1993: McRae's maiden WRC win

Colin McRae's victory in New Zealand finally brought the 25-year-old British driver a much needed success and gave the hard-trying Subaru team its first ever World Championship victory. More than anything, Colin achieved his win amid the strongest possible opposition, even pulling away on the final day despite a fierce battle for second place between the championship contenders from Ford and Toyota

1993: McRae's maiden WRC win

It was all so controlled. "I wasn't driving faster than before, but remember when I have gone quicker I haven't always stayed on the road," the accident-prone Scot quipped afterwards.

He took the lead on the stage on which his elder team member, Ari Vatanen, hit a rock and retired, even though Juha Kankkunen, Didier Auriol, Francois Delecour and Carlos Sainz had all also led at some time or another.

New Zealand enthusiasts knew this would be a rally in a lifetime for them, but none expected also to witness the birth of a new star. Subaru is far away from the championship title, but the series is now more exciting than ever and the top manufacturers have the best fight in history on their hands. Carlos Sainz's 1992 victory in New Zealand signalled the end of a series of misfortunes and put him and Toyota, on the road to a second title. What were the chances of a fourth consecutive victory this year for the again-beleaguered reigning World Champion? For the past three years the Spaniard has won this event for Toyota, but this year his Lancia has not shown rally-winning performance. Only once in the history of the championship has one driver won the same event four years running.

This year teams may not contest more than 10 of the 13 qualifying rounds, and the New Zealand Rally was only the second of the season which all the five main championship contenders have chosen to enter. The special challenge of the highly pebbled closed public road sections, once described by double World Champion Walter Rohrl as the trickiest in the world when you strayed off your cornering line, coupled with the non-damaging nature of the surfaces, makes this rally a favourite with drivers.

And this year the change of date, which enables teams to ship cars from here to Australia in one easy movement, made it attractive for them as well. The decision to form the transport-package alliance with the organisers of the Australia Rally ensured its success.

There had been suggestions that Subaru had told Prodrive it could not run the new Impreza 555 until the Legacy had won a World Championship rally. Prodrive hedged a little, suggesting it would not be possible to enter 1000 Lakes in such circumstances. The situation injected a fever of determination.

In addition to qualifying for the world series, this was the second round of the Asia-Pacific series, led by local Subaru driver Possum Bourne after victory on the opening round. Even Bourne's first win for the 555 team in Indonesia had been no palliative.

Kankkunen went to New Zealand with his new co-driver Nicky Grist, with whom he teamed up at short notice before their winning run in Argentina. At this moment the future competition career of Juha Piironen, Kankkunen's co-driver for the past eight years now convalescing in a Helsinki hospital, is unclear though promising reports from Finland say he is now able to walk again.

Most top drivers travelled to Auckland by the weekly South Polar Aerolineas Argentinas flight the Monday after the Argentina Rally and began training after a couple of days' rest. For one European rallyman this was a second recent visit Down Under.

Didier Auriol had been in New Zealand only a few weeks before. "We went to test the car straight after the Acropolis, using various roads in the Hamilton area. I had for some while wanted them to change the handling characteristic of my car, and Michelin had to start testing their new asymmetric tyres ready for next year. You can't find a lot of wintry weather in Europe just at the moment!"

In the non-stop season, Toyota had no time to celebrate its victory in Argentina.

Another motivated driver was Ford's Francois Delecour who saw his championship lead taken away when Boreham sent team mate Miki Biasion to Argentina, and not him. This was to be Delecour's first time competing outside Europe.

New championship leader Biasion had only been to this event once before, in 1986.

Mitsubishi had a lower-key presence. The British-based team stayed behind and the Australian team arrived with Ross Dunkerton, but arrived only after last-minute work building up a Lancer to replace its faithful Galant, with which Dunkerton had been Asia Pacific champion the past two years.

The Subaru team was planning to make a quick exit after the event to get its equipment to Malaysia for the third round of the Asia Pacific series.

There were few changes to the rally format this year. Gone, under FISA's new recommendations, were the various promotional stages held on asphalt, while two of the twistiest sections on the world rally circuit had been joined together, to form a remarkable section 44km long, expected to take even the fastest crews towards 40 minutes to cover.

Before the event the Subaru drivers talked a lot about this stage. Colin McRae: "On this stage your steering wheel is always moving. It's like Corsica on gravel." The dry roads experienced in training threatened to exacerbate the already high tyre wear problem. Vatanen's co-driver Bruno Berglund: "I actually think we will be faster if it is wet, because then we will not have to go slower to conserve the tyres." The normally dour Berglund, came alive when journalists asked exactly how long they would take to cover the stage. Bearing in mind the faster opening stretches had been taken away, he predicted the winning average would be 64kph - 41 minutes! Colin did it in 37m57s.

Local man Bourne said: "This year the roads for the whole event are in far better condition than usual. After they graded the roads, the weather has allowed them to settle in excellent condition. We will be able to use far more of the width of the road than ever before."

There were anxious moments as the cars arrived for scrutineering the day before the start. FISA rules say there must be 10 cars qualifying for the Formula 2 category for points to be issued, and on the entry list there were exactly 10 of them. Happily they all appeared. The rally started with an amazing fight for the lead. By stage three, five different drivers had been in front, and by the fifth there was Delecour as well. Of the five top teams entered, only Mitsubishi had not shared the honours.

