Winner of Group N in Sol Rally Barbados 2008, Britain's Ryan Champion, will this year step up to Group A when he ships a recently-restored example of the iconic Subaru Impreza 555 to the island for the Barbados Rally Club's (BRC) 20th running of its blue riband event over the last weekend of May.
The 2005 British Mitsubishi Ralliart Evolution Champion will contest the Caribbean's biggest annual international motor sport event for the third time, with last year's Group N-winning co-driver Craig Thorley again on the notes. Dating from 1996, N555 BAT - the registration number reflects British American Tobacco's ownership of the-then Subaru team sponsor 555 - was driven by Italian tarmac expert Piero Liatti, who made a major contribution to Subaru's second consecutive World Rally Championship title that year and was described in British magazine Autosport as "Subaru's hero".
In his seven events for the 555 Subaru World Rally Team, Liatti retired only once (in San Remo), and claimed six top-seven finishes, narrowly losing out on victory in his last rally of the year; having led for most of Rallye Catalunya, he eventually finished second to team-mate Colin McRae, helping secure Subaru's title. The car had been used only once before Liatti drove it, when guest driver Didier Auriol (without a drive after Toyota Team Europe's exclusion) finished 10th in the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally.
Champion, whose career highlights also include winning the 1994 Peugeot Junior Rally Challenge, the 2001 Group N National RallySprint title and the 2002 Ford Puma Rally Championship, has fond memories of the Impreza 555: "I first drove one belonging to a sponsor, finishing second on a British Rally Championship round, and loved the car."
That was in 2003: having only driven the car for the first time that day, he impressed many observers with a solid drive on the season-ending Tempest Rally and a hard charge over the last two stages, to finish second behind an 18-year-old Finn driving a works Ford Focus, one Jari-Matti Latvala, now a WRC regular with BP Abu Dhabi Ford.
At the finish, Champion was quoted as saying: "I don't know how we've done and I don't care. We've had a ball." Looking back this weekend, Champion added: "I always said that if I wasn't rallying full-time and wanted a car for fun, I'd like a Group A Subaru . . . but it had to be a Prodrive car, preferably with some history, and my father kindly helped with the acquisition of N555 BAT late last year."
When new WRC regulations were introduced at the start of 1997, N555 BAT was sold to a competitor in the Italian Rally Championship, then it travelled around Europe before arriving back in the UK in 2004. Since acquiring the car, Champion has had little chance to compete in it, but finished sixth in the Specsavers Christmas Stages tarmac event at the Croft motor racing circuit in North Yorkshire in December, where Barbados regulars Kevin Procter and Paul Bird finished first and second.
Before the car, currently white, arrives in Barbados, a lot of work will have been done, according to Champion: "We are currently giving the car a full rebuild and putting it back into its iconic blue and yellow colour scheme before it comes across the Atlantic for it's holidays."
While Champion has contested only a couple of rallies since Sol RB08 - apart from his Specsavers outing, he finished 22nd overall on Britain's December round of the WRC, Wales Rally GB - co-driver Thorley has been a very busy man: in the last three weekends alone, he has done three events as co-driver in Charlie Payne's Mitsubishi Lancer WRC Step II.
At Rallye Sunseeker two weeks ago, where Payne's regular preparation company MSR Motorsport was also running Bajan crew Neil Armstrong and Max Ferri, Payne and Thorley were ninth, robbed of a potential podium finish by an electrical problem late morning. But worse awaited them in Cumbria last Sunday (March 8), when they rolled out of the Malcolm Wilson Rally, the Lancer suffering major structural damage.
All that was forgotten by today, however, after Mark Robson and the MSR Motorsport crew had dedicated around 400 man-hours to the reconstruction of the car over just four days; Payne and Thorley repaid the team's efforts with victory on another popular North Yorkshire event, the Riponian Stages, after a crowd-pleasing day-long battle with 2008 winner Tim Pearcey (Evo IX) and Procter, who won in 2006. (The event was cancelled in 2007 because of weather.)