Driving Colin McRae's Subaru Impreza S3 WRC 97
This Impreza and Colin McRae formed one of the most iconic pairings in World Rally Championship history. Now it’s Henry Catchpole’s turn to get behind the wheel
Throw the lever at third, then fourth, each flyweight change accompanied by a heavy metal clunk as the fast-spinning dog ’box meshes. The flat-four is warbling angrily under the hard acceleration, filling the bare blue interior with its distinctive soundtrack. Just as the lights on the dash indicate that fifth is on the cards there’s a swift press of the firm brake pedal, the whole car squirming slightly as the tall tread blocks of the gravel tyres deform against the tarmac. A fraction later a minimal amount of right-hand lock to get the car rotating, the unweighted rear swinging round to point the scooped snout into the open right-hander.
Feel the front-right wheel brrrrrap over the rough kerb on the inside, a suspicion of left-hand lock to transition the drifting Subaru into the following left. Plenty of power now and, as the momentum swings back the other way, there’s that upshift to fifth, keeping the slide going, accelerating through the bend, driver grinning, possibly even whooping. I’m not sure that it gets any better than this.
‘This’ is a 1997 Subaru Impreza S3 WRC 97 and I think it is probably peak Impreza. In fact, it might be peak rally car. Possibly even, for some, peak car. The ingredients are the perfect blend of two eras of rallying as the cars shifted from Group A (such as the Mitsubishi Evo that Tommi Mäkinen was still using in ’97) to WRC regulations. Prodrive embraced the possibilities of the new regs to launch this for the beginning of the season. Peter Stevens was responsible for the design and I think this two-door shape is the best looking of all the Imprezas. Still family, just less four-door. The new rules allowed arches to be swollen, but they had to be smoothed-in with the bodywork rather than simply riveted on, giving the car an attractively cohesive appearance. The overall stance is just fabulous; aggressive yet also curiously friendly and approachable, in the way that early Evos looked but later ones didn’t.
Then of course there is the livery. Yes, smoking is bad for your health, but it was fantastic for creative design applied to the outside of cars. State Express 555 was in the middle of a ten-year sponsorship deal in 1997, but this was the last time that the cars would wear the three fives. From 1998 onwards the blue and yellow colour scheme remained but the number was replaced by three crescents, baffling precisely nobody.
So this car has the look, but mechanically it also has the moves. David Lapworth and his team at Prodrive found more power and torque in the turbocharged 1994cc, flat-four engine and the spec sheets say that it is good for 310bhp at 5500rpm and 367lb ft at 4000rpm. The two-door shell and accompanying CAD-penned integrated roll-cage increased torsional rigidity, while the total weight of the car is a governed 1230kg. The engineers were also able to reposition the MacPherson strut suspension to enable increased travel for the Bilstein/Prodrive dampers.
However, unlike subsequent WRC Imprezas, this ’97 car doesn’t have complicated active differy. Although the original build sheet says ‘electro-hydraulically controlled differentials’, the reality was that this ran with a spool diff in the rear and the centre diff was often locked. What’s more, this was one of the last generation of WRC cars to have a manual, H-pattern gearbox. The end result is a surprisingly analogue rally car that requires plenty of involvement from the driver.
It’s a pretty mouth-watering prospect, I think you’ll agree. And that’s before you add in the goosebumps engendered by the names on this car’s side windows. I’m sure it won’t have escaped your notice, but Colin McRae and Nicky Grist used P8 WRC. They scored their first WRC win with this car on the Safari Rally, the third round of the 1997 season. In fact, McRae was merely extending a winning Subaru run for the new WRC cars as his two teammates had already scored victories in Monte Carlo (Piero Liatti) and Sweden (Kenneth Eriksson).
After its victory in Africa this particular car finished second in Argentina – in the livery it wears today – before retiring in Indonesia. It was the last of four retirements on the bounce that were disastrous for McRae’s championship tilt that year. It was Grist’s first season sitting next to the mercurial McRae and it’s fair to say the Scot’s approach was rather different from that of the more considered Juha Kankkunen for whom Grist had co-driven since 1993. As he said to me once, ‘Anyone who wins five rallies in a year should be world champion.’ But Mäkinen won four rallies, had five other podiums and took the title by one point.
This was still a championship-winning car, however, as Subaru won the manufacturers’ title in 1997, beating Ford by a significant margin. Amazingly, though, that was the last time the team would win the trophy. As for the car, well, it went on to have a life in Italy, where amongst its various pilots were none other than Ivan Capelli and Markku Alén. Today, P8 WRC is owned by the irritatingly stylish and linguistically sophisticated Max Girardo of Girardo & Co. In fact, some of you may have seen this car on YouTube with a Christmas tree on top of it. If not, I recommend you look it up.
While Girardo owns and often drives the car, it is the renowned Ian Gwynne of BGMsport who restored it to its current condition and looks after it for Girardo. And it’s Gwynne who runs me through the starting procedure as I sit in the Sparco bucket seat looking at a sea of aged herringbone carbonfibre with just a single stalk and some vents remaining from the original interior. The procedure goes like this: Green button down in front of the gearlever for ignition, then press a small button in the rows above for fuel pump 1. Now you’re ready to press the big red starter button up by the steering wheel. No throttle, let it spin and just wait for it to catch. Then fuel pump 2, switch both fans on and you’re ready to go. Yes, it’s a couple of buttons more complicated than a regular road car, but it’s also several engineers and laptops and an external motor less complicated than an F1 car of the same era.
