Back in 1996, Swedish rally driver Stig Blomqvist was 50 years old. He was a former World Rally Champion, having claimed the title in 1984 in an Audi Quattro and a seven-time winner of his home rally, the Rally Sweden.
It would be fair to say that, after a glittering rallying career, he was winding down and had taken the opportunity to use his experience of driving two-wheel rally cars to help ŠKODA Motorsport to develop the FELICIA KIT CAR.
That same year, the British Rally, then known as the RAC Rally, had been rotated off the WRC calendar. The FIA had chosen to reduce the WRC to just nine rounds, which in this year meant the RAC Rally had to make way, along with the Rallye Monte Carlo.
Nevertheless, the RAC Rally took place in 1996 as part of FIA 2-Litre World Rally Cup and it moved back from south Wales, where it had been running, to its spiritual home in north Wales. It also included a number of stages in the fearsome Kielder Forest in the north of England.
As part of the development of the FELICIA, Stig Blomqvist and his fellow Swedish co-driver Benny Melander took up a guest entry in the RAC Rally. They had driven in the same event the previous year and only managed to finish in 21st place overall, while they had been forced to retire from their only other events of the 1996 season in a FELICIA, the Rally Bohemia and Rally Australia.
Their entry was very much seen as a chance to put the FELICIA through its paces and the challenge became even more intense when the infamous Welsh weather turned on them. The snow fell and Blomqvist found himself contending with icy forest tracks.
The conditions proved to be too much for many drivers. The early leader Juha Kankkunen was one of many who went off the road on a patch of ice and out of the rally. Two fellow ŠKODA FELICIA drivers, Pavel Sibera and Emil Triner also succumbed.
But it was an opportunity for Stig Blomqvist to make the most of his experience and he produced one of the drives of his life. The conditions were ideal for him to show off his left foot braking skills, and he excelled, pulling away from the rest of the 2-wheel drive cars to finish more than seven minutes’ clear of his closest rival.
And his skilled handling of the FELICIA also left many 4-wheel drive cars trailing as well. He managed to take the car to third overall and secure an unexpected podium place for ŠKODA Motorsport.
It was to be the final podium of a stellar WRC career for Blomqvist, although he continues to make guest appearances in a handful of events, mostly in his native Sweden, even now at the age of 70.
The RAC Rally reverted back to south Wales for the following year, much to the frustration of British rallying enthusiasts. But it does now reside more permanently in its spiritual home in north Wales and this year’s event promises to be a scintillating one for ŠKODA fans.
But for those who were there twenty years ago, it will have to go some to beat the year Stig steered his ŠKODA through the snow and ice to a quite remarkable podium finish.