1997: And Toyota came back with the Corolla WRC

Toyota had been banned from participating in the World Rally Championship in 1996, after the discovery of a tricky bypass in the turbo restrictor during Rally Catalunya 1995, as we already reviewed. But it did not take too much for them to come back to work. After January 1996 approval of the project, in February a team of 16 engineers, led by Toyota Team Europe Chief Designer Dagobert Röhrer, started to work on the first Toyota WRC, according to the new regulations planned for 1997. Instead of a sporting car, they started from the best seller of the Japanese manufacturer, the Toyota Corolla, whose 8th version (also named E110) had been launched in 1995. Having different car options, they selected the European version of the hatchback model, as it offered higher rigidity, and the shorter distance between axes of all WRCars, which was an advantage on narrow and twisty roads, but an inconvenient on long, fast turns. To compensate such effect, they tried to lower the center of gravity as much as possible, while redistributing engine parts to equilibrate weight distribution between axes. They also worked to get the maximum possible suspension travel, which was longer than in any other rally car then (over 200 mm).

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Toyota Corolla WRC, wind tunnel test, DNW, Marknesse, Netherlands – extracted from video Toyota Corolla WRC: The making of

The car was designed and built in the Toyota’s facilities in Cologne, Germany. By November 1996, the car was ready for the aerodynamic validation, which was developed in wind tunnel tests carried out in the facilities of the German-Dutch Wind Tunnels Foundation (DNW) located in Marknesse (Netherlands). Three main areas were covered: enlarged wheel arches, front bumper and rear wing.

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Toyota Corolla WRC, wind tunnel test, DNW, Marknesse, Netherlands – extracted from video Toyota Corolla WRC: The making of

The front bumper included two central air inlets for engine cooling and two side inlets for brake cooling (still blinded in the picture below). A front splitter was included, with an elevated central part to avoid damaging on turns cutting.

corolla front splitterextracted from the video Toyota Corolla WRC

A single plane rear wing was initially designed and evaluated in the wind tunnel tests.

corolla wind tunnel 4extracted from video Toyota Corolla WRC: The making of

But tests showed the benefits of adding a second plane in order to help to generate higher downforce at the car rear, and the final design included the bi-plane wing. Also, Gurney flaps were added to both planes, to facilitate flow separation and the generation of low-pressure areas behind, which resulted in increased downforce.

corolla rear wing 2

corolla rear wingextracted from video Toyota Corolla WRC: The making of

With all aerodynamic devices, the car drag coefficient remained at a modest 0,47. Once the aerodynamic package was concluded, the first car was finally assembled in December 1996, allowing to start tests in snowy roads in Germany in January 1997.

Tests followed in asphalt (France, February 1997 with Freddie Loix) and gravel (Portugal in March, Greece in April 97, by Didier Auriol) as well as on the fast Finnish roads (June with Auriol and July with Marcus Gronholm).

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Toyota Corolla WRC test unit, D.Auriol/D.Giraudet, Greece, 1997 – picture from Samochody Świata

Tests were so successful that the team decided to start their campaign in Finland, instead of in Sanremo Rally, as initially planned. To prepare the Rally of Finland, the car was aligned in the Mantta Rally, but suffered from teething problems.


M.Gronholm/T.Rautianen, Toyota Corolla WRC, Mänttä 200-Ajo Rally 1997, ret. – picture by Pietro K.

The full team included former Toyota works driver Didier Auriol together with Marcus Gronholm, an already experienced driver who had been loyal to Toyota since 1990, although as a privateer, and who was on his route to becoming a world champion, not many years after.

Results immediately confirmed how successful the design was, as Gronholm finished the first leg of the Finland Rally in the first position. However, both cars suffered from damage in front spoilers, due to the multiple landings after jumps. As such problem also affected other cars, FIA’s Jacques Berger allowed a change in the regulation, and teams were allowed to replace damaged front spoilers each evening during that rally. Gronholm still managed to get three scratch times before retiring due to injection problems in the second leg.


M.Grönholm/T.Rautianen, Toyota Corolla WRC, Rally Finland 1997, ret.

The rest of the season confirmed the potential of the car, with Auriol finishing third in Australia as the best result.

At the end of the season, Carlos Sainz joined back the team with the idea of achieving his third title. And he almost succeeded, starting the season with a brilliant victory in his first outing with the Corolla, the 1997 Monte Carlo Rally.


C.Sainz/L.Moya, Toyota Corolla WRC, Monte Carlo Rally 1998, 1st – picture by Tym – ewrc.cz

Sainz also won in New Zealand, and he got other five podium positions, which allowed him to face the RAC Rally in full fight with Makinen for the Drivers title. Also, Didier Auriol won the Catalunya Rally.


D.Auriol/D.Giraudet, Toyota Corolla WRC, Rally Catalunya 1998, 1st – picture by Tym – ewrc.cz

In the RAC Rally, things started really well for the Spaniard, as Makinen was forced to retire after hitting a concrete barrier, leaving the Toyota driver ahead of the Championship with only finishing the rally. Sainz tried to drive carefully to ensure the points, and in spite of an incident at Sweet Lamb at 160 km/h, where he lost his rear wing, things were going according to plan.

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C.Sainz/L.Moya, Toyota Corolla WRC, RAC Rally 1998, ret. – picture by Petr Fitz

But the drama came on the last 500 meters of the very last stage (Margam), as the Toyota engine failed, leaving the Spanish duo in full despair, and with no third title. Makinen was informed on his way to the airport back home, so he returned back to celebrate his third title with Mitsubishi, who also got the Manufacturers title, ahead of Toyota and Subaru.

In spite of such disappointment, the team started the 1999 season with renewed forces, and they were able to place at least one car in the podium in all rallies except New Zealand and RAC Rally. Such amount of points, aided by the win of Auriol in China, allowed the Japanese team to ensure their third Manufacturers title, ahead of Subaru, who had collected 5 wins during the year, or Mitsubishi, with four wins. For the second year in a row, the podium of the Manufacturer’s Championship was completely Japanese.


D.Auriol/D.Giraudet, Toyota Corolla WRC, Rally of China 1999, 1st

After RAC Rally 1999, the Toyota team decided to withdraw from World Rally Championship, in order to concentrate all their efforts on the Formula 1 team. And it took them 18 years to come back, thanks to the convincing arguments of a certain Tommi Makinen.

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C.Sainz/L.Moya, Toyota Corolla WRC, RAC Rally 1999, ret. – picture by Petr Fitz


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