Subaru's three-car team was intact, though Bourne fell back with brake trouble on two stages, but Ford lost championship leader Biasion when he crashed on stage four.

Co-driver Tiziano Siviero explained: "The car was sliding under braking, but after it slid on the gravel the wheels touched the grass, and we rolled twice down an embankment." It was Biasion's first accident since the 1991 RAC Rally.

Toyota had minor delays. Kankkunen spun and had to drive the wrong way for 50m before turning round, and Auriol had a panic at the start of stage eight, when the car stalled between the arrival control and the start. Just in time Occelli bump-started it, but the crew was unsettled. He had also spun on the stage before. "Like Delecour, I am glad not to be leading the rally tomorrow!"

Mitsubishi lost its sole entry when Dunkerton's engine expired. "I think there is a hole in the block, but I do not know whether this happened because I missed a gear change on the first stage," he explained.

Sainz's team-mate Gustavo Trelles was struggling in eighth place, suffering badly from a broken hand he sustained in Argentina when his Lancia"s suspension collapsed.

When the rally reached Rotorua, Vatanen found himself leading unexpectedly. Delecour had finished the ninth special stage 14 seconds in front of him and 18 in front of Sainz, but then deliberately arrived at the final control two minutes (20 seconds' penalty) late, and consequently fell to third.

"I did not want to be first car on the road tomorrow, especially over the Motu stage. There is bound to be a lot of sudden ice, and it will be good to have two cars going in front of me!"

In Group N, the leader had been the Hong Kong driver Michael Lieu making his debut appearance in a Lancer Evolution, but he spun and got stuck in a narrow part of the route. He was overtaken by Yoshio Fujimoto in a similar car. Third place was held by Alex Fassina in a Mazda.

Artemenko was still leading F2 and the leading lady was Vanessa Slee (Subaru Vivio) in 43rd place, with Christine Driano going carefully in 63rd out of the 67 cars still running.

The second day started with Vatanen proving himself undaunted by Delecour's efforts to unsettle him. After his daring tactics the night before, Delecour closed to five seconds behind the leader, uncertain whether the voluntary penalty ploy had paid off. But Vatanen immediately increased his lead. On the third stage, however, his Subaru broke its suspension on a rock under braking for a corner.

Had Vatanen been tricked into over-stressing his car? Prodrive personnel said they had never heard of that part breaking before, but Ari denied suggestions he had caused the problem. "Look at my in-car video and you will see I was on the road all the time. And look at the time it took for the next car to pass and you will see we were pulling well ahead!"

For the Finn this was the third consecutive rally he had been leading, only to retire. "So long as this does not happen to me in Finland (on the 1000 Lakes) I suppose I must not complain!"

Delecour made a bad time, blaming his choice of tyres and explaining his team had no qualified course checker on whom to rely for advice. For a moment it seemed that Auriol would inherit the lead but in fact it was McRae who shot in front, jumping from fourth to first in the excitement on Motu. Another driver in trouble was Kankkunen. "I cannot keep up the pace on the long stages. The rear differential loses its efficiency and it is hopeless."

The second day's competition was even closer. The night before six seconds had separated the top three crews and when the cars returned to Rotorua after the long Gisborne loop it was five. Auriol kept his slender lead in front of McRae but Sainz had a bad day, suffering misfiring trouble on several stages (actually stopping completely on a road section before being rescued by his team"s service helicopter) and then breaking the power steering on the final stage of the day. This dropped him to fourth, 13 seconds ahead of Kankkunen.

On the second stage of the penultimate day, McRae took a lead he would keep to the end of the event. By the return that evening to Auckland he was a quarter-minute ahead, the only problems through the day being an oil leak from a cam cover just before the lunch halt at Mystery Creek, but this was rectified without time loss, even though it meant releasing the gearbox.

Auriol started the day first on the road and immediately this put him at a disadvantage. Later the rear differential gave problems and the Frenchman fell more than a half-minute behind the leader.

Kankkunen's car was running well after his rear differential was changed the evening before: "We are now too far behind. Yesterday was a long day to drive a broken car!"

Top local driver Neil Allport had a front wheel come off. "It's challenging, my nerves are shattered," said co-driver Jim Robb.

That evening more emerged about the Vatanen affair. When the ISC crew examined the in-car video they found the equipment had been set up wrongly and there was no film. The hidden rock that Vatanen hit had apparently been a well-known hazard for many years, but the Finn was unrepentant: "New Zealand is the land of my honeymoon and I love the place. My problem is that I am lucky in love but unlucky in rallying!"

The hazards of running first car on the road was thankfully not serious on the final few stages. There was a growing opinion that Colin would bring that elusive victory to Subaru, while a lot of attention swung towards the Auriol/Delecour battle. Didier restarted 19 seconds behind and at the end he was only two...

But the magic was still in front as Colin extended his lead before, finally, the best race the country had ever witnessed came to an end. But not quite.

The drivers did their traditional display of making doughnuts in the pare ferme, and Bourne set the seal on the remarkable day by spinning his Subaru into the back of Kankkunen's parked Toyota...

But nothing was going to rob McRae and Subaru of their moment of glory as the celebrations in New Zealand were matched by those in Lanark, many thousands of miles away on the opposite side of the world. It was a popular victory wherever you looked.

1990: Sainz's maiden WRC win

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