World Car, world recognition.
How Subaru reached world wide popularity through their World Rally Championship success only to slowly lose form in the 21th century.
After a tumultuous start in 1987 the Group A era quickly garnered traction, manufacturer interest was high and the competition was good, but it couldn't last forever. By 1996 only three manufacturers were left and the automotive industry was no longer fond of building 2500 specialized 4WD turbocharged road cars to go rallying. A regulation change was desperately needed and at the 1996 Rally Sweden the FIA announced the new World Rally Car regulations.
With the new regulations coming into effect in 1997 Prodrive who were in charge of the Subaru World Rally Team immediately set to work in Banbury. While the Impreza 555 Group A was winning right to the end, it was clear that the car had its limitations routed in its road car origins that could have only been rectified by introducing a very expensive homologation special far removed from the humble origins of a pedestrian Impreza. The freedom of the World Rally Car regulations were very welcome at Prodrive and allowed them to modify the standard production shell substantially and change the position of certain components without building a expensive road car equivalent.
The new car styled by Peter Stevens was based on the two door Impreza and with its flared arches, deep front bumper and big adjustable rear wing it looked far more aggressive than the Group A Impreza. Underneath the now iconic body shell much remained the same, at least initially. The first generation of World Rally Cars were still strongly based on their Group A predecessors and the progress was mostly detail work to fix certain flaws of the road car base. As a result the Impreza WRC S5 came with McPherson struts all round, active front and centre differentials and a H-pattern gearbox like its predecessor. The biggest change was the substantially updated engine and the bigger intercooler. The so called Impreza WRC S5 was in fact so similar to the Group A car, that it was just a homologation extension of the Group A Impreza.
A large part of the running gear and drivetrain of Impreza 555 Group A found its way into the early Imprza WRC S5. (https://en.wheelsage.org/subaru/impreza/18646/gallery/kl8t4c)
At the season ending Rally Catalunya in 1996 Prodrive presented their 1997 challenger to the public in a festive launch event and used the occasion to test the car for the first time only a few days later. Meanwhile other manufacturers were either sticking to their Group A cars or still in the early stages of development. Prodrive had a big headstart and once the season began it showed. Piero Liatti/Fabrizia Pons won the season opening Rally Monte Carlo, teammates Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander won Rally Sweden and lead driver Colin McRae (co driven by Nicky Grist) made it three out of three for the Subaru World Rally Team at the Safari Rally. The season wasn't a total walk over like the first three events suggested, but with eight victories from 14 events, Subaru won the manufacturers championship comfortably.
Impreza WRC S5 on the 1997 Rally Monte Carlo, Piero Liatti/Fabrizia Pons were the first to win with a World Rally Car. (https://wheels.iconmagazine.it/auto-classiche/amarsport/liatti-rally-monte-carlo-1997-wrc-subaru-impreza)
The Impreza WRC S5 remained competitive in 1998 but it failed to bring home a title. On the technical side Prodrive introduced a new active rear differential and started to trial the paddle operated semi automatic gearbox in a third works car towards the end of the season. In 1999 the team completely changed its driver lineup and had four time world champion Juha Kankkunen (co driven by Juha Repo), Richard Burns/Robert Ried and on a few events Bruno Thiry/Stephane Prevot in the cars. Although Prodrive was amongst the first to test semi automated gearboxes, they didn't actually introduce their hydraulically actuated paddle shift system properly until the 1999 Rally Catalunya after it was trialed by Thiry/Prevot on a few events before. Interestingly Prodrive stuck to the H-Pattern operation and didn't change to the more convenient sequential operation. The year also brought more new manufacturers to the scene, one of them was Peugeot with their revolutionary 206 WRC, which showcased immediately that a glorified Group A car would soon be insufficient.
In 2000 Prodrive reacted accordingly with the completely new Impreza WRC S6 that was introduced on the fourth round of the season. The S6 might have looked the same as the S5, but underneath it was much closer related to its eventual four door successors than the original Impreza WRC. It was the first car designed by Prodrives chief engineer Christian Loriaux. Almost 80 percent of the car was new and Loriaux placed a heavy emphasis on lightening the car and lowering the centre of gravity. All Subaru rally cars shared the basic layout of a longitudinal boxer engine in front of the front axle, for obvious reasons this is not ideal and the extensive redesign was also aimed at combating the issue. The weight distribution was improved and as much mass as possible was placed between the axles to lower the moment of inertia. The Impreza WRC S6 instantly delivered on the Rally Portugal and won in the hands of Burns/Ried. Although Burns/Ried won more stages than anybody else that year, they had to settle for second in the championship behind Marcus Grönholm/Timo Rautiainen in the Peugeot 206 WRC.
Richard Burns/Robert Ried with the new Impreza WRC S6 on the victorious debut in Portugal. (https://en.wheelsage.org/subaru/impreza/813/gallery/229772)
After David Richards sold part of Prodrive to buy the WRC promoter International Sportsworld Communicators from Bernie Ecclestone, he stepped down from his team principal role and was superseded by his long time colleague and Prodrive technical director David Lapworth. It was not the only significant change, as Subaru launched the second generation Impreza in 2000 which formed the basis of the new car that was introduced in 2001. The bigger four door Impreza WRC S7 looked totally different, but technically it was closely related to the previous S6 model. The difference in size between the two cars wasn't huge, but the wheelbase stayed almost the same which made it even more difficult to compensate for the longitudinal engine. A compact car with a wheel in each corner it was not. Throughout the year the Impreza WRC S7 was hampered by technical troubles and Subaru only won a single event. It turned out to be a positive season regardless as Burns/Ried victory in New Zealand was enough for them to secure the drivers title. Despite the success Burns/Ried departed to Peugeot in 2002 and were replaced by four time world champion Tommi Mäkinen (co driven by Kaj Lindström) who immediately won at the season opening Rally Monte Carlo. In 2002 Prodrive updated the engine in many areas but inevitably, their engine was no longer a benchmark. The unique Boxer layout was a fan favourite for a reason, but it brought disadvantages with it. Having two opposed cylinder banks and only one turbocharger isn't ideal, furthermore the oversquare bore/stroke ratio wasn't suited to small restrictors that prevent the engine to breath freely at high rpm. Another setback for Prodrive came during the year when innovative chief engineer Loriaux moved to Ford. Nevertheless the year ended on a high as Petter Solberg/Phil Mills won the Rally GB, a good omen for the 2003 season.
