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The rise and fall of Subaru in the WRC

When Subaru announced their shock withdrawal from the World Rally Championship on December 16, 2008, few would have expected that we’d still be awaiting their return some 14 years on.

“Subaru’s sales pitch has been so closely tied to rallying for so many years that it’s hard to see the factory Imprezas staying away from the WRC for too long,” the highly respected rally annual,  Rallycourse, said at the time.

Here we are though, it’s 2022 and nothing has changed.

Subaru’s decision shocked the rallying world like few of that nature had ever done, and came just 24 hours after Suzuki had announced a similar departure from the WRC.

It left only Citroen and Ford as the manufacturer-supported teams in the series, and it took many years for it to recover. Some might say it still hasn’t.

How did that decision from Subaru come about though? What led to it, and how could such a successful team disappear from the WRC overnight, seemingly never to return?

Subaru: from zero to hero

Even today, there is not a team in rallying that has had an impact like that of Subaru.

Sure, current teams Toyota, Ford and Hyundai have their fans and devotees, but nothing comes close to the legion of blue and yellow attired ‘groupies’ that hero worshiped the likes of Vatanen, McRae, Burns and Solberg.

It’s reasonable to say that no other manufacturer has benefited more from an involvement in rallying than Subaru. 

When the Japanese selected Prodrive to run factory Legacy RSs in the 1990 WRC, they were a relatively new player in the rallying game, and nothing much was expected of them.

Their cars sounded incredible though! Immediately, the raucous noise of the Subaru Boxer engine captivated spectators the world over, and when Prodrive threw a bloke named McRae behind the wheel, it was literally ‘off to the races’.

Come the start of 1993, the cars were emblazoned in the dark blue and yellow livery of cigarette sponsor 555, which instantly became a classic.

Creating a legacy

The early days of Subaru in the WRC were hampered by unreliability that was not unexpected with a new Group A car.

McRae had dominated the British Rally Championship in 1991 and 1992, but as the all-new Impreza development increased during the early months of 1993, Prodrive had a big problem on their hands.

Subaru had determined that the all-new Impreza would not make its debut until the Legacy had tasted success in the WRC, but the longer things went on, the less likely that looked.

Fortunately, McRae stepped up to the plate in, of all places, New Zealand. After a masterful and measured drive when he wasn’t always the fastest, he outlasted Ford driver, Francois Delecour, to take not only his, but Subaru’s first WRC success.

He had outlasted Delecour by just 27 seconds, with Toyota’s Didier Auriol another two seconds back in what had been a tantalising four-day battle.

Back then, the WRC was a less regimented affair, and I still vividly recall watching McRae doing his victory donuts in the carpark of the Travelodge Hotel in Auckland.

With McRae waving the Scottish flag out the window, the Legacy disappeared in a cloud of blue tyre smoke, triumphantly sending the Legacy out on a winning note, and allowing the incoming Impreza to make its much-anticipated entry.

Colin McRae won the British Rally Championship for Subaru in 1991 and 1992.

McRae’s victory donuts in the Travelodge car park in Auckland in 1993.

Building a dynasty

The early days of Subaru in the WRC were hampered by unreliability that was not unexpected with a new Group A car.

McRae had dominated the British Rally Championship in 1991 and 1992, but as the all-new Impreza development increased during the early months of 1993, Prodrive had a big problem on their hands.

Subaru had determined that the all-new Impreza would not make its debut until the Legacy had tasted success in the WRC, but the longer things went on, the less likely that looked.

Fortunately, McRae stepped up to the plate in, of all places, New Zealand. After a masterful and measured drive when he wasn’t always the fastest, he outlasted Ford driver, Francois Delecour, to take not only his, but Subaru’s first WRC success.

He had outlasted Delecour by just 27 seconds, with Toyota’s Didier Auriol another two seconds back in what had been a tantalising four-day battle.

Back then, the WRC was a less regimented affair, and I still vividly recall watching McRae doing his victory donuts in the carpark of the Travelodge Hotel in Auckland.

With McRae waving the Scottish flag out the window, the Legacy disappeared in a cloud of blue tyre smoke, triumphantly sending the Legacy out on a winning note, and allowing the incoming Impreza to make its much-anticipated entry.

Subaru were still using the Legacy at Rally Australia in 1993, even after the Impreza's debut

Building a dynasty

The Impreza’s debut, just 19 days later in Finland, couldn’t have started any worse.

Finnish great, Markku Alen, crashed his Impreza on the opening stage of the rally, but the 1981 World Champion, Ari Vatanen, made up for his team-mate’s overzealousness.

Vatanen won 15 of the rally’s 35 special stages, led the rally after SS26, and eventually finished a brilliant second, just 47 seconds behind the already proven Toyota Celica of Juha Kankkunen.

Ari took another second place next time out in Australia where the team used the Legacy again, and from then on, Subaru were officially a real contender for the World Rally Championship title.

Between then and early in 2005, the Subaru World Rally Team won at the highest level another 46 times, won three constructors’ championships (1995, ’96, ’97), and a further three drivers’ crowns in 1995, 2001 and 2003.

