Made in Belgium
The short story of the Mazda WRC works team.
Companies like M-Sport, Prodrive, Ralliart or TTE/TMG are well known in the world of rallying, but there was a lesser known satellite operation like this, that once looked promising as well, Mazda Rally Team Europe (MRTE).
The story begins with Achim Warmbold, who was a competent rally driver as his two victories in the first WRC season in 1973 show. For his co driver, current FIA president Jean Todt, these were the first wins on world level as well, but unlike Todt, Warmbold wouldn't win any WRC rallies overall from within the car any more.
Let's jump to 1982, when MRTE was founded in Geneva by Warmbold as a private team preparing Mazda rally cars. Their first car was a second generation Mazda 323 Group 2 that was rehomologated in the new Group A class. At the 1982 season opener, the Rally Monte Carlo the car debuted in the hands of Warmbold/Cleas Billstam and won the A5 class. Given that the Group A regulations were new and competition was therefore limited, this class win could be considered meaningless. The car itself though, was probably not too bad as it was a sensible base for a rally car thanks to it's compact size and McPherson struts all round. But as the car had very few further outing in the hands of MRTE it's difficult to judge. At the time, the team also prepped Group 2 versions of the Mazda RX7, but the car was seemingly a dead end as Group 2 cars were no longer eligible from 1983 onwards. After MRTE relocated to Brussels in 1984 they also started to use the newly homologated Mazda 323 Turbo, Warmbold/Matthias Feltz finished thrid in Group A on the cars debut at the 1984 Rally Monte Carlo.
The Mazda 323 Group A at the Rally Monte Carlo in 1982. (https://www.ewrc-results.com/image/367134/)
Mazda didn't seem interested so far, but the company developed a Group B car based on the obsolete Group 2 RX7 regardless. Due to its roots in a everyday road car it utilised the steel production shell, was RWD and had a live rear axle. Given that 4WD was already a thing in rallying and the 037 showed how far you could go within the Group B regulations, the RX7 was not destined to be a winner from the start. The late homologation in early 1984 made life more difficult, as shortly after the first Group B cars that made full use of the liberal regulations started appearing. But at this point it was still a young private operation, so a specialised car was not possible. Outings remained few and far between, with the cars debut being at the Rally Acropolis in 1984. Warmbold/Michele Espinos-Petit, finished 9th and scored the cars first points in the WRC. A year later Ingvar Carlsson/Benny Melander managed to finish 3rd at the Acropolis, this sparked Mazdas interest in the team, but not in the old fashioned RX7.
The Group B RX7 driven by Carlsson/Melander at the 1985 RAC Rally. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/33828483@N08/6776937610)
In late 1985 the Mazda 323 4WD Turbo was launched as a hot version of the third generation Mazda 323. Mazda wanted to enter Group A with this car, wich was not a bad idea considering that most successful rally cars that followed were in principle very similar to the 323 4WD Turbo (compact, 4WD, turbocharged, McPherson struts). The only obvious flaw of the car was the 1,6 litre engine which hindered the cars potential later on. In theory the smaller engine allowed for a lower minimum weight but without the necessary light weight parts homologated, it was not possible to achieve the low target weight of 960 kg. As was often the case at the time, the stock open center differntial was permanently locked in the Group A car, but it was no hindrance as the car was lauded for its great handling. The 323 4WD Turbo was only entered for a few events in 1986. At the season opening Rally Monte Carlo Carlsson/Jan-Olof Bohlin were joined by team principal Warmbold (co driven by Espinos-Petit) who made his last apperance as a professional driver. Carlsson/Bohlin won the Group A class at the RAC Rally (nowadays called Rally GB), but MRTE built 323 4WD Turbo retired on all other outings due to technical trouble. Meanwhile New Zealander Rod Millen built his own 323 4WD Turbo Group A with some support from Mazda and managed to win the Group A class at the Olympus Rally with his co drver John Bellefleur.
