Autosport 70: Colin McRae's biggest WRC decision
This week in 1998 Colin McRae decided to leave Subaru, the team that had made him a World Rally champion, to join Ford. In two pieces, published in the 13 August 1998 and 1 October 1998 issues of the magazine, Autosport found out why
"I could stay with Subaru and possibly be there for the rest of my career or I could go to Ford and take up a new challenge. I could justify staying because the team has been built around me and I know everyone, but perhaps this is the time to bite the bullet and take a fresh direction."
That was the way Colin McRae was thinking two months ago and last Wednesday, his 30th birthday, he jumped ship. His eight-year partnership with Subaru will end after November's Network Q RAC Rally. When the FIA World Rally Championship reconvenes in January in Monte Carlo, McRae will be wearing the blue oval of Ford and driving the new Focus WRC, a car that is still in kit form at Malcolm Wilson's M-Sport base in Cumbria.
It's a hell of a challenge and McRae is aware that he could fall flat on his face, but the package on offer was too good to pass up. The details must remain the subject of speculation for anyone outside the negotiating team, but it is believed that McRae will be nearly £6million better off by the time he next sits down to consider his future.
Subaru says it knew as early as last October that it might have to face up to losing its star driver. It is believed paperwork has been flying between Ford and McRae since March. However, his father, Jimmy (like Colin a former British Rally champion but now a linchpin in negotiating his son's future), insists the deal was still up in the air until the last minute.
"I'd been to Malcolm's to see the operation and Colin joined me at Dunton (Ford's development centre) to see more of the project," says McRae Sr. "If he didn't like what he saw he would have walked away from it and stayed with Subaru.
"There was still an argument for waiting a year to see how the Focus went but I think he realised that it was better getting in at the start of a project and, once again, building a team around him."
McRae's deliberations have been the subject of intense speculation in recent weeks and, for the first time, a British driver has held the key to the transfer market. With his signature now on a Ford contract, the domino effect will take over and a run of driver changes are expected to take place before the end of the month.
"Ford's total commitment of winning the World Rally Championship means that my own ambitions don't need to be put on hold while the new car is developed" Colin McRae
"I think it's fantastic for British rallying and for the sport in general," continues McRae Sr. "It's generated so much interest it's been incredible and I think it's good that drivers change around a bit from time to time. It keeps everyone on their toes and stops people stagnating."
When McRae was considering his future he admitted that, should he opt for Ford, he wouldn't expect to be winning next season: "If it happens it'll be a bonus, but I can't go to Ford expecting that. If you expect to win then you'll be disappointed, but if you go with an open mind then when you do come out on top it's a nice surprise."
However, things may have changed. His comments on Monday suggested he had high hopes of adding to his total of 16 wins: "Ford's total commitment of winning the World Rally Championship means that my own ambitions don't need to be put on hold while the new car is developed."
McRae leaves behind a team that would not be where it is without his efforts over the past seven years. When Subaru first launched the big Legacy RS onto the rally scene at the start of the 1991 season, few people other than farmers had heard of it. However, McRae put his 'Colin McCrash' days behind him (for a while at least!) and promptly took the Rothmans-backed car to the British title.
The next year he repeated the feat, unbeaten on each of the five events. Suddenly everyone had heard of Subaru. Now the cars are being sold to a very different market.
David Richards, Prodrive's boss and the man who gambled his reputation on the Scot, admits being disappointed at losing his 'find' but is quick to praise his contribution: "Colin wouldn't have got where he is today without Subaru but, equally, we wouldn't be where we are without him. It's obviously a disappointment to see him go but I hope we can work together again one day."
If persistent rumours that Ford's rally programme might be heading for Prodrive a few years hence - as part of the Formula 1/British Touring Car package with Richards at the helm - come true then he might get his wish in a bizarre twist of fate.
"I've learned never to deny anything that might one day come true," adds Richards.
McRae still has a championship to win and he goes to the final four events snapping at Carlos Sainz's heels. He may be denied access to the latest technology being tested at Subaru for 1999 but there seems to be a commitment to snaring a fourth successive world championship for the team.