The Impreza made its debut in Finland in 1993 with a brilliant second place for Ari Vatanen.

The fans loved the successes as much as the drivers and the team, and sales of the road-going Impreza WRX skyrocketed all around the world. Here was a car that could win on Sunday, and you could literally buy on Monday – and Subaru marketed it brilliantly.

As an example, in Australia, Subaru sold 8000 cars in 1995, of which 75 were WRXs. Seven years later, in 2002, the company’s sales had increased to 27,000 cars, and 4000 of those were the rally-bred WRX!

Success can’t always last forever, though, and as Petter Solberg celebrated his 2003 world title and a further five victories in 2004, the skies were already starting to cloud over.

The beginning of the end

Solberg’s five wins in 2004 were impressive, but the title was taken by a young Frenchman driving a Citroen. His name was Sebastien Loeb, and 17 years on in 2022, he’s still winning rallies at the highest level.

By this stage of his career, Solberg was Subaru’s golden child. Colin McRae had long since moved to Ford and then Citroen, and Richard Burns’s title-winning career had come to an end late in 2003 when he was diagnosed with what would be a fatal brain tumor.

Burns had won the title for Subaru in 2001 and then switched to rivals Peugeot. His return to ‘team blue’ in 2004 could have continued the team’s run of success, but tragically that would never happen.

It seemed that the Norwegian – who was as popular with fans as the blue Subaru he drove – could do no wrong, and certainly not in the eyes of those at Subaru and Prodrive.

Petter Solberg won the world title for Subaru in 2003, the highlight of his career in the WRC.

Internally though, he raised many an eyebrow in an interview before the 2005 season when he remarked that he could win 10 rounds of the WRC that season. Much head scratching followed.

Ten wins were achieved that year, but by Loeb and Citroen, not by Solberg and Subaru!

Nevertheless, the 2005 season did start successfully, with Solberg winning in Sweden and Mexico, and despite a win at Rally GB in September, it was pretty much all downhill from that point onwards.

Internal combustion

Two days before the start of Rally Mexico in March 2005, Subaru announced the death of Subaru Technica International (STi) founding president, Ryuichiro Kuze.

Kuze sân was Prodrive’s strongest ally in the parent company, and his death would have a lasting impact on the direction and success of the Subaru World Rally Team from then onwards.

Around the same time, Prodrive founder, David Richards, began taking a step back from his involvement with the team and diversifying into other areas.

He had become the team principal of the BAR Formula 1 team, and was also heavily involved with the television coverage of the WRC. This had come about in 2000, after he purchased International Sportsworld Communicators from Bernie Ecclestone.

Richards soon had the BAR F1 team at the front of the grid and oversaw their rise to second in the Constructors’ championship in 2004, but at the same time, Subaru was losing its momentum in the WRC.

Added to that, technical guru, David Lapworth, left the team. Lapworth had broken new ground in transmission technology and created title-winning cars year after year, but now he was gone too.

As was reported at the time, the tightly-knit Subaru team was starting to look lost.

2005’s problem child

Solberg may have started the 2005 season in a blaze of glory with two wins from the first three rallies, but underneath the trouble was already brewing.

The Impreza WRC2005 had problems with the location of key components under the bonnet, which in turn affected the car’s previously good handling.

Average seasons followed in 2006 and 2007, before the much maligned hatchback version of the Impreza, the WRC2008, finally made its debut at the Acropolis Rally in late May of 2008.

Things didn’t improve though, and drivers Solberg and Australian Chris Atkinson were seemingly bereft of ways to make the car go any faster – at least externally.

The duo went testing for days and days on end to try and get their cars handling properly, but big gains were hard to find.

Questions were being asked if Solberg was the team leader that Subaru really needed, and were he and Atkinson out of their depth in developing the cars?

Internally, it was known that the handling of the car was shocking. In fact, it was so bad in 2008 that the drivers were banned from talking about the suspension in interviews.

By now, both Richards and Lapworth had returned to the team, but it was a case of too little too late.

Prodrive boss David Richards (left) and tech guru David Lapworth were integral to the team's success.

Suspended in time

Chris Atkinson later drove World Rally Cars from Citroen, Mini and Ford, and would eventually discover how far behind their rivals Subaru now were.

“It showed me that, technology wise, we were probably a decade behind,” Atkinson said of the final Impreza WRCar, officially called the S14, in RallySport Magazine’s DustTrails Podcast.

“With the differentials and the dampers, we weren’t on the level with those (other) cars. 

“They were already creating mechanical differentials that were acting like active differentials, and we just had basic mechanical differentials.

“The basic damper travel, the grip – we weren’t bad – but we weren’t leading the way that’s for sure.”

Unfortunately for Subaru, they say hindsight is 20/20, and by that time the horse had already bolted.

Chris Atkinson in action during leg two of the Acropolis Rally in 2006.

The cards start to fall

Whether it be internal or external problems, or just a dud car, you can’t hide from your deficiencies forever, particularly on such a high profile, visible stage like the WRC.

