It’s not often a piece of World Rally Championship history gets thrown your way, but that’s exactly what happened last Friday.
As someone whose first memory of motorsport at the age of four is watching Britain’s very own Colin McRae clinch the 1995 World Rally Championship drivers’ title at the age of five with my - then very emotional - dad, it’s fair to say that the WRC has always held a place very close to my heart.
Throughout the 1990s to the mid-2000s, I developed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the cars, the rallies, the drivers, and their results. Like most ‘90s kids, Colin McRae was a hero of mine and I spent many an hour worsening my eyesight by throwing the Scotsman’s legendary, blue-and-yellow, 555-liveried Subaru Impreza in various 32-bit landscapes on the PlayStation.
Yet despite Colin’s hero status, I started to find myself drawn to Tommi Mäkinen who drove for Subaru’s arch-rivals, Mitsubishi.
The white, then red-and-white Marlboro liveried, Ralliart-prepared Mitsubishi Evo VI’s Mäkinen piloted to four-consecutive drivers’ titles from 1996 to 1999 not only contributed to a smoking habit in later life, they just seemed a damned-sight cooler - I liked that Mäkinen was a man of few words who just got on with racking up the rally wins and titles; also, I got a kick out of know that outing myself as a Mitsubishi supporter would get a rise of similar gravel-minded school friends and family.
In 2002, Mäkinen switched from Mitsubishi to Subaru after the former made its switch from the ageing Group N Evo VI - a car he’d taken to within three points of a record breaking, fifth drivers’ title during the previous season - to the twitchy, difficult Evo VII WRC.
On paper, it seemed a match made in heaven. Subaru had won the 2001 drivers’ title with Richard Burns who had moved to Peugeot, and Mäkinen - despite being almost 40 - would seemingly once again be able to fight for top honours.
It wasn’t to be, though. Despite winning the 2002 Rally Monte Carlo, an event which proved to be his last-ever WRC win, Mäkinen was unable to add to his number of wins and titles. Following just four podiums over two seasons, the Finn closed off his illustrious career with a third-place finish at the 2003 Wales Rally GB.
Despite being a relatively lean period with Subaru, the fact that Mäkinen retired with four world championships, 24 wins, and five-consecutive Rally Monte Carlo victories, made him - at the time - the successful rally driver in the history of the WRC.
During his last WRC outing, Mäkinen’s 2003 Subaru Impreza - a car driven to that year’s title by teammate Petter Solberg - was decked out in a special ‘Mäkinen - World Rally Legend’ livery. The man himself also marked the occasion by wearing a special-liveried golden helmet, and a pair of matching Alpinestars race boots.
Imagine my delight when after having found out from Oxfordshire-based Subaru rally car specialists, Autosportif, that this car was back in the ‘Mäkinen - World Rally Legend’ livery that originally adorned it.
Even better, it was back in the UK and in the care of classic rally car collector, Steve Rockingham.
Alongside S200 - the official Prodrive designation for the Mäkinen car - Steve’s enviable collection boasts the very Subaru Impreza WRC that McRae drove to victory at the 1998 China and Portugal rallies, and one of the very last Group A Imprezas used by Krzysztof Hołowczyc to take the 1996 European Rally Championship title.
On the evening before the 2021 Monte Carlo Rally, and with Mäkinen’s last rally car on UK soil, speaking to Steve about this very special piece of WRC history and his collection of historic rally cars was too big an opportunity to miss….
Dyler: What’s the story behind how you managed to end up owning Tommi Mäkinen’s last Subaru Impreza WRC car?
Steve Rockingham: It was absolutely pure chance. I went to France to buy another World Rally Car - another Subaru - and it just so happened that it was in the same workshop as the car I originally went to look at. The original car was horribly complex and I'd still buy it now. It just hasn't happened yet. However, S200 was just sitting there in the workshop under a tarp.
I took Howard from Autosportif, and he said "oh, that's S200 under there and it doesn't work properly." We asked the guys selling it what was wrong and he said it's something to do with the gearbox. Howard said it must be an electronic-issue because Autosportif had rebuilt the gearbox, which is then stress tested.
