Colin McRae had endured a miserable 1994 prior to New Zealand. There had even been talk that his place at Subaru was in jeopardy. But then. . .
After an indifferent year during which his feet have sometimes been given greater credit for intelligence than his brain, a driver has walked away with a World Championship rally victory by the comparatively huge margin of well over two minutes, less than a month after a previous round of the series produced a winning margin of just six seconds.
That Colin McRae is a fine driver cannot be doubted, but his performances this year have led to much criticism. In New Zealand, scene of the seventh round of the series, he confounded his critics by taking a decisive win. Try as they might, none of his rivals could match him as he drove faultlessly, almost effortlessly, to his second successive victory on the event.
"It is only a toy he buy in Hong Kong for his kids!" It was with such a remark, his tongue well into his cheek, that the manager of a European manufacturer's team countered a revelation, during a spot search at a secret passage control during the 1977 New Zealand Rally, that one of his works cars was carrying an item of forbidden equipment, namely a radio transceiver. The powerful hand-held set had been hidden under the driver's seat, and it was not until a New Zealand Post Office listening station had intercepted Italian conversation on an unallocated frequency that the organisers were informed and the passage control set up soon after a late-night restart to facilitate car searches.
When works teams began coming from Europe, which they did in force when the event was granted World Championship status in 1977, some of them thought they could drive coaches and horses through rules devised by people whom they considered were no more than country bumpkins. They had a rude awakening. The organisers were well up to dealing with the cheats, as one present member of the FIA inspectorate will be able to bear witness. In the case of the illicit radio, the 'so-called' explanation was taken with several pinches of salt but the car was allowed to continue after a stern warning to both crew and team. The radios team, never appeared again and the organising body, then ROANZ of Wellington, established itself in European eyes as a body well capable of dealing with what some of the visitors thought would be easy deceptions.
The rally has since gone from strength to strength, moving away from its Wellington base and abandoning its practice of alternating between North and South Islands to be held annually in the former, with headquarters at Auckland. Nowadays, the rally enjoys an eminent reputation, for its organisational expertise, its friendliness and its use of roads which the visitors enjoy immensely. This year, the teams which had nominated themselves for points eligibility in the World Championship for Makes, an insidiously unfair system designed, as far as we can see, for no more useful a purpose than to generate revenue, numbered four. Subaru had four crews, Toyota three, whilst Ford and Mitsubishi had two apiece.
The Subaru crews included the team's regulars Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya and Colin McRae/Derek Ringer, joined by 'Possum' Bourne/Tony Sircombe from New Zealand and Britishers Richard Burns/Robert Reid — all were in Imprezas, those of Bourne and Burns being slightly lower spec. Group N lmprezas were driven by Masao Kamioka/lain Stewart, Mitsuo Maeshima/Kevin Gormley and Brian Watkin/Samantha Haldane. New Zealanders Joe McAndrew/Bob Haldane drove a Group A Legacy.
The three Celica Turbos entered by the Toyota Castrol Team in Cologne were driven by Juha Kankkunen/Nicky Grist, Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli and, making up the numbers once again on this occasion, Yoshio Fujimoto from Japan, partnered by veteran Swedish co-driver Arne Hertz.
There were just two nominated cars from Ford, Escort RS Cosworths driven by Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero and Ari Vatanen/Fabrizia Pons. Brian Stokes/Jeff Judd drove another Group A Escort Corworth, whilst Group N versions were in the hands of Jesus Puras/Carlos del Barrio from Spain and Kris Rosenberger/Klaus Wendel.
Mitsubishi Ralliart had two Evolution 2 model Lancers for Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha and Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander, whilst Mitsubishi Germany took a slightly older Group N car for Jorge Recalde/ Martin Christie. The Australian arm of the make had a Group N version of the older car for Ed Ordynski/Mark Stacey, and two others were driven privately by Michael Lieu/Hakaru lchino and Kiyoshi Inoue/ Yoshimasa Nakahara. Lieu is a Canadian who lives in Hong Kong. Chris Joblin/Craig Vincent drove a Group A version of the car. This year's event was cut from four days to three, although the route was very little shorter than it was last year. Overall distance was 1127 miles, of which 312 were devoted to the 29 special stages. The organisers' task was made rather complicated by the silly FIA rule that routes of World Championship rallies should not vary by more than one fifth from one year to the next, a regulation which acts as a hindrance to development. Rallies which go over the same roads year after year tend to become boring, although professional competitors, whose reconnaissance runs are thus made easier, and film makers, whose planning is thus a matter of copying last year's deployment, would very likely disagree.