With or without the number one on his door for 1999, Ford knows it has landed one of the fastest drivers in the series.
"We've got a dream team," says Wilson. "We'll be aiming to win a few events next year, but our focus is the 2000 WRC."
Ford's first WRC Focus
What sort of car does a man earning £6million drive? A Ford Focus, of course. McRae's 320hp, four-wheel-drive mount for the next two WRC seasons was unveiled at the Paris Motor Show in September (1998), giving rivals the first chance to view the car that Ford has wagered millions on to bring the rallying world title back to Britain.
Not since the world-beating Escort Mk1 was introduced in the 1960s has Ford simultaneously launched road and rally versions of a new car. The links to the company's all-conquering Mk1 and Mk2 Escorts don't end there. Just as the Escort was king in rallying's heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, Ford is banking on the Focus being a world-beater as rallying enters arguably its most exciting chapter; one of live TV and expanding entry lists.
"Any win next year would be fantastic, but to expect one before the second half of the year would be asking a bit much. One thing is for sure though; this car will put Ford back at the top, where it belongs" Malcolm Wilson
"Rallying is on the verge of taking off," says Martin Whitaker, Ford's director of European Motorsport. "Somebody's about to light the afterburner and the sport is going to go off like a rocket. We want to be on top, just as we were when rallying last enjoyed such popularity." (What about Group B?! - ed)
Built in total secrecy by former British Rally champion Wilson's M-Sport team at a temporary workshop at Millbrook in Bedfordshire, the Focus has gone from conception to competition in 38 weeks. Even so, Ford's new baby has yet to turn a wheel.
Inaugural testing, in the hands of the 1995 champion, will take place at Millbrook within a month. The reportedly lightweight and torsionally stiff car's competition debut, subject to disaster-free testing, will be on the Monte Carlo Rally in January. Behind the wheel will be McRae in his debut for the Blue Oval.
"I am itching to get in the Focus," he enthused from a Spanish holiday last week. "The car was a big factor in choosing to join Ford. It is as close as you can get to the ultimate rally car."
Wilson, who runs Ford's WRC programme, is careful to play down expectations of the new car. So far unable to give the company a win in 1998, talk of victory doesn't come easily.
"The first three rounds of next year are all specialist events. Monte can be icy, Sweden will be snowy and the Safari is as much about tactics as out and out pace," says Wilson. "Only when we get to Rally Portugal will we know if the Focus is competitive.
"Any win next year would be fantastic, but to expect one before the second half of the year would be asking a bit much. One thing is for sure though; this car will put Ford back at the top, where it belongs."
Wilson was already prepared to put the Focus build programme into action when the green light came on in the new year. He dedicated a 15-strong team of engineers to M-Sport South, as his Millbrook base has been nicknamed. By late February the slippery car was taking shape.
"Logistically, the Midlands was the place to be," explains Gunther Steiner (below), formerly of Prodrive and Mazda and now project manager for Focus at Millbrook. "Many of our suppliers, like Xtrac and Mountune, are in that area. It would have taken a lot of extra hours to get parts up and down from Cumbria."
Two bodyshells are currently being finished at Millbrook, one in gravel specification and the other for asphalt. There are plans for six cars in total for McRae and his as-yet unnamed team-mate.
"We are hoping that Colin will be free after the RAC to start testing, but before that it will be me and a top-line driver who will share it," says Wilson, who two weeks ago lost Juha Kankkunen from his planned line-up.
"That happened very quickly, but there is nothing acrimonious about it. Our testing won't be affected, but obviously Juha will not be doing it."
The Focus was scheduled to have run by now, but delays in deciding the geography of the transverse engine and Xtrac six-speed sequential gearbox slowed the programme. Wilson, though, is confident that the Focus will not suffer.
"Of course, to have had another six months would be preferable," he admits, "but that's not what we had. Barring a major disaster, the Focus will be in Monte in January.
"What's more, I'm confident it will be quick out of the box. We've been meticulous over its design and hopefully that time spent on the drawing board will save us time in testing."