Since Solberg’s victory in Mexico in March 2005, the team had gone a staggering 51 rallies without a win. For a team that had made a habit out of winning in the 10 years prior to this, that was simply unacceptable.

Perhaps fortuitously for Subaru, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was also gripping the world as the American economy nosedived horrifically.

The company was able to use the GFC as the main reason for their sudden departure from rallying, but those within the sport knew there was more to the story.

While the GFC was undoubtedly a key reason, it did help to mask Subaru’s and Prodrive’s inability to get the Impreza back up to winning speed.

Subaru mechanics service the Impreza World Rally Car in Mexico in 2006.

The official word from Subaru

The end for the Subaru World Rally Team came abruptly and without warning. Not even the team drivers knew what was about to happen.

The Impreza WRC2009 was already being tested for the upcoming WRC season, and the team was expected to field an extended team of four cars, with two-time World Champion, Marcus Gronholm, tipped as one of the drivers.

Sadly, none of that was ever to be.

“Our business environment has changed dramatically due to the rapid deterioration of the global economy,” the boss of Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru’s parent company) Ikuo Mori told a news conference in Tokyo on December 16, 2008. 

“In order to optimise the management resources and to strengthen the Subaru brand further, Fuji Heavy Industries decided to withdraw from WRC activities at the earliest time.”

No doubt shocked, dismayed and hurt by the parent company’s decision, Prodrive’s David Richards could do nothing but sing from the Subaru hymn book.

“Subaru’s departure from the World Rally Championship is a great loss as it is one of the sport’s icons,” Richards said at the time.

Subaru’s final win in the WRC came at the Rally of Mexico in 2005.

“The Subaru World Rally Team has created true champions such as Colin McRae and Richard Burns and its absence will be felt by many the world over. Although this decision closes a significant chapter in Prodrive’s history, our focus now turns to the future.”

So that was it. Subaru was gone and the WRC had to move only with only Citroen and Ford.

Chris Atkinson pushing hard in Subaru's final season, at the Jordan Rally in 2008.

Understanding the blame game

It’s impossible to point the finger at anyone involved in the Subaru demise without fully knowing the internal happenings of the Prodrive-run team.

Clearly, the final few Subarus were a bit of a lemon on the stages, but at the end of the 2008 season, journalist David Evans didn’t hold back.

“Privately, senior sources within the team were more than happy to lay the blame for the downward spiral on its drivers,” he said.

However, there was also a belief that the team’s need for more money had an impact as well.

When Richard Burns’ illness at the end of the 2003 season meant that he could not return to the team, it appeared that Prodrive’s favourite son, Colin McRae, was set for a momentous homecoming.

Nothing was going right in 2008, and Subaru seemed to be bereft of ways to move forward.

According to Evans though, David Lapworth then decided to offset Subaru’s budget cuts by overlooking McRae and taking the considerable private sponsorship money on offer to run the young Finn, Mikko Hirvonen.

Hirvonen never gelled with the team though, and he was replaced at the end of the 2004 season with, in Evans’ view, the “genuinely talented, but very well funded” Chris Atkinson.

“Time has shown that Atkinson deserves a place in the WRC, but at that time he was not what the team needed. The team needed direction and a joint number one driver with his own thoughts on car set-up. 

“What it got was a completely inexperienced Queenslander who had nothing and nobody to benchmark himself against other than a succession of horrid-handling Imprezas and an increasingly truculent team-mate.”

(Truculent: “eager or quick to argue or fight; aggressively defiant”.)

As inexperienced as he might have been, Atkinson had out-driven Solberg in the final season of the Subaru World Rally Team, and the team’s ‘blue eyed’ star was seemingly out of favour.

Similarly, there were big questions over whether the 34-year old, 2003 World Champion, was the man to set-up the Impreza and turn Subaru’s fortunes around.

“A strong and tenacious character like McRae would have challenged the direction in which the team was going,” Rallycourse reported. 

“Instead, Solberg forged his own path, which according to team insiders, could change from day to day.”

The hatchback Impreza World Rally Car was the final nail in Subaru's coffin at WRC level.

What could have been

If Marcus Gronholm had been signed to Subaru for the 2009 season, could he have been the man to turn Subaru’s fortunes around?

Of course we’ll never know. 

The lanky Finn had finished second in the 2006 and 2007 seasons, and while he’d retired from top-level competition after his successful stint with Ford, he was still a driver in high demand.

Sadly though, a combination of the GFC and 51 winless rallies had put the final nail in Subaru’s coffin, and we’re still waiting for that much-anticipated resurrection.

As Evans concluded: “What is known is that the team paid the ultimate price for failing to win.”

In a sport where return on investment is directly related to results achieved, Subaru had imploded spectacularly.

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Author

Peter Whitten

Peter has been the editor of RallySport Magazine since its inception in 1989, in both printed and online form. He is a long-time competitor, event organiser and official, as well as working in the media. In 2020 he received a Motorsport Australia 'Media Service Award'.
Peter has been the editor of RallySport Magazine since its inception in 1989, in both printed and online form. He is a long-time competitor, event organiser and official, as well as working in the media. In 2020 he received a Motorsport Australia 'Media Service Award'.