This ST185 Toyota Celica GT-Four dominated rally before Subaru and Mitsubishi in the '90s
CY Foong · Jun 29, 2023 10:00 AM
Following the end of the maniacally powerful and downright dangerous Group B rallying, rally cars had to tone down their performance as safety for the drivers and spectators take full priority. However, rallying is still a gruelling sport that tests the driver’s alertness and co-driver's navigational skill as they go through a course under a time limit.
European brands like Audi, Lancia, Peugeot, and Ford dominated the sport in the 1970s and 1980s. As the 1990s rolled in though, the winning team would shift continents from Europe to the East as Japanese brands started to show off their might at the world rally stage.
While Subaru and Mitsubishi would go on to dominate the decade with their legendary homologations of the otherwise mediocre Impreza and Lancer respectively, it was Toyota that started the ball rolling and shifted the winner’s circle from the West to the East.
At the 1986 Ivory Coast Rally, Toyota became the first Japanese carmaker to take the top 4 positions in an international rally race while 4 years later, Toyota would be the first Japanese carmaker to win a driver’s championship when Carlos Sainz took home the title.
In 1992, Toyota began competing in the now legendary ST185 Celica GT-Four and during its maiden season, the team only managed to finish second in the constructor’s championship behind Lancia but Carlos Sainz took back his driver’s championship title after losing out a year ago.
A year later, things would start off great for Toyota Team Europe now called Toyota Castrol Team as it won the first two races in Monaco and Sweden with the latter seeing a 1-2 finish. The team failed to reach the podium in the third race in Portugal but when the Celicas landed in Kenya for the 1993 Safari Rally, fortune seems to be shining on the Japanese carmaker.
The Safari Rally is considered one of the toughest races of the season as the hot and dusty weather takes a great toll on many competitors. When the dust settled at lunchtime on 12-April 1993 and after more than 3,700 km of competition, Toyota became only the third manufacturer to set a very remarkable and rare achievement.
Accomplishing a 1-2-3-4 finish is outstanding in its own way as it’s not necessarily that every car that the team sends out would even finish the race but to achieve it more than once is something that everyone would pay attention to which Toyota had done at the 1993 Safari Rally.
Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen, Markku Alen/Ilkka Kivimaki, Ian Duncan/Ian Munro, and Yasuhiro Iwase/Sudhir Vinayak took the top 4 places in that race. All of them were piloting/co-piloting an ST185 Toyota Celica GT-Four.
Exit and redemption
After that dominating race, Toyota would snag the constructor’s championship for the first time in 1993 following wins in 5 races as well as podium finishes in 3 races. A season later, the ST185 would once again push Toyota to its second consecutive constructor’s title but Toyota would rather not say what happened in 1995.
Eventually, the fight for the championship title would swing between Subaru and Mitsubishi throughout the 1990s but Toyota would return to the championship in 1999, this time in a Corolla WRC. Following that win, Toyota would pull out of WRC for 16 years before returning in 2017 under Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team (WRT).
The team would prove to be as successful as its earlier iteration winning the constructors title in 2018, 2021, and 2022 as well as 4 consecutive driver titles between 2019 to 2022.
But all of that success and the eventual domination of Subaru and Mitsubishi in the 1990s goes back to the ST185 Celica. It was truly a legend that even many petrolheads had forgotten by being overshadowed by the Impreza WRX STi and Lancer Evolution.
The fate of the ST185 that competed in the record-breaking Safari Rally 30 years ago was also largely neglected until 2012 when it was lovingly restored by Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe (TGR-E) to its original condition including competitor plates from that exact race.
Besides the dust which still produces a distinctive smell in the cabin decades after everything has settled, the other thing remaining on this iconic car is the memories from those who brought the car to its legendary place in the history books. From the service crews to the drivers, the tales told by them on transporting and driving them on an arduous journey is something worth recording.
Toyota’s epic 1-2-3-4 finisher wouldn’t just be confined to 1986 and 1993 as the team repeated the position at the 2022 Safari Rally behind a quartet of GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid. The GR Yaris itself is proving to be a future classic for sure as much as the Celica GT-Four is a legendary modern classic.