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The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar

CY Foong · Apr 12, 2024 04:50 PM

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 01

When it comes to falls from grace, millennial automotive enthusiasts would often mention one example – the death of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. From the 1990s to the 2000s, the Three Diamonds transformed an otherwise anonymous front-wheel drive (FWD) sedan into a gravel-spitting four-wheel drive (4WD) monster.

The Lancer Evolution went through ten generations but throughout most of its 14 years, it was proving its excellence in the World Rally Championship (WRC). It may have only won 1 manufacturer’s title in 1998 but it had an ace of a pilot with Tommi Makinen winning 4 driver’s titles in a row between 1996 and 1999.

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 02

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It was even more dominant in the Dakar Rally, one of the toughest and most dangerous rally races in the world. Before it became a promotional tool for Saudi Arabia’s sports diversification, the original Paris-Dakar rally would span across two continents from Europe to Africa.

It was during this period when Mitsubishi became the Red Bull Racing of Dakar. It won in just its third season in 1985, scored two back-to-back titles in 1992-93 and 1997-98 as well as an unbeatable seven-in-a-row win between 2001 to 2007. Mitsubishi still holds the record for most Dakar manufacturer wins with 12.

Mitsubishi’s venture in motorsports was handled by Ralliart and the name has been synonymous with the Three Diamonds for 40 years. How did it all begin and what is it doing now after pulling out of the two most recognisable rally competitions?

The Flying Sikh of Africa

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 01

Ralliart was established in 1984 but Mitsubishi’s exploits into the art of driving at speeds around not-so-smooth surfaces began 19 years ago. The three diamonds participated in rally activities in Japan in 1965 but when it began exporting cars overseas, it saw the potential of rallying as a way to promote its cars.

Japanese cars were slowly gaining a reputation for being reliable than their Western counterparts and Mitsubishi was no different. As such, the top executives were convinced that entering international rally tournaments could boost their appeal as well as prove how durable they could withstand a short but tough course.

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 02

Mitsubishi took part in the 1967 Southern Cross Rally in Australia with a pair of Colt 1000Fs, the grandfather of the Mitsubishi Lancer. Against more powerful and heavier competitors, the two cars finished third and fourth in their class which signalled the beginning of a fruitful career in rallying.

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 03

But it was in 1974 that Mitsubishi gained attention in the rallying world. At that year’s Safari Rally, Joginder Singh, a Kenyan of Indian descent entered a Mitsubishi Lancer 1600 GSR as a privateer driver. Singh is known as Simba as well as the Flying Sikh – Malaysia’s own Karamjit Singh isn’t the only Flying Sikh – and had experience rallying.

That year, he took part in the Safari Rally, the world’s toughest rally and one he has plenty of experience in. He first took part in 1959 and won his first Safari Rally in 1965 in a Volvo PV544.

Even though the Lancer was bought with Joginder’s funds, Mitsubishi sent some support in the form of spare parts. The team were underdogs especially when the favourite to win that rally was a Porsche 911.

That humbling spirit turned out to be a motivation and in the end, Joginder and his co-driver won the 1974 Safari Rally, earning Mitsubishi its first WRC win. From then on, Mitsubishi became involved in international rallies and it would win the Safari Rally one more time with Joginder as the pilot of a Lancer 1600 GSR in 1976.

The establishment of Ralliart

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 04

Both the Southern Cross Rally and the Safari Rally laid the foundations for what would eventually become Mitsubishi’s motorsports arm. Ralliart was initially established as Andrew Cowan Motorsports with its founder having experience behind the wheel as a Mitsubishi driver in those two rallies.

Also read: The first Mitsubishi Pajero - from Paris Dakar Rally champ to progenitor of family SUVs

At its 1983 Dakar debut, Cowan was one of the drivers of the Pajero prototype rally car which clinched victory in the non-modified production car class. Though it is not quite insignificant since the team placed 11th and 14th overall, this was the beginning of the legend of the Pajero and Dakar.

1984 saw Cowan finish third overall and second overall the following year. That latter year also saw the Pajero getting an overall victory with Frenchman Patrick Zaniroli piloting as Mitsubishi took home a 1-2 finishing and became the first Japanese carmaker to win the Dakar Rally.

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 05

Cowan was in charge of Ralliart when Mitsubishi rocketed to a dominating season in the 1990s in the WRC. The Pajero might have eventually secured Mitsubishi’s achievements as one of the greatest in rally history but it was the Lancer Evolution that skyrocketed the brand’s appeal.

The Ralliart name became a cool symbol and it had almost every millennial autophile hooked into the art of rallying.

Ralliart was mainly used for merchandise and in aftermarket components but it was established as a rally team, supporting smaller, regional teams up until Mitsubishi pulled out from motorsports in 2010.

Quietly running

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 06

The 2008 global recession saw many carmakers quit motorsports and Mitsubishi was one of those affected. Though it won the last Dakar Rally that took place in the Senegalese capital, Mitsubishi did not make a return to the challenging competition while its presence in WRC was sidelined after failing to reach the highs of the 1990s.

