THE STORY OF HOW WRC'S GREATEST FOURSOME CHANGED MOTORSPORT FOREVER
When one thinks of WRC, they think back to the days of the 1980s, where Group B was at its height. The sheer speed of the cars and the dangerosity of the event made fans all around the world glued to the sport. The 1980s is often known as the Golden days of WRC, and one could argue also Formula One, however too many people have forgotten the epic rivalry that was forged after the departure of the one of the greatest WRC teams of all time: Lancia.
LANCIA'S GROUP B DAYS (1982-1987)
Lancia joined the sport in 1982 when the sport had transitioned into Group B. Martini Racing had signed a deal with Lancia to use their 037. One thing people forget is that Lancia didn't find acclaim straight away, in fact, in their first season, they only finished ninth in the manufacturers championship.
However in 1983, they won the manufacturers cup with their two full-time drivers finishing 2nd and 3rd. This would be the start of the domination of Lancia in the sport, or was it?
In 1984 and 1985 they finished second and third in the manufacturers cup, and absolutely no hope of a drivers championship title. In 1984, its was Audi who were the faster team, and then in 1985 it was Peugeot.
This occurred once more in the fifth and final season of Group B rally, where they finished in second place with their Lancia Delta S4, with Peugeot once more winning the title, however it was rather hollow, as the Group B sport was cancelled after Henri Toivenen and his co-driver, who were racing for Lancia, died in a fireball at the Tour De Corse, killing three spectators and injuring thirty.
This was a desperately sad time in WRC, and whilst all manufacturers mourned the death of Toivenen and Group B, Lancia began to use this as an opportunity. Besides winning the title in 1983, they hadn't been able to quite achieve what they aimed, which was the win both titles in one season, and boy did they achieve this when Group B was introduced.
LANCIA'S EARLY GROUP A DOMINATION (1987-1989)
1987, the first year of Group A, can be seen as the most dominated season of all time in the sport. Lancia, with their Delta HF won the constructors championship and their three drivers finished 1-2-3 in the drivers cup, Kakkunen edging Biasion for his second title in the sport. They had won every event they entered, and no team, whether it was Audi or Renault, couldn't even compete with them. In fact, if you added up the total amounts of points Audi and Renault scored collectively, they only would have won the manufacturers cup by five points.
They won the title again in 1988 and 1989, with Biasion winning both the titles, and the famous Integrale was introduced in 1988, however even though Lancia had now done the double three times on the trot, the sport was slowly beginning to change.
In 1988 a new contender had emerged to challenge the dominance of Lancia, that being Toyota. The team hadn't been in the sport for long, but in 1988 they finished in fifth place, which sounded a bit meagre, but in 1989 they leapfrogged Audi and Ford, who were the best of the rest at the time to finish in second place.
Whilst Lancia had Auroil and 1988 champion Biasion, who would become the 1989 champion as well, Toyota were assembling their own crack team, consisting of Juha Kakkunen as team leader, with Kenneth Eriksson and future double WRC world champion Carlos Sainz.
Toyota only won one rally in 1989, that belonging to Kakkunen in Australia, whilst teams such as Mazda and Mitsubishi claiming two wins each, however they were both only competing with Lancia on certain rallies where their car excelled, whilst Toyota were in the hunt in all of the rallies. Many wondered if Toyota would be able to mount a title challenge to Lancia after three years of domination in the sport.
LANCIA V TOYOTA (1990-1992)
Well, in 1990, Toyota lost Kankkunen to Lancia, with Sainz, at the age of just 28, taking up the slack of team-leader. Sainz, now the sole, hope of Toyota, dominated the season.
It wasn't that he won all of the rallies, in fact only winning four rallies, it was that he was consistent, finishing on the podium all but twice in the season. The trio of Auriol, Kakkunen and reigning champion Biasion finished close together in second, third and fourth place, allowing Lancia to regain the manufacturers title once more, but now they had a serious challenger.
Behind these two teams, Mitsubishi had now become the best of the rest team, claiming three podiums throughout the season, with Subaru on the rise, but along with Ford those three teams were no where.
In 1991, Lancia resumed their domination. Kakkunen, once a Toyota driver, won the title taking five rally wins, however one wouldn't call this domination. In fact, defending champion Sainz lead the season multiple times, only losing out by seven points, due to a retirement in Spain in the penultimate round of the title. Toyota only finished nine points behind Lancia in the manufacturers cup, but once again Lancia won their fifth consecutive manufacturers cup.
1991 also saw the break of the dominance of Toyota and Lancia in the sport. Mitsubishi, with Kenneth Eriksson, won his home rally in Sweden and thus finished third in the manufacturers cup. Subaru and Ford also lurked behind Mitsubishi, however once again the trio of teams couldn't break the mould that Lancia and now Toyota had created.
