- Carlos Sainz 1997 Ford Escort WRC

World Rally Championship: From Group A to Group C

W​hen Group B events and proposed Group S events were banned following the deaths of drivers and spectators, many thought that the WRC is over for good.

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In 1997 many world-shaking incidents happened. NASA Pathfinder lander and Sojourner rover landed on Mars and took photos of the surface; Deep Blue Chess Playing AI developed by IBM defeated the undisputed king of chess, Garry Kasparov in less than twenty moves; Hong Kong returned to the governance of the Chinese government from UK rule; Princess Diana called for an immediately effective international ban on land mines, and she died later the same year; Kyoto Protocol Agreed at a global warming conference in Kyoto; Microsoft became the world's most valuable company with a net value of $261 billion; Tony Blair became the Prime Minister of the UK; Scottish Referendum took place which resulted in the creation of Scottish parliament which took operations by July 1999; World Stock Market crash due to the global economic crisis following the free fall on 24 November. This list goes on.

World Rally Championship rules for 1997 were also "world-shaking".

When Group B was banned following the deaths of Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto a decade ago, all the manufacturers had to abandon their ambition-driven Group B cars and were forced to participate in 1987 Group A events.

To participate in WRC Group A events, the manufacturers now had to produce and sell at least 5000 units of the base car.

Lancia ECV Group S

Lancia ECV Group S

Lancia abandoned its beautiful Lancia ECV prototype developed to compete in Group S events following the cancellation of Group S and immediately came up with a turbocharged Delta HF 4WD. Audi Quattro was phased out in favour of Audi 200 Quattro. Mazda began working on Mazda 323, while Mitsubishi began working on EVO VI.

However, these cars were very different animals and had very little in common with their predecessors that went on to dominate the WRC events. Still, these cars won WRC rallies in 1987, the first year to feature Group A as the World Rally Championship's main category.

Lancia Delta S4 was a specifically built rally-going monster of a car while the Lancia Delta HF 4WD was basically a road-going car with many performance improvements to make it more powerful and competitive. Delta S4 in comparison packed twice the power.

Markku Allen driving Lancia Delta HF 4WD at the 1987 RAC Rally

Markku Allen driving Lancia Delta HF 4WD at the 1987 RAC Rally

It is said that when Markku Alén tested the Lancia Delta HF 4WD for the first time, he thought it was some sort of a practical joke. With a laugh, he asked the team mechanics where the real rally car is.

Professional rally driver's found this transition from the specifically built rally demons to the dressed-up road-going cars as somewhat boring. However, with FIA calling the shots and deciding what to do and not, this transition was inevitable due to safety concerns.

With no other option than to adapt, automotive manufacturers were getting prepared to commit to the production of the required minimum 5000 examples.

Ford came up with the ever successful Ford Escort Cosworth, Toyota with rally-spec Celica, Mitsubishi with Lancer Evo series, and Subaru with Legacy and Impreza.

Celica GT4 at 1991 Argentina Rally

Celica GT4 at 1991 Argentina Rally

With the mass production brands like Ford, and Toyota adapted the new requirements without much difficulty, Mitsubishi and Subaru went on to redefine their image in the automotive world.

Not all the manufacturers could fully pledge to the Group A requirements mainly due to the limited resources they had. Soon, it was evident that WRC authorities had to offer a new category in between Group B and Group A. This is how Group C rallying came to life.

Group C rallying requirements for the FIA WRC 1997 season mandated that a manufacturer needed to build and sell more than 25,000 examples of the entry car, however, the car didn't have to be turbocharged or four-wheel drive. This meant that vehicles such as the Subaru Impreza, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, or Ford Escort RS Cosworth no longer had to be mass-produced for sale to comply with rallying requirements.

1996 Ford Escort RS Cosworth 2.0

1996 Ford Escort RS Cosworth 2.0

These regulations developed the WRC series into a cost-effective high-performance motorsport program without taking away the true spirit of rally racing.

Now the likes of Hyundai, Seat, Skoda, Citroen, Peugeot, and Renault have become rally dominators with their cost-effective cars based on cars that the average people could actually afford or owned, without having to manufacture equivalent specialized road cars for public use.

The transition from Group A to Group C brought down many barriers allowing car manufactures to compete with significantly lower costs. Subaru and Ford switched to WRC Group C in 1997, but Mitsubishi stayed with Group A to maintain the brand presence and commercial success of their Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Subaru Impreza WRC still shared much with its Group A predecessor.

The rally events were now shorter and more compact, and the event rotation system used in the previous three seasons was dropped. The WRC entrants were now required to commit to an expanded fourteen events per season for the first time in WRC.

1997 WRC season was dominated by Ford, Mitsubishi, and Subaru.

Subaru won the Manufacturer's title while Tommi Mäkinen won the driver's world championship in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IV by a single point ahead of Subaru Impreza WRC driven by Colin McRae after the final RAC rally in Great Britain. The third place went to Ford Escort WRC driven by Carlos Sainz.

Subaru Impreza WRX at 1998 Rally Queensland

Subaru Impreza WRX at 1998 Rally Queensland

In the 1998 WRC season, Team Mitsubishi Ralliart won the Manufacturer's world championship with their Group A while Tommi Mäkinen won his third consecutive world driver's championship.

Subaru finished in second place while the third place went to Toyota.

In 1999, Tommi Mäkinen won his fourth consecutive world rally championship driving for Mitsubishi. The manufacturer's title went to Toyota with Subaru and Mitsubishi closely on its tail.

Rally Catalunya was won by Philippe Bugalski in a Citroen Xsara kit car, the first rally wins for a front-wheel drive car since Alain Oreille's 1989 Rallye Côte d'Ivoire win in his Renault 5. Philippe won Tour de Corse three weeks later.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI Tommi Makinen Edition

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI Tommi Makinen Edition

Soon, it was evident that front wheel drive FIA 2.0-liter World Rally Cup cars built specifically to compete in tarmac now capable of outperforming the WRC cars. To address this newfound threat, new regulations were introduced for the 2000 racing season.

The 2000 World Rally Championship season was dominated by Marcus Grönholm in a Peugeot 206 WRC securing him the driver's title and manufacture's title for Peugeot. Second place went for Ford while Subaru secured the third.

Marcus Grönholm driving Peugeot 206 WRC in Rally Catalunya 2000

Marcus Grönholm driving Peugeot 206 WRC in Rally Catalunya 2000

Tommi Mäkinen was now in fifth place in the points table while Mitsubishi was fourth on the manufacturer's points table.

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