Red Sabelt harness clicked into place, depress the surprisingly short-travel clutch pedal, confidently select first, try not to be too intimidated by the noise as you bring the revs up and… you’re away. The Alcantara Momo steering wheel looks curiously small if you’re used to Impreza road cars, but it feels perfectly sized for the rate of response that it summons. The thick tread of the gravel tyres (Cumbrian DMACKs on 15-inch gold Speedlines) fractionally dulls the initial reaction through the first few degrees of lock, but this only serves to make the agility that’s then unleashed even more surprising. It’s not just the front end but the whole car that seems to react like a startled fly.
The gearbox has a longer throw than I expected but the shifts are sensationally fast. The prosaic-looking lever seems to fly across the gate in the middle of the change almost as though it has a life of its own, knows where it wants to go and is taking your hand with it. But you have to help it positively through the final few millimetres into gear or it will baulk noisily and resist, where previously it was effortless. Thankfully there’s no danger of getting first or fifth instead of third, as there is decent width separation across the gate.
You soon realise that not only can you shift incredibly quickly, but you need to. Curborough Sprint Course in Staffordshire is the perfect venue at which to get to know this car – enough space to play, but also tight enough to feel like a rally stage rather than a racetrack. It’s a busy lap and the Impreza fires through gears at an alarming rate as you accelerate. Then moments later you’re on that incredibly firm brake pedal and pulling and punching the lever back through the ratios.
It’s a car that you really need to drive, particularly through the slower stuff. In the quick corners it responds with hardly any input, up on its toes and quick to change direction. But the tighter the bend, the more reluctant it feels and the more you need to work to get it to turn and slide. With the tight rear diff, you have to get the nose pointing into the corner before you jump on the throttle, otherwise it will push the headlights wide rather than help swing the tail lights out. Angling the nose towards the apex is most easily done with a little too much speed and some trail braking to shift the unweighted tail round with momentum. The handbrake can be a help, too.
Once you’ve successfully initiated the turn you can merrily heap a load of turbocharged torque at the driveshafts and ride out any slide, quite possibly changing up halfway through. What you shouldn’t need to do is throw on a wild amount of corrective lock. The car may be sideways and drifting, but as Gwynne tells me before I get behind the wheel, ‘The four-wheel-drive system means it will just try to go where the front tyres are pointing,’ and that means a surprisingly minimal amount of steering input when you’re sliding.
As I gain confidence and get more comfortable with the mixture of smoothness and aggression needed to make this balletic yet tough car dance the way I want, I begin taking bigger liberties so that the Impreza is almost perpetually sliding round my small imaginary special stage. It’s rotating early under braking, then drifting past and away from the apex under the punchy acceleration before shifting its weight the other way for the next corner and so on and so on. It’s physical, loud, ultimately quite tiring and it keeps you phenomenally busy, yet it’s also not a car you have to fight when you get it right.
After a few more blissful minutes I ease off and trundle back to our temporary service area. The Subaru is not exactly happy at slow speeds, but it’s not a complete pig either, you just need to be confident. There are no road/stage modes to switch between, so it’s not surprising it doesn’t suddenly develop a deferentially docile demeanour when you decide you don’t want to go fast anymore. You just need to remember that positivity, not hesitancy, with the controls is still the order of the day when pottering. There’s no point trying to finesse a gearshift simply because you’re bimbling around.
But of course the beauty of this being a rally car is that it wears number plates, so we could just drive it out of the gates and down the road. I’ve always thrilled at the thought of D-types and their ilk being driven to Le Mans or the Mille Miglia. Seeing a competition car on the road today would probably elicit the same excitement in me as I imagine most people would get from seeing Spiderman on the park swings or Iron Man ordering at McDonald’s. And unlike a car designed for a smooth circuit, a WRC car won’t struggle with a few bumps, so you can actually enjoy tackling your local B-road route.
You could pop down to the pub (ideally somewhere called The Sweet Lamb where they serve pints of Aunty Lag) and leave the Impreza’s blistered arches and big wing parked up at the kerb amongst mundane machinery such as Mazdas and McLarens (which probably cost a similar amount). No doubt a natter with like-minded people would ensue about what McRae would have made of the latest WRC cars and whether Tänak or Neuville can beat Ogier to the championship this year. And then you could drive home. In a genuine WRC car. If that’s not cool, I don’t know what is. Which admittedly could explain some of the bullying at school.
I’ve been instructed by Gwynne to stop it on the fuel pumps, so, after letting it idle for a couple of minutes, I pull out the required two small buttons and listen to the engine die before killing the ignition. In the silence I let it sink in; I have just driven an ex-McRae WRC Impreza. The tape attached to the seat behind my head says so.
Yet it’s not solely the nostalgia of the names that makes this car wonderful. Were it a test or development car or one sold to a private competitor with no connection to a household name, it would still leave me grinning from ear to ear. The soundtrack, the manual ’box, the agility and balance of the chassis, the way the gravel tyres move on tarmac… above all else this special WRC car is just huge fun.
Subaru Impreza S3 WRC 97
|Engine||Flat-four, 1994cc, turbo|
|Power||310bhp @ 5500rpm|
|Torque||367lb ft @ 4000rpm|
Huge thanks to Girardo & Co for allowing us to drive P8 WRC and to BGMsport for all their help on the day.