1992 resumed the intense battle between Toyota and Lancia, and like in 1990, they split the pot between themselves. Sainz and Kakkunen were once again involved in an intense battle for the title, although Auriol was leading the season at the halfway point, claiming the most wins of the season; 5. It was a last-minute brace of wins for Sainz in Spain and the UK that allowed the Spaniard to take his second title, finishing ten points ahead of the Finnish Lancia driver. However for the sixth consecutive season Lancia took the constructors title.
Since the formation of Group A, Lancia and now Toyota had dominated the category, could Ford, Mitsubishi or Subaru finally break the grip that the two teams had on the sport?
CAN ANYONE STOP TOYOTA? (1993-1994)
The answer is, sort of. The drivers market for the 1993 season saw a see-saw of movement. Sainz, the defending champion, moved to Lancia. Auriol and Kankkunen moved to Toyota whilst Biasion moved to the up and coming team of Ford. '93 also saw McRae join Subaru.
In the drivers championship, Kankkunen won his second title, rather easily compared to the previous three seasons, but Delecour of Ford Racing was the closest competitor, with Lancia seriously struggling for the first time in their history of WRC. The Italian team failed to take a win in 1993, finishing fourth in the manufacturers cup and Sainz a dismal sixth place. 1993 was the last season that Lancia competed in. In the manufacturers cup Toyota finally completed to the double, defeating Ford in a fascinating duel. There was a new heavyweight constructor in the title, and now Ford, Subaru, and Mitsubishi gave chase.
This was a intriguing time in the sport. Now seven years after the death of Group B, many had wondered if the sport would survive and keep the attention of the fans, but we now had four teams at the top of the sport all competing for rally wins, and a deadly rivalry began to form between the teams.
I think we need to take a break for a second and try and showcase the rivalries for a minute. In 1993, F1 saw the battle of McLaren and Williams. The rivalry was generally friendly, but in WRC, if you thought Spygate in 2007 was big, well, this sort of stuff was already happening in WRC in the early nineties.
Moving onto the 1994 season, and after Lancia's resignation from the sport, Sainz now moved to Subaru to partner to Colin McRae. Despite the strong line-up, the duo couldn't topple the Toyota's. This time around, it was Didier Auriol who finally took his first title defeating Carlos Sainz in an intense battle for the title, with McRae finishing fourth. Toyota won both titles again, but Subaru had the momentum of an ever developing car, and this created the scandal of Toyota's 1995 Celica.
1995: SUBARU VANQUISH TOYOTA
In 1995, Subaru were seriously quick. There were only eight rallies on the calendar, but the duo of Sainz and McRae battled for the title throughout the season. Kakkunen was on the razors-edge in staying in contention for the title, until the FIA discovered what Toyota had been doing to keep their Celica in contention.
To put it simply (I think technologically its for another article), Toyota were using an illegal turbo restrictor on their car. FIA president Max Mosley called it "the most sophisticated device I've ever seen in 30 years of motor sports." Due to this, Toyota were stripped of their points in the 1995 season and banned from the 1996 season, giving Subaru a free-hand in the title race.
McRae finished on the podium five times, with Sainz only fourth, giving the Scotsman the title by five points. Erikkson of Mitsubishi won two rallies and due to Toyota's departure from the sport finished in third place in the drivers championship, albeit a distant one. Mitsubishi finished second in the manufacturers cup, and would be the sole contender for Subaru in 1996.
We should mention that Ford was lurking around all of this time. In the past four seasons, they finished third in the manufacturers championship three times and second once, but were not able to crack the block of Toyota and Subaru, much like when Toyota and Lancia were dominating the sport.
1996-1999: MAKINEN, MAKINEN & MAKINEN
1996 was an extremely interesting season for WRC. With no Toyota, everyone had expected Subaru to have a field day, with McRae and Sainz favourites for another title, however this wasn't the case. Due to their consistency of winning rallies, Subaru were able to retain the manufacturers cup by quite a distance, but in 1996 Tommy Makinen came onto the scene.
The Finn shocked the world when he won five rallies in seven events, finishing on the podium six times. He had effectively won the title at the halfway point, with McRae and Sainz only able to pick up podiums and the occasional rally win.
Before we continue this in-depth analysis of the deep rivalry between these teams, I think we must remember how exciting this time was for WRC. Take the prospect of the 1997 season for example. We had Subaru, who had two World Champions vying for more, we had Mitsubishi, who now had the drivers championship under their belt, we had Toyota, who were dominating the sport before they were banned for the 1996 season, and then we had Ford, who were consistently lurking in the background, trying to find a loophole to get their car into a championship-challenging position. Imagine if we had that with F1 now.