We didn't think much more of it until we went back to the airport. I said to Howard "I wonder if they want to sell S200, because we can buy it, fix it, and sell it on."
Anyway, we were sitting having a coffee and we looked up the car's history on e-WRC.com. It turned out that it was Tommi Mäkinen's last WRC car. It was the one he drove on Wales Rally GB 2003 when he was wearing the golden boots. Weirdly, that’s the only thing that most people seem to remember about it.
We had a chat about what could be wrong with the gearbox, and waited until we got home. Howard's been rebuilding Subaru WRC cars for years now, so he knew there was nothing massively wrong with the transmission and the issue was just some electronic glitches.
We rang the garage back in France to ask if they'd sell S200. They were willing to. The guy selling it wanted me to pay towards a Škoda Fabia R5 he had his eye on, so I paid the garage for that and he gave me S200 in exchange. We basically did a deal and that was it.
Dyler: Was the Impreza WRC in a bad state when you got it back to the UK?
SR: To be honest, it wasn't in a bad state at all. The guy in France had been rallying it reasonably successfully until this gearbox gremlin. It'd just been sitting there for months because I don't think they really knew how to fix the problem. They knew it was Mäkinen's old car, though. All of these old rally cars come with a gold passport which lists the events they competed in and everything else.
Along with the book, the car had all the right stickers on the roll cage so everything was well-kept.
The trouble is though, is that many of these machines are treated just as rally cars, not collectables. When the guy in France bought it, it was probably the best Impreza he could afford at the time and he used it to go out and do some French tarmac rallies. I don't doubt it was great for that.
As time goes on, they go from being a rally car and a collector's car. It's almost like a line they cross in going from one to the other. I'm in that second category, because I wasn't looking at it as a rally car to compete in. I wanted it because it's a bit of a collector's item and a nice thing to own.
Essentially, I was buying it from a guy who just wanted it as a rally car and didn't put a huge amount of value on it as a collector's item. It still wasn't cheap though, because WRC cars have always been relatively expensive.
Dyler: The Subaru years were not a hugely successful period in Mäkinen’s WRC history - why did this car appeal to you?
SR:It wasn't so much that it was a Mäkinen car, really. That was just something that added to it. It was mainly because it was another Prodrive-run Subaru. Like I said, I didn't even go to France for that car in the first place - it was only afterwards and looking on e-WRC that we thought we could do something with it.
Until it arrived here, I didn't really know what sort of condition it was in. The price was quite attractive for a Subaru that was much newer than any of my other ones. I know it’s not necessarily popular to say it, but these cars are like anything in that the newer they are, the better they are to drive.
To drive, S200 is absolutely incredible. It's got launch control, a paddle-shift gearbox, and the brakes are immense. They're huge!
In short though, it was really a coincidence that it was a Mäkinen car I bought, and I think it represents a nice piece of car history really - whilst the Subaru years weren't hugely successful for him, he was a four-time World Rally Champion, and S200 is the car he used on his last rally. I think that’s a sweet touch.
Dyler: What were the biggest challenges you faced with restoring and repainting Mäkinen’s Impreza WRC?
SR: We didn't really restore it, to be honest. It was delivered to Autosportif who are fantastic guys. Along with being really nice people to work with, they really know what they're doing. I bought it in December 2019, and it got back here just before Christmas that year. Autosportif went through it top-to-bottom, and I really wanted to use it for Rally Mallorca in March 2020.
We went through it and apart from the gearbox issue, the cam-belt and a general service, there was very little wrong with it. The bodywork wasn't bad either - it was just covered in a bit of gravel rash, that's all. We only re-painted the sides, bumpers, and the spoiler, because the spoiler was black and it should have been blue like on Tommi’s last car.
Autosportif's electronics guy had a look at the gearbox and he did a load of work on the transmission ECU. He ran a diagnostic test and it turned out that the data logger wasn't recording or working properly, Where that wasn't working, it didn’t allow the transmission ECU to work correctly.
