Even the most blinkered of Subaru fans would struggle to call the Impreza 555 a dramatic looking rally car, even when ranged amongst its Group A peers; the be-winged Escort Cosworth, the squat Evo III or even the bug-eyed Celica GT4. In tarmac guise it looked purposeful, certainly, perhaps even menacing, but based on looks alone you’d never have consider it the kind of car destined to adorn the bedroom walls of small boys and the workshops of grown men. That the Impreza was able to become the archetypal Group A rally car, perhaps the single most iconic rally machine of the 1990s, says much about the men who designed, built, and developed it, and of course, those lucky enough to drive it.
Origins – The Legacy of the Legacy
To discuss successful rally programmes from the past, it’s first necessary to look further back to the car in question’s direct predecessor, the Subaru Legacy RS. It shared much with many Group A projects from the late ‘80s such as the Mitsubishi Galant and Sierra Sapphire 4×4; all were developed to the letter of the Group A regulations and only thrust into prominence in the wake of Group B’s demise, and it showed.
The Legacy grew to become a solid if not exactly spectacular rally car, it being no match for either a Delta Integrale or a Celica GT4 ST65 at the apex of their respective development cycles, the first years of the ‘90s. It was significant for fostering the first, tentative links in a relationship that was to come to define both parties and dominate a large portion of the decade, that between Subaru and Prodrive, David Richard’s small rally car preparation firm which had enjoyed some success with both Porsche and BMW in the 1980s.
The Legacy’s best result was actually its last appearance in works guise, the 1993 Rally of New Zealand. By this point a fresh-faced Colin McRae had been promoted to the team off the back of British Rally Championship wins in 1991 and 1992, and the Scot was clearly at home both in New Zealand and the Subaru. His pace on the Antipodean nation’s flowing gravel roads was breath taking, with a memorable performance over the Motu Road enough to secure his and Subaru’s maiden WRC win.
McRae’s victory couldn’t have come at a better time for Prodrive and those within Subaru with a vested interest in World Rallying. Rumour has it that those in charge were hesitant about channelling further resources into the Impreza rally project off the back of just 4 podiums in 3 years, but New Zealand finally convinced them of the programme’s worth. Whatever the story, Prodrive was subsequently given permission and funding to turn the then new Impreza into a Celica-smasher.
Developing the 555
While the Impreza 555 shared much with the larger Legacy in terms of basic architecture, it was very different in a number of significant ways. The unique layout of the longitudinal flat-four boxer had been well demonstrated in the Legacy and would be carried over to the Impreza wholesale; it had excellent weight distribution, with the mass of the engine located at the base of the car and therefore contributing to a low centre of gravity. It was also relatively light with less mass over the front wheels, a trait which would go onto earn the Impreza 555 a much-envied reputation for being easy on its tyres and an important point in an era still dominated by mammoth, 50km + stages.
The EJ20 was a reliable proposition under the Legacy programme but that didn’t prevent David Lapworth and the rest of the Prodrive team from tweaking key areas. It remained an all alloy affair with 92mm X 75mm bore and stroke, but the cylinder head’s V-angle was reduced from 26 to 20.5 degrees and the valve-train overhauled, ‘bucket’ tappets replacing the ‘finger’ type found in the Legacy.
Other engine improvements included a more sophisticated FHI ECU and GEMS data logger, reflecting the ever-growing importance of software in Group A rallying as a whole. The engine was also specified with an enlarged IHI turbo and intercooler, both now essential components of any front-running Group A car.
Prodrive’s mastery of active differentials grew to become the envy of the service park and the Impreza 555 sported a trick centre example from the start. Not content to rest on their collective laurels, the Prodrive engineers began work on active diffs for the front and rear, though these were held back from Impreza’s launch and would make their competition debut midway through 1994 on the Rally of New Zealand.
Further evidence of Prodrive’s manic R&D process could be seen in the Impreza’s slick semi-automatic gearbox, ready in time for the car’s 1993 debut. Though it ultimately turned out to be something of an engineering cul de sac thanks to the driver’s reticence to use it, the system boasted wheel-mounted paddles (years before they’d become de-rigueur) and was reckoned to provide 0.04 second gear changes.
1993 – A Mixed Debut
Local knowledge came good on the Impreza’s competition debut, the 1993 1000 Lakes. Prodrive had opted to play it safe by turning to Finns Ari Vatanen and Markku Alen, and though the latter’s rally came to a premature end, Vatanen gelled with the Impreza right away. Indeed, he only settled for 2nd place thanks to poor visibility on one of the event’s daunting night stages. It was a superb debut and one which left the team well placed for the remaining rallies of the season.