As Group A was the new top class from 1987 onwards, few manufacturers were better prepared than Mazda. They already had a season under their belt with a car that seemed perfect for rallying and as a bonus hired the world champions Timo Salonen/Seppo Harjanne who were the most successful pairing in Group B cars. Most manufacturers entered 2WD or bigger 4WD cars, the only car similar to the Mazda was the Lancia Delta HF 4WD. MRTE was rightfully considered as one of the favourites, and the season didn't start badly as Salonen/Harjane won in Sweden. Warmbold was a rally winner again, only this time as a team principal. But this was as good as it got, the 323 continued to be unreliable (especially the transmission and engine) and MRTE entered only 6 events, not enough to make a meaningful impact on the championship (note that back than it was normal to only enter selected rounds and not the full season for all drivers and manufacturers).
Timo Salonen driving the 323 4WD Turbo at the 1987 Rally Sweden. (https://en.wheelsage.org/mazda/323/bf/pictures/sloiep/)
While world champions Hannu Mikkola/Christian Geistdörfer arguably strengthened the line up in 1988, the situation didn't improve. By now the 1,6 litre engine proved underpowered against the 2 litre competition. MRTE did homologate a slightly larger 1623 cm³ engine and a X-trac six speed gearbox that year, but the bigger engine made the car even more unreliable. 1989 was better though as I. Carlsson/Per Carlsson won the season opener in Sweden and added to their tally when they won in New Zealand as well. In the end MRTE finished third in the manufacturers championship despite only entering 6 out of the 13 events.
The long awaited new 323 GTX with the 1,8 litre engine and the viscous coupling centre differential finally arrived in the middle of 1990 at the 1000 Lakes Rally (nowadays called Rally Finland). Two of the three entered cars retired with engine trouble. Same old, same old. The 323 GTX had reportedly superb handling and was as good to drive as it's predecessor, but that didn't seem to matter at this point any more. MRTE even sent the old 323 4WD Turbo to the Rally Australia. Despite the anticipation for the new car, MRTE was still saddled with an underpowered, unreliable car. Technical director Andrew Thorburn left the team at the end of the season, but his replacment Bernard Lindauer couldn't fix the problems that the lacklustre base car brought with it either and the same problems kept hampering the team in 1991. The only notable thing about the 1991 season would be that Warmbold hired two young talented drivers, Tommi Mäkinen and Jesus Puras. Both of them had their first works outings in the uncompetitive 323 GTX before they went on to have successful careers.
1990 1000 Lakes, the debut of the 323 GTX. (https://en.wheelsage.org/mazda/323/bg/47189/pictures/ylcy0q/)
Meanwhile the 323 GT-R was conceived as Mazdas first true homologation special, in principle it was the same car as the GTX bar some changes. Visually the car looked very agressive with the bigger inlets and fog lamps in the front bumper and on the inside the engine internals were strenghtend and a bigger turbocharger and intercooler fitted which according to Mikkola would have fixed most of the reliability problems. In the wake of the disappointing season, the team sat out the 1992 season to develop the new GT-R which was due to be homologated in 1993. Mikkola seemed hopeful, but it came to nothing. Considering the bad recent results, Mazda withdrew their support of MRTE and the Mazda works team was gone for good. As MRTE was a relatively small operation with limited funds, the team didn't continue on its own either.
Carlsson, Warmbold and Mikkola looking happy between the road and Group A 323 GT-R. (http://wrcbehindthestages.blogspot.com/2012/09/photo-of-day.html)
The new 323 GT-R was homologated regardless and put to use by privateers, but it was rarley entered as a Group A car. It did however enjoy success as a Group N car and won the FIA Cup for Production Rally Drivers in 1993 as did both its predecessors in 1988 (323 4WD Turbo) and 1991 (323 GTX). The success in Group N is further proof that all 323 variants handled great but both the engine and transmission were to quickly overwhelmed by more power.
It is worth mentioning that MRTE were not the first ones to enter Mazdas in rallies, but they were a professional operation that eventually gathered interest from Mazda and received works status. In the end their lack of success can probably be attributed to limited support from Mazda and a not quite so well suited base car for rallying as many thought.