Scot of the Antipodes

Colin McRae has always promised to end Britain's barren run in the World Rally Championship. In New Zealand, he fulfilled it

There can be no denying that, throughout the year, the Subarus of Prodrive have displayed rally winning potential. They have been fast, stable and reliable, and have been in the hands of drivers who were eminently capable of success, the youthful Colin McRae as much a prospective victor as the far more experienced An Vatanen. At last, after several frustrating disappointments, a Subaru has mounted the finishing ramp of a World Championship rally in first place.

Colin McRae scored his first and richly deserved World Championship victory and, although everyone has been quick to trot out statistical data such as this being the first British World Championship win since Roger Clark won the 1976 RAC Rally, it's worth pointing out that McRae has been nurtured for years by his national rally championship-winning father Jimmy and that it was only a matter of time before the Scot, who was 25 years old the day the rally started, joined the ranks of world winners. Throughout the event, the lead changed hands so many times that those keeping track of the situation by using lap charttype graphs became really confused by the number of lines which crossed and recrossed. Detailing the myriad lead changes would be pointless, but there were at least a dozen. What is more, the penalty differences between the leaders were tiny. After the 83 stage miles of the first leg, only 21 seconds divided the first five contenders, and there was no more than half a minute covering the top three by the end.

The annual rotation between North Island and South Island was abandoned years ago, and the rally is now based at Auckland. This time, the special stages were in groups centred to the west of Rotorua, towards Gisborne on the east coast and just up into the Northland Peninsula from Auckland. The route is therefore somewhat scattered and during the practice period most crews could only manage some four trips over each stage (at least double that figure is possible in the more concentrated 1000 Lakes Rally, for instance).

The stages were on dirt roads; some private, some public. Some were narrow and twisty; others wider and much faster. Tyre grip was adequate on some of them, but on others the leading few cars had a big disadvantage inasmuch as they had to contend with slide-provoking loose chippings on the surface, a coating which was cleared, at least on the important 'tramlines', for later cars. August is in New Zealand's winter but, although some snowflakes fell in places before the start, the rally was ice-free. But there was rain for some of the time, reducing grip but nevertheless lessening the disadvantage of the front runners.

Hard on the heels of Toyota's Argentinian victory, the team had two Celicas on hand, one for Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli and the other for Juha Kankkunen/Nicky Grist, the pair who won in Argentina. This was Grist's second drive with Kankkunen since Juha Piironen was sidelined by a stroke in Argentina, but in Finland he will have to be with Armin Schwarz in the Mitsubishi team, so Kankkunen has been paired with Frenchman Denis Giraudet for the 1000 Lakes. It is good to record that, by the time this rally started, Piironen's progress was already such that he was being allowed home at weekends.

The Jolly Club, its Lamborghini connection still not yet matching the rapid development ability of Abarth, had Lancia Delta integrales for Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya and Gustavo Trelles/Jorge del Buono, whilst there was a Group N car driven by Jorge Recalde/Martin Christie. From Boreham came two Ford Escort Cosworths for regular drivers Francois Delecour/Daniel Grataloup and Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero. Outwardly, the two crews seem to get on very well, but many suspect that the Frenchman and the Italian are not really what one could call the best of pals.

Prodrive used the Subaru Legacy; the new lmpreza is scheduled to make its debut on the 1000 Lakes, which will be taking place as this issue of Motor Sport appears. Crews were Colin McRae/Derek Ringer, An Vatanen/Bruno Berglund and Peter 'Possum' Bourne/Rodger Freeth. Mitsubishi Ralliart's Far Eastern arm had a Lancer for Australians Ross Dunkerton/ Fred Gocentas, whist a Group N version was driven by Japanese pair Yoshio Fujimoto/ Hakaru Ichino.

Christine Driano followed her tactics of complying with the silly FISA rules that she has to 'finish' a certain number of World Championship rounds. She did just that, her Citroen AX Sport getting into 44th place among the 46 finishers.

Josef Haider, the Austrian who won the rally in an Opel Kadett in 1988, drove an Audi S2, whilst Italian Alessandro Fassina brought a Group N Ford Sierra Cosworth.

