1997 WRC Season Commentary

1997 WRC Summary by Chris Biewer :

Everything changes!

The events: As predicted we get rid of the rotation system, so we now have the full 14 rounds counting to the driver and the manufacturer WRC. At the same time the teams are now bound to compete all rounds if they want to qualify for the manufacturer WRC. In return the events are shortened, especially in recceing and servicing, making the overall event duration shorter and such an increased calendar more manageable for the teams in terms of budget and time.

Latter aspect in its logics is questionable as it's proven also with time. If an event is 3 days instead of 4, what do you save? 70 litres of fuel and 2 sets of tyres? However with 50% more events you have 50% more traveling cost, hotels and logistics bills. Plus we rob several events of their unique character and such challenge. It would be better to have events that are unique, making each visit a worthwile, special occasion.

With now 14 rounds, everybody has to move together a bit and the WRC calendar sees some changes. The Safari loses its traditional Easter slot and is now held shortly after Sweden. As well Catalunya is moved way forward from its previous November date, now held before Corsica, while the new Indonesia round had to make room until later the year. Argentina is another event to be moved forward, finding a gap between Corsica and Acropolis. It is the same events as before but now with a very different look calendar, trying to move events like Portugal, Catalunya and Corsica together and at the same time allowing big enough gaps between the non-European events, all making sense logistically.

The scoring modus: And while we are in full swing, the points system gets a major revamp, in fact for the driver WRC it is the first time in the nearly 2 decades WRC history that the points system is changed! For the makes first of all we get rid of the - more confusing than a worthy bonus - extra points for group positions and next we bring the points in line with F1 to avoid silly figures like 400+ points and make the whole thing more transparent. For the drivers, instead of top10 counting 20-15-12-10-8-6-4-3-2-1, we now have top6, 10-6-4-3-2-1. The very same points system is applied for the manufacturers.

At the manufacturers the points scoring teams still have to be nominated before the event, as since 1995, still the best 2 cars can add their points together for the total manufacturer score, however from 1997 only 2 rather than 3 cars can be nominated. Meaning with only 3 makes entered in 1997 anyway, there are only 6 cars eligible for points. There is no room for risk, strategy and trying new talent, every single retirement will automatically result in the loss of points! Therefore manufacturers are potentially robbed of the chance to play "jokers" such as inviting new or local drivers to a works drive or even giving their regular drivers free hand to attack as they please. All this the author blames for why the next decade became all boring with nobody finding anyone to challenge Loeb - Though this, the new event format included, is only the start were we went wrong to a boring WRC.

Technical regulations: At long last more freedom is tuned into the groupA regulations. While we keep the traditional classes N1-4 & A5-8, the big A8 class is extended by a WRCar formula. The WRCar regulations allow more freedom especially compared to standard road car requirements. It is basically a kit car formula that allows to add turbo and 4x4 from another model of your model range. This gets rid of the demand that a manufacturer had to create 5,000 homologation specials every year, which was the main draw back of groupA already since 1987. However ironically in its basics the WRCar regulations have quite a few similarities to the groupS that was originally supposed to be launched back in 1988 and than cancelled to the disgust of some manufacturers.

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Partly as a result of the nomination changes we only see little changes on the drivers market as on many WRC events we find no more than 6 works drivers. So instead of Subaru running 3 cars, Kenneth Eriksson and Piero Liatti have to share the #2 car, while Mitsubishi goes even into more drastic measure, Richard Burns having to share his #2 car with Uwe Nittel, while the German, even though nominated, is run by Ralliart Germany in an outdated 1996 works car.

The next irony is that Mitsubishi launches an all new Lancer EvoIV (new base model, engine/gearbox unit turned round etc.) with the start of 1997, but while that is the start of WRCars, the new Mitsubishi is built to the traditional A8 requirements! The only 2 other permanent competitors at the time, Subaru and Ford, don't hesitate and launch at the same time WRCar versions of their last competition cars, Impreza 555 & Escort Cosworth, taking maximum advantage of the new freedom. However the first car in the true meaning of the WRCar rules is debuting in Finland 1997, the Toyota Corolla WRC. Toyota (well, Ove Andersson) always wanted to rally the shorter and lighter Corolla and while the fastest Corolla road car has only got a non-turbo 1600cc engine and FWD, according to the new WRCar rules Toyota is searching their shelfes and base the new Corolla WRC on Celica 2000cc turbo engine and 4x4 running gear. Soon more manufacturers express interest and the new, freer WRC regulations turn an immediate success!

Confusion again at Ford. In 1995 they moved their WRC cooperation from the full works team in Boreham to the Belgian private tuner R.A.S., back again to Boreham in 1996 and now to Malcolm Wilson for 1997. However this decision is done very late, Malcolm has to built up a business and employ engineers first before getting down to design the revamped Escort WRC. The project is therefore running extremely late, all test opportunities are out the window and until the very last moment it isn't even clear if the works Fords will make it to the start of the Rallye Monte Carlo. With Carlos Sainz fix, after the mess around Francois Delecour and Bruno Thiry the previous season, Bruno is now replaced by former Toyota (and Mitsubishi) works driver Armin Schwarz. Armin is the most consistant driver and most regular points scorer of all in the first part of 1997, reason enough for Ford to sack him half way through the season and replace him by Juha Kankkunen.

That all means no news after all in the championship situation. Drivers title for Tommi Mäkinen again. In the makes Mitsubishi concentrates only on one driver, Toyota only joins the scene in August and Ford still in a management mess, if Subaru didn’t win that....
 

1997 WRC Factory Team and Driver Line Ups :
 

Subaru Subaru, 1997 - 555 Subaru Rally Team : 1st on 114 points.
 

 

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Ford Ford, 1997 - Ford RS Rallye Sport Team : 2nd on 91 points.
 

 

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Mitsubishi Mitsubishi, 1997 - Mitsubishi Ralli Art Europe : 3rd on 86 points.
 

 

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