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Rallies Other Golden Age

Updated: Apr 26


When you think of the World Rally Championship, many thoughts may go through your mind. You may find yourself thinking of footage you watched growing up of Audi Quatro’s flying through continental crowds beside the road or maybe a Lancia in a beautiful Martini livery power sliding through a dusty street. You may even think of an MG on an icy Swedish trail.

 

All these thoughts have one thing in common, they are part of what many feel was the golden age of rallying, the Group B era which reached the peak of its fame from 1982 to 1986.

 

The cars were beautiful, their flared bodywork and incredible power etched in many of our minds,  the drivers were exceptional as the crowds turned up in their droves to watch their idols fly past. However I would argue that the World Rally Championship actually went through a second golden era, which is often overlooked by its classic older brother.

 

Rather than thinking about that Quatro or 037, you may find yourself thinking about a blue Subaru Impreza with gold wheels flying through the Finnish Forest, or a Citroen Xsara darting through Corsican villages.

 

For me, rally's true golden era was from 1997 through to 2006, where the regulations changed to allow manufactures to join the WRC even if they did not mass produce the car they were entering. The rule change simply introduced the “World Rally Cars” class with the intention of replacing Group A. The announcement was a huge success and saw an influx of new manufactures adding huge competition throughout the late nineties and into the early noughties.


Manufactures such as Peugeot, Hyundai, Skoda and Seat either returned or made their debut in the series alongside new efforts from the likes of Ford and Toyota. With so much new machinery, it was a hugely exciting time with multiple new entries in the numerous championships which make up a WRC event. 



It wasn’t just the cars though that took centre stage, it was the drivers as well. Tommi Makinen’s four year title taking stint was in full swing from 1996 through to 2000 with the likes of Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae, Richard Burns and Didier Auriol battling to take his crown year in year out, all in different machinery. Despite Makinen taking four titles in a row, it was never as simple as it looked on paper, with multiple rally winners a year.

 

Each week someone new would have a chance of winning, even the Class 2 manufactures like Citroen had a chance of outright wins in the late nineties due to the regulations suiting their cars at specific events, such as was the variation of the era. 

 

Examples of how close the era was including 1997, where Makinen only win the championship by a point in a nail-biting finish as Colin McRae won the last three rounds of the season, while 1998 saw Carlos Sainz’s championship slip through his fingers with only 300 yards to go, a truly heartbreaking end to a fascinating season.

 

It was also an era where technology was beginning to gather momentum from a broadcasting and gaming perspective. Colin McRae had launched his rally game which introduced the WRC to a whole new generation of thrill-seeking youngsters, creating a cult following which still exists to this day, long after McRae’s untimely passing, while TV coverage produced stunning visuals for those watching at home.


Rally’s in new exciting venues also started appearing alongside the established classics such as Rally Japan and Rally Cyprus, countries with a long history of rallying finally getting their chance on the centre stage, and producing some fantastic racing in the process. The calendar was so in demand, that some rallies found themselves having to rotate with others for their place. 



New champions reigned and became household names, such as Petter Solberg, Richard Burns and Marcus Gronholm throughout the early noughties, as the now older protagonists such as Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae continued to battle at the top. The era all changed however in 2004 when Sebastian Loeb took his first title, arguably going onto being the greatest rally driver of all time, taking nine consecutive WRC titles, an unprecedented record. 


For me, following Loeb’s dominance, the WRC has never really regained the momentum of its glory days. Despite this, WRC1 regulations ensure that the WRC remains at the tip of technology with real world cars representing three manufactures around the globe. 


Although the WRC faces a sticky period, it is still one of the greatest spectacles in the world of motorsport.

 

Images: www.mitsubishi-motors.com, www.goodwood.com

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