"We have the best driver in the world, and when he is coupled with the best rally car in the world, there is no reason why we cannot win drivers' and manufacturers' titles by 2000" Malcolm Wilson
Rumours of a revolutionary transmission have been fuelled by McRae's keenness to sign for Ford and the secrecy with which Wilson cloaks the subject. Most aspects of the car he is happy to discuss, but not the transmission.
"I can't say anything about that," he says, clamming up. "In time that detail will be released, but not now."
Wilson's cloak and dagger show is well-founded. Ford has dug deep to pay McRae record money to drive its new car. The development of the Focus itself also runs into the tens of millions of dollars, all to reverse Ford's recent winless streak.
"Ford has refocused its efforts in motorsport," says Whitaker. "For too long we have approached it with a broad brush, not a sniper's rifle. Now rallying, F1 and a few select branches of the sport will get the attention they deserve."
Half-jokingly, but with the intention of showing the confidence he has in Wilson and M-Sport, Whitaker recently said that he was even hopeful of the Focus winning its first rally.
"What is the point of entering a programme like this if we don't have the intention of winning?" defends Whitaker. "We are not here to make up the numbers."
Joke or not, the reality is that 1999 could well be a lean year for Ford and its new baby. By 2000 the company will want a payback for its payout.
"We have the best driver in the world, and when he is coupled with the best rally car in the world, there is no reason why we cannot win drivers' and manufacturers' titles by 2000," says Wilson. "The pressure is something I will have to cope with and I know Colin can as well."
McRae is renowned for his technical analysis of rally cars. Ford has not only bought into his flamboyant driving skills, but his ability as a development driver.
"Of course, everyone is hoping that the Focus will be fast from the outset, but if it's not, we will have to work as a team to get it up to speed," explains McRae. "I think now that I have the maturity to be patient and wait for the results.
"Make no mistake, though, I am in rallying to win. I didn't sign for Ford to be the world's highest-paid test driver."
The Focus was ready and competitive in time for the 1999 Monte Carlo Rally. McRae finished third, but was excluded for an illegally sized and positioned water pump.
After victories for Tommi Makinen's Mitsubishi in Monte Carlo and Sweden, McRae sensationally won the Safari and Portuguese events. That put him within two points of the Finn, but thereafter a string of retirements - some due to unreliability, some due to mistakes by McRae - left the Scot a distant sixth in the drivers' championship.
A charging McRae had a narrow lead when he cut a high-speed right-hander too much in stage four, and the Focus spectacularly rolled into retirement - costing him the 2001 world title to Burns
There were two more wins in 2000 and the McRae-Ford combination found more consistency, but still there were too many non-scores. It was left to Marcus Gronholm and Peugeot to end Makinen's run of titles, while Subaru's team leader Richard Burns scored his second successive runner-up finish.
The 2001 campaign was probably the one that should have brought the success McRae and Wilson desired. Despite a poor start, three consecutive wins rocketed McRae into contention and he went to the Rally GB finale one point ahead of Makinen and two ahead of Burns.
Makinen went out early, leaving a shootout between the pair of three-time home winners. A charging McRae had a narrow lead when he cut a high-speed right-hander too much in stage four, and the Focus spectacularly rolled into retirement.
"I'm sorry for the whole team, it was so near, but we haven't got it again," said McRae.
Burns kept his nerve, despite his own moment, taking third place - and the drivers' crown by two points. Ford, which had also employed the services of double WRC champion Sainz since 2000, finished second in the manufacturers' standings for the second year in a row.
Nobody could stop Gronholm in 2002, but McRae did manage two more victories, taking his WRC win tally to 25, nine scored for Ford.
He then left for a fruitless year at Citroen alongside rising star Sebastien Loeb before retiring from full-time rallying, although he made a rousing comeback in a Skoda Fabia for two events in 2005.
Ford would have to wait until the combination of Gronholm, Mikko Hirvonen and the Focus RS WRC 06 in 2006 to take the manufacturers' crown it had last won in 1979.
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