We wonder whether this is another example of adjustment of the rules to woo more TV companies so that they can then be hit for so-called 'filming rights'?
So as not to exceed route changes by more than one fifth, the organisers were obliged to include a long road section from Rotorua, where the two night stops were located, to the Auckland area for the finish. A 100-mile road section is not to anyone's liking, and this prelude to the final day of seven special stages can only be laid at the FIA's dogmatic door. More stages could easily have been included, but this would have contravened the rule. The rally began at Auckland in the morning of Friday July 29 and finished there on the Sunday afternoon. Both night stops were at Rotorua, celebrated town of volcanic sulphur springs, whilst most of the route lay between Gisborne on the east coast and Manu Bay on the west. On the third day, the final stages were just north of Auckland, in the base of the Northland Peninsula.
There were intermittent rain showers during the first day this year, making many of the loose-surface roads very slippery. July is in the middle of New Zealand's winter, after all. The first stage was a short spectator affair in Totara Park, not far from Auckland's city centre. McRae's one-second advantage here was hardly significant, especially as Kankkunen was fastest on the next two, which gave him the lead. Biasion soon experienced a persistent power loss. After a short stop of 15 minutes at Manu Bay, the situation changed when Vatanen spun and Sainz retired, McRae setting best time by 14s from Kankkunen and taking the lead. Sainz had experienced some misfiring earlier, but on this stage his engine stopped completely and it was later said by one of the Subaru engineers that both pistons and valves had been damaged.
On the next stage Bourne spun off the road and went down a steep bank. Unfortunately, there were no spectators about and the New Zealand driver had the misfortune to retire on the first day of his home event. The car was undamaged. Another to go out here was Puras who also went down a bank.
Kankkunen lost a little time when he clipped a fence, but Recalde was not so lucky. After going wide at a bend and putting wheels over the verge, his car became stuck and could not be extricated in time. This handed the Group N lead to Ordynski, who went on to win the class comfortably, letting others set the pace while he maintained a suitable buffer over the tooth and nail battle for second, which ultimately went to Inoue.
Vatanen experienced an unaccountable power loss, but this was put down to trouble in the water injection system. After water loss, the pump failed, presumably as a result of running dry. When this was changed and the turbocharger began running at its normal temperature again, power was restored.
When Eriksson's front differential packed up on the eighth of the day's 11 stages, the Swede had to nurse the car to the end of the leg because that differential is integral with the gearbox, and the unit could not be changed until the end of a leg. When the rally got to the first night stop at Rotorua, the Mitsubishi was given that new gearbox, along with various other parts. All the works cars had their customary routine replacements, but when Manfred Stahl arrived after having lost much oil via a leaking camshaft cover seal, it was found that the toothed camshaft drive belt had jumped a notch or two and there was just not enough time to have this fixed. That evening, Subaru reflected at having lost both Bourne and Sainz, but McRae was nevertheless leading, by a margin of 44s from Kankkunen. Auriol was another 7s behind, Vatanen a further 58 and Schwarz another 21. Biasion lay sixth, another 25s back. After the 6.00 start on the Saturday, the rally moved eastwards, heading for the coastal town of Gisborne. Eriksson lost some 10s when he spun on the opening stage, but it was not until the second stage of the day, the notorious 27-miler called Mow Road, that more real changes began to happen. Biasion's engine, after having been fitted with a new turbocharger the previous evening, suddenly stopped and Ford's Italian driver was out. Another to go, on the following stage, was Burns who got his Subaru's wheels into some loose shale, sending the car into a big rock which destroyed its left rear corner. The car ended up in a creek, out of the rally.