Richard Burns/Robert Ried on the 2001 Acropolis Rally with the Impreza WRC S7, the first iteration of the second generation Impreza. (https://en.wheelsage.org/subaru/impreza/ii/gd_gg/sedan/subaru_impreza_wrc/pictures/116004)
In 2003 Prodrive introduced the Impreza WRC S9. The new car was just a facelift, but of course the changes went beyond the aesthetics like the new rear wing with four vertical strakes to maximise downforce at high yaw angles. The era of the active cars was reaching its peak at the time as the World Rally Car regulations were incredibly loose. Prodrive traditionally excelled in this area and introduced active anti roll bars at the 2003 Rally Sanremo. Solberg/Mills were in the midst of the title fight at that point of the season which concluded with four drivers still in contention at Rally GB. Solberg/Mills won the rally and with it the drivers title, but the manufacturers title went to newcomers Citroën, a sign for things to come.
2003 Monte Carlo Rally, the debut of the Impreza WRC S9. (https://en.wheelsage.org/subaru/impreza/ii/gd_gg_1/sedan/subaru_impreza_wrc_2/pictures/caen11)
The updated Impreza WRC S10 was still very competitive in 2004 as Solberg/Mills won five rallies, but the year didn't deliver any titles. At the time Prodrive introduced a very innovative anti lag system. ALS was used in rally cars since the early nineties, but it was either a throttle bypass system (retarding the ignition, enriching the fuel mixture) or a inlet bypass system (feeding air to the exhaust manifold). The Prodrive ALS was in essence similar to the inlet bypass type, but it incorporated a small combustion chamber in the exhaust manifold which made the whole system much more efficient. At this point the Citroën era had well and truly began though and the 2005 season showed. Subaru won only three rallies in 2005 and one of them was gifted to them by Citroën following the fatal accident of Michael “Beef” Park, the co driver of Markko Märtin at Rally GB.
There was much hope ahead of the 2006 season, but the year proved to be a major disappointment. The new Impreza WRC S12 was at its core still the same car as its predecessors but followed the road going Impreza with the styling changes. Technically the cars were simplified in 2006 and as such features like active front/rear differentials and active suspension were no longer present. Numerous technical problems hindered the team, while the car was ultimately not fast enough and Subaru didn't win a rally for the first time since 1992. The writing was on the wall before but it now seemed that the potential of the Impreza was finally exhausted. 2007 was a similar story as the team slipped further back and failed to win a rally. A large portion of the blame was attributed to the Bos dampers Prodrive used at the time, but the shorter suspension travel and worse weight distribution compared to its predecessor were likely the bigger factors.
Petter Solberg/Phil Mills with the Impreza WRC S12 on the 2006 Rally Italia Sardegna (https://en.wheelsage.org/subaru/impreza/ii/gd_gg_2/sedan/subaru_impreza_wrc/pictures/202098)
David Richards made a return as team principal in 2008, by which point the venerable second generation Impreza was in its final days of competition. Chris Atkinson/Stephane Prevot gave the updated Impreza WRC S12b a fitting send off with four podiums in six rallies before the new Impreza WRC S14 was introduced earlier than first planned. The car marked a major change as it was now a slightly shorter hatchback with a 95mm longer wheelbase than the previous saloon. The S14 was at least in theory a step into the right direction. The rest of the car stayed very much true to the Subaru ethos and had the traditional boxer engine hanging out front while other manufacturers tilted their transverse engines backwards against the bulkhead. Technical director David Lapworth was hopeful that the improvements in weight distribution were enough to offset the disadvantage of the longitudinal engine and proclaimed that more mass was now sitting between the axles as before. The S14 also had more front suspension travel as the S12, which was achieved by inclining the struts. The debut of the car was promising as Solberg/Mills finished second, but despite a further podium for the car with Atkinson/Prevot in Finland, it was obvious that Ford and Citroën still enjoyed an advantage.
Petter Solberg/Phil Mills with the Impreza WRC S14 on the 2008 Rally GB, the last outing for the Subaru works team. (https://en.wheelsage.org/subaru/impreza/14675/pictures/gf4vzp)
Due to the sudden withdrawal of Subaru, the Impreza WRC S14 never had the chance to be developed further and get closer to Ford and Citroën. There were rumours at the time that the relationship between Prodrive and Subaru was not in the best state any more, but officially the financial crisis of 2008 and limited further marketing gains were quoted as the reasons behind the decision. With the help of Prodrive, Subaru found success in motorsport and completely changed its image to become one of the most popular brands in rallying. To this day Subaru is missed by rally fans around the world and rumours about them reentering the sport are frequently spread but sadly no positive signs came from Japan so far.
The Prodrive-Subaru partnership in the Group A days:
How Subaru followed in the footsteps of its Japanese rivals to transform from an also run to World Rally Champions.