Tiff Needell

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A

Tiff Needell

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A big fan of David Richards, a man who progressed from a rally co-driver’s seat to become chairman of his own business, Prodrive. Anyone who’s driven past Prodrive’s UK headquarters, visible from the motorway, can’t fail to have noticed the ever-increasing size of the company’s buildings, where rally and touring cars for several manufacturers have been prepared.

Prodrive has won Le Mans class victories for Ferrari and Aston Martin, dabbled in F1 with the BAR team, and of course continues to chip away in Australia’s own Supercars series, but if there’s one make that’s synonymous with Prodrive it has to be Subaru. From 1990 right though to 2008, Prodrive ran the company’s iconic World Rally Team.

“SITTING BESIDE MCRAE WAS ABSOLUTELY MESMERISING ... THE FABLED BLUE IMPREZAS WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR YEARS TO COME”

Much as I’d have loved to, I never drove for the team although I was involved in racing and developing its first GT3 Aston Martin, the 2006 DBRS9. I did however have the privilege of going behind the scenes for a Top Gear story to see the development of its first Subaru Impreza World Rally Car. I sat beside Colin McRae in the shake-down stage for the Rally Catalunya and then drove it myself over the very same stage with his co-driver, Nicky Grist, reading his pace-notes. Days don’t get much better than that.

The last year of the old Group A regulations, 1996, required manufacturers to build increasingly expensive homologation models. Rally fans loved the road-going Cossies, Scoobies and Evos, but it was time for a change as manufacturers needed to be attracted rather than put off by the costs. The new World Rally Car regulations for 1997 allowed them more freedom to simply (and more cheaply) modify their road cars.

The ever-enthusiastic Richards was keen to create a Subaru that would work well and look the part. Famed stylist Peter Stevens was in charge of the aerodynamics and David Lapworth engineered the chassis.

Sitting beside McRae was absolutely mesmerising. The overriding impression of calmness was at odds with the manic blur of activity. Regulations capped the power to 300bhp but it still felt quick enough to me as we climbed the hill of the 5km stage. Fortunately, Colin had done it a few times before, but I had no idea what was coming next as we hurtled round blind corners using every inch of the road while dropping two wheels off the tarmac to cut inside corners, showering gravel onto the road that could catch out those that followed…

Uphill it was fast, but then we were plunging down the other side and the road began to open up. Sixth gear and full throttle through the esses with a cliff face on one side and a big drop on the other – and all the time Colin had that calm yet somewhat manic look on his face. It was a very privileged moment.

I found the Impreza a joy to drive with wonderful steering feel and a racing H-pattern gearbox that needed no clutch once it was moving. No buttons or paddles, and just a normal handbrake: a set-up that made this one of the most rewarding cars to drive that I have ever experienced.

Much was expected of the new combination but, despite eight wins over the next two seasons, McRae – who’d won the driver’s title in 1995 – would never repeat the feat. It was left to Richard Burns in 2001 and Petter Solberg in 2003 to pick up Subaru’s final two titles.

Still, the fabled blue Imprezas will be fondly remembered by me for many years to come.