Taking this Safari-winning Subaru home to Prodrive for a complete restoration
11 March 2022
by Girardo & Co.
After four years, five viral videos, tens of tyres and countless happy – and predominantly sideways – miles, our ex-McRae Safari Rally-winning Subaru Impreza, aka P8 WRC, has returned home to Prodrive to be restored to its former glory. And we’re taking you along for every step of the journey…
The legacy Colin McRae and his no-holds-barred seat-of-the-pants driving style forged simply cannot be downplayed. Virtually single-handedly, he made rallying a household sport in the 1990s, inspiring an entire generation of fans. And he did so thrashing a blue and yellow Subaru Impreza.
While Subaru’s exquisite rollcall of drivers over the years – including Tommi Mäkinen, Juha Kankkunen, Petter Solberg and Richard Burns, to name but a few – led the marque to three Drivers’ and three Constructors’ World Championships, it’s the McRae period from 1997, when the new era of ‘World Cars’ were introduced, which remains closest to our hearts.
That’s why, back in 2018, we acquired one of the most famous two-door Subaru Imprezas of them all: ’P8 WRC’. The car made its competitive debut under the factory 555 Subaru World Rally Team banner at the 1997 Safari Rally in Kenya, where it was earmarked to be driven by the 1995 champion Colin McRae and his new co-driver Nicky Grist.
Oriented around the city of Nairobi, the Safari Rally really was the ultimate test for man and machine, the cars and their drivers having to endure treacherous terrain and sweltering cockpit temperatures on what was then the longest event on the calendar.
A shock day one retirement for McRae’s Subaru teammate Kenneth Eriksson meant the pressure was really on for the flying Scotsman. Fortunately, he knew just what to do with that pressure. The longest leg of the entire season lay in wait for ‘P8 WRC’ early on day two of the rally, and with a noticeable lack of wind, McRae spied an opportunity.
Because he knew the dust clouds caused by the Mitsubishi of Richard Burns ahead of him on the road would cause havoc and drastically reduce visibility, McRae and Grist deliberately left their time control gate late, incurring a 20-second penalty. It mattered little – the two-minute gap between ‘P8’ and the Mitsubishi ahead ensured a dust-free run.
Knowing exactly what he needed to do, McRae drove like a scalded cat, taking the lead of the rally on special stage five, a position he would not relinquish. Day three was similarly dominant and by the finish, McRae and Grist had clinched an incredible seven special stage victories and a further four top-three results. There were only 13 stages in total…
A scarcely believable seven minutes was the margin to fellow Brit Richard Burns at the end of the rally, McRae and Grist scoring their maiden victory together and kindling one of the most famous and successful driver pairings in rallying history. Furthermore, the feat was Subaru’s first Safari Rally victory and third consecutive win with the mighty Impreza WRC97.
Following its Safari success, ‘P8 WRC’ contested two further WRC rounds in 1997, Rally Argentina and the Rally of Indonesia, under the Works banner. As was the case with most of the Subaru Imprezas built and rallied by Prodrive, this car was subsequently campaigned in national rally championships across Europe, predominantly in Italy and the United Kingdom, during which time it was driven by the likes of Markku Alen and Ivan Capelli.
Since acquiring ‘P8 WRC’ in 2018, we orchestrated a major press drive with the car. Not only did it feature prominently in our viral Christmas brand videos, but it was also the automotive protagonist in our film ‘McRae vs. McRae’, when we pitched Colin’s father Jimmy, his brother Alister and his young nephew Max against each other in the car. That video alone has amassed more than a half a million views. Furthermore, ‘P8 WRC’ has starred in features in a wide range of the world’s most popular automotive publications, including Evo, Motorsport, Autosport, Classic Cars and Private Motor Club.
We’ve also raised the car’s profile by exhibiting it in a raft of prestigious events, such as Race Retro, the Chateau Impney Hill Climb, the Prodrive and Subaru 30th anniversary meeting, and last year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. At the latter, both the Extreme E driver Catie Munnings and the legend that is Travis Pastrana both took the wheel around the treacherously slippery Forest Rally Stage.
