Monte-Carlo, January 1997. A drastic change in the rules for the World Rally Championship has brought with it a raft of scintillating new cars and, in turn, a new generation of fans. And the first arena in which war would be waged is the hinterland of Monte-Carlo. Let the games begin…
To put it simply, change was essential for the World Rally Championship. The draconian homologation rules for Group A had threatened to alienate all but the Japanese manufacturers – the only ones who could warrant producing niche high-performance versions of their road cars to benefit their rally cars. Nope, a formula was required instead of a blanket mass production rule, which is exactly what the FIA came up with ahead of the 1997 season.
Enter the ‘World Rally Car’ (or ‘World Car’ for short). Essentially, the new formula allowed manufacturers to build their cars using their most popular models as a base and working to a defined set of physical and performance parameters. Crucially, vital systems such as the turbochargers, four-wheel drive, gearbox and rear suspension could be entirely bespoke and not limited by what was on the cars’ road-going counterparts. Naturally, a wide variety of manufacturers’ ears were pricked.
The curtain-raiser for this exciting new era of rallying was the Rallye Automobile de Monte-Carlo. As this season will serve as a transition year for the new rules, manufacturers have the option to enter the newfangled ‘World Cars’ or their old Group A cars. Ironically, those who’ve dared to dip their toes into this brave new world ahead of the first round are Subaru with its Prodrive-built Impreza WRC97, Mitsubishi with its Lancer Evo IV and Ford with its Escort WRC. The roll call of drivers bolstering their efforts is big: think Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen, Tommy Mäkinen and Kenneth Eriksson.
Cue an epic battle between all three automotive powerhouses on the treacherously snowy serpentines of the French Alps – a showdown which will eventually be claimed by the Italian asphalt maestro Piero Liatti, who'll claim nine of the 18 special stage victories on offer. This is just the beginning, however – after what will be a vintage year of rallying, many more major manufacturers will flock to the series in the coming seasons and well and truly return the sport to the mainstream.Photos courtesy of the Girardo & Co. Archive. Click HERE to discover more than three million motorsport images dating back to the 1970s.