McRae was given the new car for the season-ending RAC and fought bravely, more than demonstrating its pace and potential, but was eventually forced to retire when a log punctured his radiator. He, Prodrive, Subaru, and the Great British public would have to wait a little longer for a home victory.
1994 – A Coming Force
The first full year of WRC competition for the Subaru Impreza 555 saw the new cars line-up against some of the fiercest competition the sport has ever seen, with Ford’s charge having been bolstered by its fearsome Escort Cosworth, Toyota’s proven Celica GT4 ST185, and the ever-present danger posed by the constantly improving Mitsubishi Evo. Subaru and Prodrive recognised that scale of the challenge they faced and prepared accordingly, with 3 works cars contesting all rounds, plus an Asia-Pacific assault to keep Subaru Japan happy.
One of the works Imprezas was driven by the team’s new star signing, Carlos Sainz. Sainz had won titles for Toyota and was therefore an established star, yet he also had a well warranted reputation for attention to detail and a willingness to work hard to develop cars, precisely what the box-fresh Impreza needed to take the fight to the established opposition.
Things didn’t start brilliantly for the team, with a largely snow-free Monte and mixed surface Portugal exposing the Impreza’s poor sealed surface pace. With the team opting to skip the next round, the gruelling Safari, there was time to commence a tarmac development push. This began to bear fruit at the very next round, the Tour de Corse and an event favoured by Sainz. The Spaniard might well have denied Didier Auriol and Toyota yet another win had his ARB not snapped on the 3rd day, but he’d done enough for 2nd place and a valuable points haul.
Things got even better for Sainz next time out in Greece as he claimed his first victory in Subaru overalls, though the same could not be said for his team mate; McRae’s car was excluded in bizarre circumstances after his bonnet flew up and smashed his windscreen. McRae complained, blaming the scrutineers for failing to re-fasten the pins correctly, but the issue and subsequent time penalty saw him leave Greece with nothing to show for his endeavours.
McRae’s season stubbornly refused to improve until the 7th round, New Zealand. The year had only yielded a solitary point and a number of wrecked Imprezas, so to say that he was in need of a good result would be an understatement. The amount of pressure McRae was under leading up to the rally made his eventual victory, his second on the bounce, all the more special. The win was cemented on the Motu Road yet again and confirmed McRae as the undisputed Kiwi master – not bad for a driver perilously close to being served his P45 days beforehand.
Sainz’s 1994 was characteristically methodical. He picked up points steadily and ended the year 2nd to Didier Auriol and a full 50 points ahead of his team mate. McRae’s season was almost a polar opposite, with strong results interspaced with retirements and no-scores. That said, it was undoubtedly McRae who enjoyed the tail end of the season more thanks to his stunning win on the final event of the year, the RAC.
It no doubt helped that McRae’s RAC win was dominant in the extreme, and also that it came against the backdrop of mooted (and much maligned) team orders. Auriol’s charge to the title was in doubt after a morning spent crashing clumsily around the stately homes of England, but his surge back up the order prompted questions about how best to engineer a result better suited to Sainz’s championship ambitions. As it was it didn’t matter, Sainz retiring in the mid-Wales stages and leaving the door wide open for McRae to become the first British winner at home since Roger Clark in 1976, and the rest, as they say, is history.
1995 – Colin Comes Good
Rarely has a WRC season delivered as many ups and downs, twists and turns and scandal as 1995, with many of the most shocking occurring off the stages and in the boardroom of the FIA! The year began with a chorus of discontent from almost all the drivers due to the FIA’s decision to reduce the mandated turbo restrictor size from 38mm to 34mm, at a stroke dropping power down to roughly 320bhp.
It wasn’t exactly the most auspicious of starts to the year, though it was made far better when Subaru took overall victory at the Monte Carlo Rally courtesy of Carlos Sainz. The Impreza had been developed over the course of the winter and was now both better suited to Sainz’s driving style and a far more potent proposition on tarmac.
Sweden brought the team down to earth with a bump though, with both cars retiring thanks to engine failure. A subsequent post-mortem of the EJ20 revealed that usually hard-wearing coating on the cylinder liners had begun to flake off, jamming the oil pump and leading to a massive (read terminal) spike in oil pressure.
McRae failed to trouble the scoreboard on either round as a result of the Impreza’s patchy reliability, and it was made that much worse when his team mate won the next round, Portugal, at a canter. McRae had to make do with the bottom step of the podium but at least had some points on the board, with a few more added via a 5th next time out on the Tour de Corse.