With some outside input on the electronics side of things, we reset everything back to Prodrive’s original settings so everything was like it was when it rolled out of the factory. Now it works a treat, and it hasn't really missed a beat ever since.
Dyler: What does Mäkinen’s last Impreza WRC mean to you on a personal level?
SR: I don't know, really! It's just another part in a very nice collection of rally cars that I have.
I've got an ex-works Triumph TR-7 V8 which is a bit of fun. I use that as my historic circuit car. I've got a Group A Impreza too, which is a four-door car. It's a really late one though, and one of the last three built. It was built in '97 when Prodrive were making World Rally Cars.
The thing is with that car though, is that Prodrive didn't have enough WRC car shells for their top-three customers so they built three almost hybrid Group A, WRC cars - it's got a lot of WRC stuff on it such as water-cooled brakes.
That specific car is the one that Krzysztof Hołowczyc used to win the European Rally Championship with in 1996. It's such a really cool thing when I look at it, to be honest.
When I bought it, I bought it because the customer cars were just that - one car made, for one specific customer.
With the blue and yellow Imprezas, Prodrive swapped the number plates around on them all the time. If you look at L555 BAT - the car synonymous with McRae's 1995 title win - that car or that number would have appeared on several different cars, so it doesn't mean that that particular car is the one that won the 1995 World Championship.
However, a customer car’s history can be traced by using the licence plate it has because it has just one. You can use this to find out all the rallies it competed in and what it achieved throughout its lifetime.
Alongside S200, I'm currently rebuilding another Hołowczyc car, which is a ‘98 Impreza WRC with a Stomil livery. When it’s done, I'll have a pair of those which I think is really cool.
These Hołowczyc cars are really great, because wherever we go in the world, the Polish rally fans go mad for them. When we do Rally Legends in Italy with the Group A car, a lot of Poles come out for it and it's honestly like having our own fan club - they're amazingly enthusiastic people who just love cars.
I only really learned this by talking to Polish folk, but Hołowczyc in Poland - who's also gone on to become an MEP and do the Dakar and all sorts of other cool stuff - he's as famous as David Beckham is here!
Dyler: Do you think S200 represents the WRC’s golden age, and do you think the WRC can be compared to how it was 20 or so years ago?
SR: The WRC has crept up a little bit in my estimations in the last year or two. The latest WRC cars though - the 1600s with all the aero stuff - are really, really impressive. They're proper drivers' cars and the guys driving them are on the limit in those things the whole time.
I do think that the sport was in the doldrums for a while though. Most of that stems from the lack of coverage on TV and in the media.
Years ago, if Roger Clark won the RAC Rally, it'd make it to the front page of the paper. Last year, Elfyn Evans nearly won the title and it didn't even make it to the back page of the paper. You think "that's quite sad, really". Elfyn achieved what he did and it hardly got any mileage anywhere.
All that said and done though, I do think that the 2.0-litre era of the WRC was probably the sport at its peak. The Subarus were amazing, but it didn’t stop there with them - the Peugeot 206 WRC and the Ford Focus WRC were also incredible machines.
All of these cars are mind blowing pieces of engineering, and it's funny to talk about this actually. The 2.0-litre cars are faster than a Group B car, rarer than a Group B car, and whilst they look like a road car, they are amazingly engineered.
The Focus WRC is incredible. How Ford ran a transverse engine with a four-wheel-drive system and a gearbox in-line behind the engine, it’s beyond cold. I had one of these, and when you look at everything on it down to the tiniest details, the engineering that M Sport put into it is just phenomenal.
If we're talking about the little Peugeot 206, I'd have to say that I think it's probably my favourite WRC car. It's so simple in its design, but it has really incredible engineering under the skin. For example, the header tank for the engine coolant doubles up as an upper-engine mount - that's one piece of metal doing two jobs!
But yeah, from 1997 to 2006, I'd say those years were very, very special for the WRC.