1997 saw new regulations for the sport. Ten years after Group A was introduced, WRC regulations came to light, meaning that manufacturers no longer needed to make road-legal cars of their rally cars. The new season saw Hyundai, Seat, Cirtroen and Peugeot all competing under the new regulations, whilst Subaru gradually transitioned to the new regulations, and Subaru continued to compete under the Group A regulations for the 1997 season.
Mitsubishi flopped in the drivers championship, but Makinen was somehow to continue to perform at a championship-winning level. The season quickly became once again a tale of three; McRae, Sainz - now at Ford, and Makinen. As the season progressed, Makinen became the favourite once more, whilst McRae became the sole challenger to Makinen. McRae won the final three rallies in the season, but it wasn't enough for a second title, finishing just one point behind Makinen. Subaru won their third consecutive manufacturers cup, but somehow Mitsubishi won the drivers title again.
And what of Toyota? Well, they didn't enter the season until the final four rallies, but they seemed that in 98 they would be back in title contention. We now had four teams that all had great prospects of winning the season, although to be fair, since Lancia left the sport, we haven't had a season where there was total domination.
Now that Toyota had entered WRC full-time once more, Sainz once again changed his affiliations, this time back to Toyota, where he had won both of his previous titles. Kankkunen was racing for Ford once more, McRae for Subaru, and Makinen and Richard Burns for Mitsubishi.
Mitsubishi claimed their one and only manufacturers title in 1998, and Makinen also won his third consecutive title. Despite leading the season at the beginning of the calendar, it was Sainz who looked on course for his third title. Makinen however did what McRae did to him last year, and win three consecutive rallies near the end of the season to get back into contention.
1998 saw arguably the craziest ending to a season. Makinen had retired early on in the rally at GB, meaning Sainz only had to score three points to win the title. He was running in fourth place, looking set for his third title, when on the final stage, his Toyota stopped three hundred metres short of the finish line due to a mechanical failure. This surrendered his fourth place, and Makinen, who was about to get ready to go home, was now the world champion for the third season in a row. Once in a lifetime stuff.
1999 was the last season where the famous four finished in the top four of the WRC standings. After that, Peugeot and Citroen mainly dominated the sport, but we'll get to that in a minute.
McRae had moved to Ford and Burns to Subaru. The Brit mounted a serious title challenge for the first time in his career, but Makinen won the title by seven points with one round spare. The Finn now had won four titles a row. He was the most successful WRC driver of all time, and had done what Schumacher was about to do in Formula One, albeit entertaining.
2000-2009: THE DISBANDMENT OF THE FAB FOUR
Toyota pulled out of the sport in 2000 to focus on Formula, but as we know re-entered the sport in 2017, and are now the manufacturers champions. Out of the fab four, Ford were now the most successful of them all, but Peugeot and Citroen won the next six titles between them.
For Mitsubishi, they continued to race in the sport until 2006. In those six years, they were never near the front as they were in the nineties, and would never achieve this again to this day.
For Subaru, they continued until 2008, when they pulled out due to the global recession around the world. Unlike Mitsubishi, they were still near the top of the sport, and in their final nine seasons In WRC, they finished in third place in the manufacturers title seven times.
Finally we have Ford. After Peugeot lost their dominance in 2003 to Citroen, they became the sole challenger to Citroen, and in fact, despite Sebastian Loeb winning the drivers championship every time since 2004, Ford had won the title in 2006 and 2007. Ford would later evolve to M-Sport, and of course we all know M-Sport.
Currently there are some great rivalries between teams all around motorsport. We have the ever evolving rivalry between Mercedes and Ferrari in F1, and the intriguing situation in WRC right now, where there is no outright top-dog team, but the 90s saw arguably the greatest rivalry in WRC history.
We had Toyota, Subaru, Mitsubishi disputing the seasons for a whole decade, winning seven consecutive titles between them, with Ford also in the hunt multiple times, and Lancia and Toyota's heavyweight battle from 1990-1992. We don't really have that sort of heavy rivalry between teams anymore, and we must remember the 90s in WRC as one of the most entertaining decades of the sport, even thought it had evolved from the death of Group B rallying.
Group A and the World Rally Car changed motorsport for the decades to come. It showcased how motorsport could have one team dominating and still the sport was entertaining to the fans. Though Group B was much more of a... exhilarating time for WRC, the 90s saw technological marvels in the rally car which would have knock-on effects to this very day.
I would love to know what you think about the awesome rivalry between this trio of teams, and whether you agree with me that the 90s in WRC was one of the most entertaining times not just in WRC, but in motorsport around the globe. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.