.

Makinen led the 2wd contingent, in eighth place overall, whilst Evans came up behind Auriol, just inside the first 10.

The final day’s first stage was at Pantperthog, where Sainz encountered the two logs in the road. He managed to swerve around them without losing much time, but on the next stage, the 14.5-miler in Dyfi itself, he went off the road not far after the start. The ground was soft and it beat the concerted efforts of a huge gang of spectators to get the Subaru back on the track. Once there, the question being bandied between Sainz and Moya was simple. Was it worth continuing? They had lost well over half an hour so they decided, after discussion on the radio, to call it a day and head back to Chester, their championship hopes dashed.

When Kankkunen came to the end of the stage he was grinning, saying, “I saw Carlos off in a ditch and I thought of stopping to push him further in…” For all his humour, it was a relief for Kankkunen, for it meant that there would be no chance of his being asked to slow down to elevate Auriol in the classification. At the same time, McRae must have gasped in both disbelief and relief. He was now unhindered by team orders and he could go on to win, which he did in fine style.

On that same stage, Auriol went off for almost a minute, but when he passed the ditched Subaru of Sainz his frame of mind changed completely as he finally took on board that nothing could now prevent him becoming France’s first World Rally Champion.

Dyfi was the turning point in several fortunes, for Makinen rolled and lost some three minutes before his car could be heaved from the ditch. He lost his lead of the 2wd category, which was thereafter led by Evans, and even went off the road in the road section which followed when a steering arm broke, but he nevertheless carried on to take ninth place overall and second in the category.

The two usual stages were held at Penmachno, although there is now little possibility of unmarked ‘service’ cars creeping along the road which divides the two. At least, that is what we have to say officially. What happened in actual fact must remain unchronicled, as must the surreptitious activities around the later Clocaenog stages. We wonder why the hamlet of Nilig, to the north of the forest complex, was mentioned in some service plans!

Penmachno has many steep drops, but when Wilson went off and rolled here he didn’t drop very far. However, he could not get going again, and he could not even inform his team of his plight, for it was about that time that the aircraft hired by Ford, Subaru and Nissan to carry radio relay equipment suffered an engine failure and had to make an emergency landing at a small airstrip.

Both Evans and Makinen experienced gear selection trouble, the former being able to change his gearbox whenever time allowed, but not the latter as he is a seeded driver for who transmission changes are limited to once per day, at the end of each leg.

Triner collected a puncture, whilst Llewellin had to change a wheel between the two Penmachnos after having clipped a rock. The tyre did not deflate, but there was a serious risk of a puncture on the damaged rim on the stage that followed. De Mevius was resigned to scoring no higher that third place in the 2wd category, but he was happy nevertheless to take the F2 World Cup for General Motors, albeit briefly. Subsequent confirmation that the Belgian had been excluded from the results of September’s Rally Australia, for a fuel irregularity, meant that the title would eventually be Skoda’s, a matter that was confirmed on December 7 when GM’s appeal failed.

The remainder was merely academic. McRae eased off fractionally to take no risks and arrived at Chester Racecourse to a tumultuous welcome.

Toyota scored a double, not by winning the rally but by winning both the makes’ and drivers’ series, and preparations for another successful year are already under way, with testing and recceing for the Monte-Carlo Rally which takes place towards the end of January.

Network Q RAC Rally – November 20-23 1994

1: Colin McRae/Derek Ringer – Subaru Impreza 555, GpA
2: Juha Kankunnen/Nicky Grist – Toyota Celica GT-Four, GpA
3: Bruno Thiry/Stephane Prevot – Ford Escort RS Cosworth, GpA
4: Stig Blomqvist/Benny Melander – Ford Escort RS Cosworth, GpA
5: Ari Vatanen/Fabrizia Pons– Ford Escort RS Cosworth, GpA