Group A Legends - RDR Developments & Nicky Grist
Author: Tom Magnay, Photo/Video: BlendLine Magazine
What jumps to mind when I look back on my memories of the World Rally Championship in the 1990’s?
For me, it’s always Mitsubishi and Subaru. Marlboro and 555. Red and Blue. My interests in WRC got truly hooked in around 1998, when that battle was at its fiercest. I was 8, so exact sporting memories were probably a bit hazy for anything before that point.
But just a few years earlier, there was another manufacturer at the forefront, and they brought arguably the loudest budget and had the biggest real estate in the service park. That big player was Toyota, and the reason that their late nineties WRC assault probably isn’t as prevalent as that of Subaru or Mitsubishi, from my boyhood memory of it all, is that Toyota were trying to claw their way back in to the championship, after their misdemeanours in 1995. But we’ll come to that later.
Fast forward to 2021. And we’re standing in the cleanest workshop I’ve stepped into for a while, in front of us sit three Toyota Celica rally cars. One is a bare shell, mid build. It remains under a cover for now. The second is a British Championship spec ST165, proudly bearing Securicor colours, this ’89 car belongs to avid Toyota collector George Anderson. It looks the business. But it’s the third car we have come to see today:
Before us now is a genuine, ex-works, Toyota Team Europe Celica GT Four Rally car, an ST185 in factory Castrol white, red and green livery. And it looks the absolute business. But then it would, because it’s been fettled for the last 18 months by ex-factory TTE car builder Don Woolfield, in his own workshop in Herefordshire. Woolfield is a Kiwi, and 2 seconds into our introduction that was pretty apparent. (G’day). But Don’s story started many years ago working for a Toyota dealership in New Zealand, where he was recruited to work on the NZ round of the WRC in 1990.
1991 saw Don relocate from his home in New Zealand to TTE’s HQ in Cologne for four years, where he worked with Armin Schwarz and Bjorn Waldergard initially with the outgoing ST165, before being drafted in to develop the completely revised ST185 for 1992. The concept of this new car had aluminium suspension, which brought some issues in ’92 but Don and his team worked hard to sort this out in advanced preparation for the following season which would bring about an FIA rule change, to include a narrower width tyre, and TTE knew that their setup would struggle with this so had to do some serious winter development work here. After the final round of the 1992 season the majority of the TTE guys went home to spend Christmas with their families, but Don couldn’t afford to fly home to New Zealand so his boss asked if he wanted to stay behind in the factory to develop the 1993 car with a few other select engineers.
Woolfield didn’t need asking twice, and while most of his colleagues were enjoying Gluhwein in front of the fireplace at home, the crack team who stayed behind ploughed into the New Year developing this new lightweight car ready for Monte Carlo testing in 1993. Spirits were high, following all of the dyno-ing and upgrades, the team were armed with this all new suspension, a viscous diff coupling, new gearbox plus a super light shell. Midway through the test though, Belgian test driver Marc Duez, reported that the car was not responding to some of the upgrades which had been installed, Woolfield recalls Duez saying “it’s like driving a go kart, way too stiff!” The TTE engineer above Don - Michel Nandan - scratched his head and came up with a plan. The rear radius rods were removed from the car, taken into the team truck, cut with a grinder, extended, sleeved, welded up, reinstalled on the car and the test resumed. Duez jumped in the car, went up the road and when he came back “the smile on his face was incredible,” remembers Don. The car was transformed. The car was getting faster and faster. Monte Carlo Rally came a few weeks later, TTE turned up with the new car, anxious, as Ford had been developing the Escort Cosworth, and Lancia had been looking pretty tasty at that point too with their latest incarnation of Group A rules, bringing the Delta HF Integrale, but still on paper the ST185 looked the business.
Don was tasked with working with Frenchman Didier Auriol, and that weekend raged a huge battle between Auriol and compatriot Francois Delecour in the Cosworth. Didier won the rally by 15 seconds after 6 hours of special stages over 600km and four gruelling days in minus conditions, this clearly being a stand out moment in Woolfield’s career – his voice crackled slightly as the emotion of that moment rushes back.
Standing in Don’s workshop - RDR Developments - it is clear that recalling these stories is delving into some great memories. A tear is visible at the corner of each eye, and his voice continues to choke up a bit. Passion is something you cannot hide.