One might have been tempted to write McRae off at this point, but fate had other ideas.
First of all, Sainz was thrown from his pushbike and broke his collarbone, and was forced to miss the New Zealand round, McRae’s happy hunting ground. The somewhat inevitable happened: McRae romped to yet another Kiwi victory, his 3rd on the trot, and followed it up with a 2nd on the next round, Australia. Sainz failed to score.
Then, when the WRC circus pitched up in Spain, Toyota’s ingeniously devious adjustable turbo restrictor scam was discovered by the FIA in Spain, and they were booted from the championship as a result.
The fluctuations of the championship meant that both Subaru drivers went into the final 2 rallies with a good chance of taking the biggest prize in rallying, and both sought to do well in front of their respective home crowds. The tarmac of Catalunya came first, and the rally will forever be known as one of the most contentious of them all thanks to the team orders enforced by the Subaru team on the final day of the event.
It all came to a head when David Richards instructed the Imprezas to hold station, Sainz in the lead and with no opposition from any other drive bar his team mates, McRae in 2nd and Pierro Liatti in 3rd. McRae was stung by this decision and didn’t bother to hide his displeasure, well aware that the 20 points on offer for victory would give him a handy lead heading into the final rally of the year, the RAC.
Fireworks duly flew when McRae refused to either back down or hold station, blasting through the remaining stages and narrowly missing a pair of Prodrive employees sent out to slow him, even up-shifting as he went by to really ram the point home. Only some choice words from David Richards and some wise ones from his father, Jimmy, convinced McRae to accept a time penalty and gift the win back to a less than pleased Sainz. It did nothing to quell the bad feeling between the two Subaru drivers or the immense pressure now bearing down upon the team.
Mighty Blighty – The RAC
It’s hard to fully appreciate just how momentous Colin McRae’s success at the wheel of the Impreza was, certainly from the British public’s perspective. Britain had provided rallying with plenty of top-drawer talent over the years but many, including Colin’s own father Jimmy, had found their careers curtailed by the overarching mood of the period, one best summed by Stuart Turner of Ford; to finish first, first you must be Finnish. Colin’s position at the forefront of the Subaru team had given the nation renewed hope.
There was also the bombshell that Sainz would not be at Subaru in 1996, the Spaniard signing with Toyota once more (though he would eventually wind up at Ford in the wake of turbo-gate), something which might well have had an impact on team orders had Prodrive ever felt the need to impose them. As it was they weren’t required, but it undoubtedly added a further angle to this, one of the most intriguing title fights in the WRC’s history.
The McRae of old might well have let the pressure get to him, and at first it did appear to be taking its toll, with the lead Impreza off the pace compared to the Evo IIIs of Tommi Mäkinen and Kenneth Eriksson. While the Mitsubishi charge ultimately faded, McRae’s own chances were dealt a blow in the murk of the Kielder forest by a hitting a rock and incurring a puncture in the 37 miles of Pundershaw. He lost a full 2 minutes but thanks to some frenetic spannering at the road side, lived to fight another day.
Sainz’s progress was far from smooth thanks to a sickly, overheating Impreza. He’d damaged the radiator in the Donington Park water-splash on Sunday afternoon but it didn’t prevent him from carving out a 39 second lead by the end of the 2nd day of competition, ahead of McRae and Eriksson. It wasn’t to last; McRae, the bit between his teeth, set out to make the 3rd leg his own, blasting through the Welsh forests in a manner which has subsequently gone down in rallying lore. He reversed the overnight order to end the day with a 17 second lead, a position he was to hold over the remaining stages on leg 4, finally taking the win in Chester.
McRae’s performance didn’t merely give Subaru its first Manufacturers’ victory (with help from Sainz and Burns in 2nd and 3rd respectively), it made him Britain’s first, and the sport’s youngest, WRC champion. It also fired the imaginations of a crop of British drivers, not to mention a generation of British fans.
1996 – Old Gold
After the highs of 1995 it was somewhat inevitable that the following, post-Sainz era would be something of a disappointment, though it says much about the strength of the Subaru-Prodrive relationship that three wins, 92 points and 2nd place in the drivers’ standings could ever be viewed as such, particularly as Subaru was able to retain the manufactures’ gong.
1996 also marked the final year of the original, 555 Group A Impreza, with the new for 1997 WRC regulations serving to make it redundant. In truth, it had begun to show its age before the end of the year, while the lack of an official Toyota entry probably enabled the old stager to give a better account of itself than it might otherwise have been able to. Not that it really mattered though, as the 555 had done more than enough to ink itself into the annals of rallying history.