The first group of stages were comparatively short, although even on the first (1.3 miles) Dunkerton had trouble when his throttle jammed open. After Sainz, Auriol and Kankkunen had been jointly fastest there, McRae was ahead on the second, but the Scot wasn't really into his stride at this early stage.

Sainz, having to put up with much loose surface gravel, spent most of the first day changing from one suspension type and setting to another, whilst Recalde had his Group N hopes dashed when a pulley shaft sheared and his fan belt came off.

The result was overheating which led to a blown cylinder head gasket, and one wonders what his dashboard indication might have been. The Group N lead was then taken up by Fujimoto, who held it all the way to the end. Ford's team was reduced by half when Biasion went off the road and rolled down a bank on the fourth stage, whilst McRae swiped a bank and broke the windows on his co-driver's side. Just what he needed, perhaps, for he has never really taken the bit into his teeth in the past until he's had his first mishap . . .

By this time, Vatanen was marginally in the lead, but on the fifth stage Delecour, on his first visit to New Zealand, inched ahead. Dunkerton stopped in a cloud of smoke when his engine blew, whilst Brian Stokes' Sierra Cosworth had a wheel bearing break up. He struggled to the end of the stage but was later declared beyond maximum lateness.

At dusk, Delecour led Auriol by a slender three seconds. Later, however, he deliberately took a 20 second road penalty by clocking in two minutes late at Rotorua. Had he not done so, he would have been first on the road the next day, and we understand that the decision to forfeit first place in this way was approved by the team, although perhaps Grataloup was not too keen on the idea.

Kankkunen did not have a good day, firstly spinning where there was no room to turn around and then having fan failure which caused overheating. Vatanen finished the day with a four-second lead over Sainz. Delecour followed, two seconds behind, with Auriol a further six adrift and McRae another nine. Rarely has such a long run of stages produced such a close result. In the morning, ice was expected after the 6.45 am departure from the sulphurous atmosphere of Rotorua, a great town despite its smelly hot springs. But there was none, although the stages were nonetheless slippery. Vatanen was best on the first, Delecour on the second, but on the slippery, twisty, 28-mile third the Finn stopped with a comprehensively broken front suspension after hitting an embedded, and concealed, stone. McRae immediately went into the lead, 15 seconds ahead of Auriol and 20 in front of of Delecour.

The front runners played around with their marginal differences for the rest of the day, but after dark Delecour's 'cat's eyes' came into their own and he shortened the gap. Despite the stage distance, the margins were now even smaller, Auriol leading McRae by just two seconds and Delecour only another three behind. Kankkunen had experienced bad handling, put down to a malfunctioning rear differential which sometimes caused one wheel to lock.

On the Saturday, the route led back towards Auckland and, after the first stage of the day, McRae and Auriol shared the lead. One stage later, McRae had inched ahead by two seconds. The situation was very close indeed and tension was high, especially as Delecour was also in touch. All three were running at 100 per cent or more and even wondering who would be the first to go off the road!

There was momentary panic in the Subaru camp at one service point when McRbe's engine was discovered to be awash with oil. But the fault was traced to a missing cam cover bolt and once this was replaced all was well again. Back at Auckland, McRae was in the lead, but by this time Delecour had got ahead of Auriol. The differences between them were 15 and 19s respectively. Sainz was Im Is behind Auriol, whilst Kankkunen was another 38s back.

On the final day, a trip through six stages just to the north of Auckland, McRae started in the lead position, but there had been slight rain and his disadvantageous 'roadsweeping' role had lost much of its significance. Throughout the morning nails were being bitten, but there were no changes and the order among the leaders at the end of the day was just as it had been the previous evening. On the last two stages the pacesetters were driving just to keep station. McAndrew rolled his Legacy but still held on to his ninth place, whilst Fujimoto kept his command of the Group N category. It was a significant win for both McRae and Subaru, but just as important was the fact that an Escort had finished ahead of the Celicas, putting Ford and Toyota into a joint lead of the World Championship. Among the drivers, Kankkunen remained ahead by just a single point, Delecour leading the pursuit. G P