Rally Finland 1992: Colin McRae and the unbreakable Subaru
Finland is the spiritual home of rallying, a land where the only things that fly higher, longer and faster than the local rally drivers are the Finnair pilots cruising the skies between Helsinki and the rally base at Jyvaskyla. It’s the only event in the World Championship that has been there, unbroken, from the start (nor has it moved from its central Finland base in its 62-year history) and in all that time only four non-Scandinavian drivers have ever won.
In 1992 Didier Auriol took the honours, two years after Carlos Sainz finally broke the local stranglehold on the event but it was the man who finished eighth behind Auriol who won the crowds over.
Colin McRae, then still with only five overseas WRC events to his name, made his debut on the 1000 Lakes Rally (the event also known as the Finnish Grand Prix in keeping with its status as the fastest event in the series) as it was called before the less evocative Rally Finland. There’s an old motorsport adage that says, ‘to finish first, first you must finish’ and for the young McRae that was still something of a challenge…
Back then Subaru was still running the early pre-Rothmans/555 liveried Legacy but the white car with its flashes of green and pink would become the star of the show. It didn’t start well though.
Pre-event testing saw McRae’s car battered and bruised from a hefty roll as the Scot tried to learn the nature of the roller-coaster gravel roads. They are so smooth that cars can almost run asphalt suspension but the grip-levels are notoriously hard to read and pace notes need to be almost three-dimensional as cars can literally turn in the air if a jump is in the middle of a corner. The locals learn this at the same time they learn their incomprehensible language but for visitors it’s a tough one.
There is a famous piece of video footage of McRae having a second go at turning his Legacy into an Impreza. The car appears over a crest and veers off the right side of the road, rolling quite literally through and over the trees (fortunately young and flexible saplings) and as soon as all four wheels hit the deck the Scot has the car in gear heading back to the road.
The fans quickly decided that McRae was far more fun than their bottles of Koff beer and gathered in their droves to see this youngster who was matching their previous heroes of Henri Toivonen and Ari Vatanen for sheer commitment. Having said that, while they lined the stages to see the action even the Finns took a precautionary step backwards as the sound of the Legacy approached – you never really knew where Colin was going to have his next accident!
In 1992 servicing wasn’t centralised as it is now and teams set up camp after almost every stage in lay-bys, garage forecourts and, in this case, someone’s driveway. I was chatting to Subaru’s technical guru David Lapworth when we heard Derek Ringer on the radio explaining that they had finished the stage and were on their way to service – albeit with some damage that needed fixing. David and I wandered down the drive to wave the car in and our jaws dropped as the legacy lurched over the brow of the road, crabbing sideways from the second roll of the event.
The mechanics set to work as David Richards joined us to oversee the operation. The extent of the damage was clear when the spannermen jacked up the rear of the car and the axle stayed where it was, held in place by little more than gravity! ‘DR’ admitted later that he probably should have pulled McRae out of the event there and then for safety reasons (his as much as anyone else’s!) but as the Scot was winning the hearts and minds of the Finns with every stage kilometre he decided to send the wreck out once more. This time the wheels stayed pointing downwards – mainly – for the rest of the way to eighth place and possibly the biggest cheer of anyone when what was left of the car dragged itself over the finish ramp.
McRae never did really master Finland. With Ford he managed second in 2000 and third the year after but on his six other starts between 1996 and 2003 he never even made the finish, crashing out of the ’96 event in front of the team management was one of the catalysts for a change of co-driver for the 1997 season. But the memory of that debut drive in 1992 will linger forever in the minds of anyone who was there!
By Keith Oswin