Naturally, we’ve had ‘P8 WRC’ maintained regardless of cost throughout our ownership. But after the Festival of Speed, with the Impreza caked in the chalky Goodwood mud and wearing its plentiful battle scars with pride, we felt that it was the right time to have the car restored to its former glory. And who better to entrust with such a significant task, both from the historical and personal perspectives, than the company which built and ran the car back in 1997?
Back in 2019, Prodrive formed its Legends department, dedicated to safeguarding its extraordinary motorsport legacy by way of authenticating and restoring the race and rally cars with which it forged said legacy.
While the technological prowess practised at Prodrive’s Banbury facility is nothing short of mind-boggling, the appeal of sending ‘P8 WRC’ there to be restored for us was the simple fact that many of the people who worked first-hand on the car, either when it was being built or run as a factory rally car, still work with the company. Their invaluable and inimitable insight coupled with the vast archive of original build data would ensure that every last detail of ‘P8 WRC’ is accurate, authentic and honest to how it was 25 years ago. We can think of few other companies on the planet which offer the same level of service.
From the outset, we knew we wanted to go the whole hog with the restoration and give the guys at Prodrive Legends the chance to flex their muscle on what is their first two-door Impreza project. Chassis, engine, ancillaries, bodywork, livery – not a single stone will be left unturned. History determined the specifics of this restoration – ‘P8 WRC’ won the Safari Rally in 1997 in the hands of Colin McRae and Nicky Grist, therefore the car will be returned to the exact specification and livery in which it took to the starting ramp in Nairobi on 1 March 1997.
And so, late last year, we returned ‘P8 WRC’ home to Prodrive to begin its transformation. After so many miles and smiles behind the wheel of this special Subaru, it felt only right to drive the short journey from Belchers Farm to Banbury. After all, that’s what makes these old rally cars so appealing, right?
“It felt only right to drive the short journey from Belchers Farm to Banbury. After all, that’s what makes these old rally cars so appealing, right?”
The handover was an unforgettable experience. After seizing the chance to get some photographs around the famous Prodrive factory, we wheeled ‘P8 WRC’ into a characteristically clean bay beside an ex-Vatanen Group A Impreza nearing the completion of its Legends restoration and a brand new Aston Martin Vantage GT3 undergoing final assembly and preparation.
The arrival of the car drew quite a lot of attention among the Prodrive employees and we were able to meet a number of the people who knew ‘P8 WRC’ personally from back in the day and show them the expansive history file we’ve worked to compile since acquiring the car, including a raft of period photos from its Safari Rally victory. The morning was the perfect amuse-bouche for the steps to come.
Paul Howarth, an incredibly experienced team manager still heavily involved in Prodrive’s current motorsport activities and a man with a fierce and infectious enthusiasm for his craft, is heading up the restoration. “It’s 25 years since Colin’s car was last in our workshop,” he told us. “For us, returning this iconic car to its original specification isn’t a job – it’s a labour of love and something in which we’re taking great pride.
“We’ve been through our extensive archive of technical drawings to ensure we faithfully restore the car to the exact same specification in which it left here for Kenya in February of 1997 and took Colin to his first win of the year. This is all about being absolutely authentic and ensuring that every detail is correct. That’s what collectors want and ensures Prodrive Legends restorations command the greatest value.”
So, what’s next? Since arriving at Prodrive, ‘P8 WRC’ has been comprehensively stripped and the bare shell inspected. The major components such as the engine and the transmission have been taken to their respective departments at Prodrive to be similarly disassembled and inspected before decision is taken on further actions.
Timeframe is always a sticky subject when it comes to these projects and we’re well aware perfection can’t be rushed. That said, it would be foolish if we didn’t aim for this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed for the comeback and public unveiling of ‘P8 WRC’ – in the 25th anniversary year of its momentous African victory. We’ll be providing you with regular updates throughout this exciting process, so keep your eyes peeled on girardo.com and make sure you’re following us on Instagram. Until next time, folks!
Photos courtesy of the Girardo & Co. Archive (Click Here to find out) and Robert Cooper for Girardo & Co.
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