Proton driver Alister McRae talks about his full-time return to rallying, coming close to winning the opening round of the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship – last week's Malaysian Rally – and the year ahead.
Q. How was the Malaysian Rally?
Alister McRae: It was good, looking very good, until there we had a bit of a problem with the engine on the third stage on Sunday. We were leading and looking good for the win up until that.
Q. What exactly happened?
AM: The engine stopped on the start of the third stage. We think it might have been related to a broken fan the day before. On the first stage out of service, there was quite a heavy landing which looks like it might have broken the bracket for the fan. The fan then lost its blades and, obviously, wasn't working.
The engine is mightily impressive, though – it kept on going and kept on pulling perfectly despite horrendous temperatures. I thought it might go yesterday, but it was amazing how it kept on. We got to service and got it sorted. After that, I thought everything was perfect, the engine was running really well until the start of the stage 11.
Q. How tough was the event?
AM: It was really tricky. It was extremely hot, the hottest I've ever been in a rally car, which made it very hard work.
Q. How hot was it?
AM: It was more than 104 degrees at times and we had 99 percent humidity. Bill [Hayes, co-driver] and I were sweating loads just standing around in the service park, when we got into the car it was unbelievable, you just couldn't stop sweating.
We got to the end of every stage and the inside of the car was like a steam room, we'd get the windows down and it felt like there was just hot air blowing into the car. It was a real test. It just felt like you couldn't breathe at times, this was definitely the toughest event I'd ever done.
Q. Prior to the engine blowing, it looked like you had it in the bag...
AM: I know, it did, didn't it. I have to say, the MEM team has been amazing over the winter. They have done so much work to the car, it's a fantastic car to drive now, with so much potential.
This was the event which really wasn't going to favor the Proton. Well, maybe China Rally will be even less favorable for the Super 2000 cars, but Malaysia was almost as bad. The Super 2000 cars prefer fast and flowing stages, whereas Malaysia and China are full of tight corners where the conventional Group N cars have the torque to pull away.
Q. With that in mind, you must be pleased with the car?
AM: Absolutely. Like I said, this event didn't suit us – and the Group N cars were running with the bigger [33mm] restrictor on the turbos, so they had more power than ever and we were still able to run faster than them. On top of that, I'd never done this event before, so I wasn't really too sure how we would go.
Yes, I am pleased with everything. OK, it's disappointing not to come away with the win, but coming away knowing that we have the pace to win the championship, leading the rally, setting fastest times and being right in the fight is the next best thing. I have to say, I really felt pretty confident that this one was in the bag, I thought we'd got it – the perfect start for Proton and the boys on the home event. But it wasn't to be.
Q. How's the confidence going to Japan for the next round?
AM: It couldn't be higher. We've seen what the car's capable of here in Malaysia and, while I've never done Hokkaido before, I understand the roads are faster and similar to European stages, so it should be good. I think Japan will certainly suit the Proton more than this event did.
In reality, Malaysia and China are the two toughest events for Super 2000 cars because they're so tight and twisty. The Group N cars have more torque to pull out of corners. Super 2000 comes into its own in the fast and flowing stages, so places like New Zealand and, from what I understand, Japan will be great.
Q. How was the car compared to when you finished second on Rally of Scotland last year?
AM: There's been a big improvement over the winter – the boys at MEM really need a big hand for everything they have done. The car feels much stronger. In Indonesia and China last year we were a second a kilometer down on the Group N cars and we were leading them here. That's massive progress and the good news for us is that there's more to come.
Q. You'd talked about the rain in Malaysia causing problems, was it as bad as you feared?
AM: It wasn't too bad. It rained heavily on both days of the rally, but we managed the conditions well. We took a narrower tire on Sunday morning and we seemed to have the conditions sussed. Don't get me wrong, it was still extremely slippery, but we were able to read where the grip was, what little there was!
Q. And what about rallying a Proton factory car in Malaysia?
AM: That was fantastic. The support from the people in the Proton factory was just amazing – and from the Malaysian government as well. It was a great honor to be out there competing with the support of those people.
Q. What do you think about the year ahead?
AM: It's going to be a busy one, but it's going to be great. Chris [Atkinson, teammate], the other Chris [Mellors, team principal] and everybody here is pulling in the same direction and that can make for a very successful year, hopefully starting on the next APRC round in Japan next month.