Instead, Mitsubishi began its focus on the future with electrification in mind. Just like how the first Lancer and Pajero entered WRC and Dakar respectively as a way to market them to people, the Three Diamonds did the same thing with the i-MiEV and Outlander PHEV.

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 07

Top to bottom: MiEV Evolution I, II, and III

Though the world’s first mass-produced BEV and the world’s first plug-in hybrid SUV were never going to the same lengths as what their motorsports equivalent has, their efforts in Pikes Peak and various rallies respectively are worthy of a mention.

Mitsubishi took part in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb between 2012 and 2014 with three generations of the i-MiEV Evolution. The first of which looks like an endurance car with the egg-shaped roof of an i-MiEV and finished second in its class.

Even with the roof delete, the i-MiEV Evolution II only managed to secure a best finish of second place but in its final try of a 3-year plan, the i-MiEV Evolution III finished first among electric cars.

The time achieved in the latter season was close to 2.5 seconds behind the overall winner, showing the potential of electric cars. A BEV broke the Pikes Peak record in 2018 which was a Volkswagen ID.R.

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 08

Between 2013 and 2015, Mitsubishi competed in the Asia Cross-Country Rally (AXCR) in the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. The rally car was largely unchanged from the standard road-going model though maximum power output was increased along with other components like rally suspension and a wider body.

In those three years, the Outlander PHEV managed to finish the AXCR while also competing in the 2014 Australasian Safari and 2015 Baja Portalegre 500. While these feats may not sound as legendary as the wins in WRC and Dakar, it is still a fine showcase by the Three Diamonds in motorsports.

The return of Ralliart

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 09

When Mitsubishi executives announced the return of Ralliart in 2021, the news saw some excitement from fans which quickly crashed down to reality when looking at the current crop of models. Nevertheless, an Xpander that can conquer dirt sounds more exciting than one that was made in commemoration of that effort.

Still, if there is one current Mitsubishi model that could spark some triumphant feats, it has to be the Mitsubishi Triton. It is one of the nimblest pick-up trucks in the biz and what better way to prove that it still has some of that motorsports DNA than by crossing through the jungles of Southeast Asia?

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 10

The 2022 AXCR season saw the return of the Mitsubishi works team as well as the return of Ralliart to motorsports. The 2022 season consisted of 6 stages across 6 days and took place in Thailand and Cambodia.

Mitsubishi’s first attempt after an absence of 7 years saw the team heading into the final leg victorious with Thai pilot Chayapol Yotha completely dominating the stages. It was also the perfect retirement gift for the outgoing Triton as the next season saw the debut of the all-new Triton.

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 11

The 2023 AXCR season also took place in two countries, Thailand and Laos however the results did not fall in the team’s favour. The team which now consists of 3 drivers only managed a best finish of third overall with Yotha behind the wheel.

Still, the team is not deterred in giving up as it will take part in the 2024 AXCR season which will be taking place in Thailand and Malaysia from 11 to 17 August. The all-new Triton will be competing again this year and Mitsubishi is hoping to return to the title.

Barely hanging on?

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 12

Comparing Mitsubishi’s past glories with its recent achievements can feel like an apple-orange situation. Yes, those days were indeed legendary with the Lancer Evolution and Pajero Evolution among the examples of homologated units produced in commemoration of those successes but let’s really understand what’s behind those legendary models.

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 13

When Mitsubishi finished the 1973 Southern Cross Rally with all four Lancer 1600 GSRs sweeping the top 4, its 6-page press release ends with the following statement:

"Our aim for this competition is to pursue the pinnacle of high-speed steering stability and durability in the Lancer rally car while putting our technology to the test on a stage where formidable competitors from around the world compete for the crown - then utilize all of the resulting technological achievements in all Mitsubishi cars."

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 14

To put it simply, motorsports is a marketing tool to show how dependable they can be on a regular car. It is also used as an experiment for the technology that would eventually trickle down to a production model.

Perhaps a Triton Evolution could be convincing to win fans over but in the case of Mitsubishi, taking part in rallying is a mix of engineering geekiness and business acumen. As much as some aren’t going to accept it, Ralliart’s spirit never died after leaving Dakar and WRC, it merely evolved with today’s trend.

Also read: Prices confirmed: Malaysia-bound 2024 Mitsubishi Triton Athlete launched in Thailand; prices up 11%

The rise and revitalization of Mitsubishi's Ralliart beyond WRC and Dakar 15

While the thought of a Triton Evolution is merely theoretical, the all-new 2024 Mitsubishi Triton will arrive in Malaysia very soon, Expect the new generation Triton to see a price increase, probably around 11 percent higher.

If you can't wait for the all-new model, Mitsubishi Motors Malaysia is offering the outgoing generation Triton with up to RM 11k in rebates. There’s a RM 7k cash rebate + RM 2k Duit Raya, and 2-year free service. Civil servants and existing Mitsubishi owners will get an additional RM 1k and RM 2k rebate respectively. For more info on this offer, click here.

CY Foong

Writer

Traded advertising for a career that fits his passion for cars. Enjoys spotting cars during his free time and has a soft spot for Japanese Kei cars but drives a thirsty manual sedan.

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