So picture the scene: you’re an iconic manufacturer in rallying, with a stable of promising young drivers and arguably the most famous car in the sport at their disposal. Problem is, there are only so many cars you can run in the World Rally Championship. And to be honest, promising as these young drivers are, do you really want to put pressure on them by elevating them to the top level sport so quickly?
On the other hand, where else will they be able to drive a World Rally Car against strong opposition and learn something that is genuinely useful? This is the situation that Subaru found themselves in throughout the 1990s but the solution was on their doorstep: the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship.
Among the host of prolific drivers they nominated to contest the series (in 1994 and 1995) was Richard Burns, who would go on to become world champion with the team in 2001. The Asia-Pacific series was considered to be the ultimate training ground. The rallies were long, demanding and often extremely slippery – teaching a young driver in a brute of a Group A Car the skills and consistency that win titles.
Nor were they niche events: the calendar included New Zealand, for example. Do well there and you can do well anywhere. Look at some of the other drivers who learned their craft in the Asia-Pacific Series: people like Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae and Tommi Makinen. The fact that they all went on to achieve what they did is no co-incidence. The championship was the ultimate playground of heroes.
For Richard Burns, it wasn’t all a bed of roses though. “Richard didn’t like the food and he spent an awful lot of time going on about that,” remembers his co-driver Robert Reid. But it didn’t stop the Englishman finishing in the top three of the championship in every year from 1994 to 1996 (by which time he had moved to Mitsubishi, pictured) despite not always having a full programme.
It’s a horribly ironic twist of fate that all three of Subaru’s heroes in the APRC during that period – Burns, Colin McRae and ‘Possum’ Bourne (who won it in 1993 and 1994) – have been taken from us under tragic circumstances. McRae’s first experience of the APRC actually came with Ford in 1990 (the year that Carlos Sainz won the title with Toyota) although the Scot finished third in the series with Subaru in 1996 and second in 1998.
He had no complaints about the food, as far as we know. A McRae did eventually win the APRC title – but that was Colin’s younger brother Alister, at the wheel of a Proton in 2011. Part of the appeal of the series was the opportunity for Far Eastern manufacturers to showcase their products in front of their home market, and with the decline of Japanese manufacturers in particular at the top of the sport, the same opportunities for young drivers haven’t been there, which is an immense pity.
In fact, the first European manufacturer to lift the title since the championship was created in 1988 was Skoda, last year. But with the rise in motorsport throughout the Far East, the arrival of Hyundai in world rallying, and signs of a resurgence from Subaru and Mitsubishi, plus the inclusion of rising talent Esapekka Lappi on the entry, could the APRC play a role in supplying us with the next generation of world rally stars once more? Here’s hoping…