Stokes continued after having a halfshaft break, whilst Vatanen lost some three minutes when he hit a tree. After being driven out of the stage, its front left suspension in a mess and its radiator broken, the car was subjected to the time-honoured rapid straightening process by being roped to another car before both were driven in opposite directions!
By the time the rally reached Gisborne, McRae's progress was the talk of the event. The Scot was already famous among New Zealand fans and his performance this year elevated him to star status. His rivals marvelled at his performance and admitted that they would only have a chance if he made a mistake. But he was keeping well clear of mistakes on this occasion and was able to advance his lead effortlessly. One observer remarked, "How he does it I don't know. His wheel marks show that he's straightening everything, but he's not making even the smallest mistake."
On the first stage after Gisborne, Auriol slid into a ditch and the effort to get the Toyota out destroyed reverse gear. Eventually, spectators heaved the car back to the road, but not until three minutes had been lost. Later, a front differential failure left the French driver with just two-wheeldrive. Even worse, the gearbox had become very noisy indeed with bits of the shattered reverse cog floating about and, despite several oil changes to clear out as much debris as possible, there were fears that the 'box would not last the journey through four more special stages back to Rotorua. But last it did, and there was considerable relief when it was finally repaired, the French driver having dropped from third to sixth.
Schwarz had been spending considerable time trying out different settings on his Mitsubishi, and it must be said here that the team's testing had been carried out in Wales, not New Zealand. It was a long time ago, after a telemetry-equipped helicopter had overflown cars during test session in Kenya, that Mercedes-Benz team manager Erich Waxenberger proudly exclaimed, "Now we can simulate the whole of the Taita Hills in Stuttgart."
He was wrong.
The only way to carry out effective testing is on roads of exactly the same nature as those on which a rally is to be held, and that lesson must now be indelibly written in the Ralliart future projects book.
At the second night stop in Rotorua, McRae's lead over Kankkunen was up to 2m 11s, whilst Schwarz was in third place, 3m 32s in arrears. Vatanen trailed behind Schwarz by only 34s and it was only the prospect of a battle for third place which lent some spice to expectations for the final day. Eriksson, in fifth, was 3m 22s behind Vatanen.
When mechanics fettled Vatanen's car on the Saturday evening they noticed a split in the camshaft drive belt. There was no time to replace this and adjust the valve timing, so the car was put into the closed park and the work left until the morning. As soon as he left the control area, a squad fell on the car and the work was all done with time to spare.
The first Sunday special stage had been cancelled long before the start of the rally and, with just seven stages on the final day there was very little possibility indeed of a change among the top two runners. McRae said that he had eased off, but the Scot was nevertheless putting up respectable times and making quite sure that Kankkunen would be unable to catch up. But he seemed to be taking no risks and his cornering lines were always neat. On the third stage of the day, immediately after a rerun of the Totara Park spectator stage, Vatanen's bid for third place came to an end when his notes did not properly describe the road after a crest. His car, already bearing the scars of previous encounters, flew off the road, hit a tree stump and rolled. This time, there was no question of fettling the car and carrying on. The damage was beyond that and the Finn and his Italian partner were out.
McAndrew was almost caught out by a tricky bridge, but he was able to carry on to finish in sixth place, the highest placed New Zealander. Stokes carried on to eighth place after breaking a halfshaft, whilst Auriol had a front anti-roll bar break. The car wallowed like a ship at sea, but there was no pressure on the Frenchman from behind. He was in fifth place, nearly eight minutes ahead of McAndrew, and content to score the eight points which gave him a three-point lead over Sainz and Kankkunen in the World Championship. Among the makes, Toyota remains ahead, but now only 13 points ahead of Subaru. Ford is third, followed by Mitsubishi. At the time of writing, Ford plans to enter four cars in Finland's 1000 Lakes Rally at the end of August (Delecour, Vatanen, Thiry and Makinen), but staff at Boreham seem to be unsure of their future due to the company having said that the official works team would not operate as such from the end of this year (see Diary last month). G P