That passion is still very apparent, as we continue to look around the ST185 in his workshop. Don went on to run Auriol and also Finn Juha Kankkunen in these factory GT Fours right up until 1994 where he then moved on to Toyota’s race team in pursuit of Lemans glory. Don wasn’t actually present for the infamous Toyota turbo infringement of 1995 (or so he says!) but his memories of it looking back are that it was a top, top secret operation that really only a few of the engine guys will have known about. He recalls the drivers were ordered by the engineers to “flick this switch right before the stage” which was never questioned, but the super special stage was where Toyota used the genius turbo “mod” for the first time and the Celica was three car lengths ahead by the first corner. [A super special stage in rallying is where two competing cars go head to head more or less next to each other, so a great disparity in power would be hugely obvious]. By that point the FIA had their suspicions and later confiscated a turbo from one of the cars for inspection. Shortly after that Toyota were found to have cheated and were dealt a lengthy ban from the WRC, only to return with the Corolla once their punishment was served some years later.
Don spent time back down under in both New Zealand and Australia working for some national rally drivers, this period saw Woolfield work a variety of jobs before he landed back on the WRC scene with Hyundai World Rally Team. Working through 2014 on Dani Sordo’s car as a number 5 mechanic, he recalls things within the team not working so well at that point, and in bringing this up with his Hyundai bosses in Alzenau (Hyundai WRT’s German base). They suggested he become the team foreman to help the team “gel” better, and he was drafted in to lead the test car team who were developing the then prototype i20 “2017” WRC car which is the era currently in use today. After training a new influx of mechanics, Don was asked to be crew chief and car builder/workshop foreman. It is testimony in part to Woolfields attention to detail that results then began to come in, he overcame internal politics and negotiating with team members from 32 different countries, himself flying worldwide and going away roughly every ten days at this point, it was tough-going but worthwhile when the championship points started to come in.
Behind us in the main RDR shop a large canvas of then Hyundai driver Hayden Paddon adorns the workshop wall, himself a fellow New Zealander whom Don worked hard to back during Paddons up-and-down career with the Alzenau team. One of Don’s inspirations for joining the team was to support Paddon, the potential first Kiwi World Rally Champion, but he recalls how constant failures with simple parts of the car such as the power steering racks, (11 failures consecutively) would frustrate them both hugely. Paddon lost his way a little due to a few unfortunate incidents and team decisions, which Don found massively sad and tarnished his career with the team in 2017 and says even today that this was one of the many reasons he left the team.
Don found himself moving to the UK shortly after this with his wife and now business partner Joycie, to set up RDR Developments. An old colleague of Don’s was delighted to learn that he has set up RDR Developments nearby and immediately entrusted Don with his ex-factory car. That old colleague was indeed former WRC co-driver Nicky Grist, himself a co-driver for Juha Kankkunen (among others of course) in ST185 cars, and the Group A car we stand in front of today is Grist’s own pride and joy.
“For me there was only one person to look after this car for me,” states Grist. “Obviously Don and I go back a long way, having worked with him within TTE back in the glory days of the 185, I just fell in love with these Celicas, I spent 4 months testing in Kenya with it, having my first WRC win in Argentina with Juha, to go on and win Rally GB in ice and snow in 93, they were just indestructible, and I had to buy one eventually!”
I’ve travelled just up the road to Nicky Grist’s office to ask him about his memories with these amazing cars and to learn a little bit more about his cars development at RDR. “Unless you’ve got real knowledge about how these cars were back in the day, the tendency is there to fit the wrong parts or to not do it right. Don has that knowledge and I needed somebody that knew the ins and outs of it and could put it back to be the way it was.”
Nicky’s own Celica is a genuine ex-factory car, campaigned by Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol in Australia and Sweden respectively, before being sold to privateers in Europe, which included a stint in Ireland and being switched to right hand drive, as so many cars are for their tarmac championship. It was at this point that Nicky acquired his car, but it badly needed attention and Nicky had to have to put back to LHD.
“We’re really lacking in the UK in someone with as much experience as Don, I’m glad he’s settled into this part of the world - he can turn his hand to anything, he really is a world class mechanic, and what price can you put on that?! What Don has done with my car is fabulous and we’re almost finished with this latest batch of developments, I can’t wait to get out and use it!”
At the time of writing, Nicky’s next planned outing with his car at the 78th Goodwood Members Meeting has sadly been postponed due to the ongoing pandemic, but in the care of Don and the RDR Developments team at least the car is ready to go at the push of a button. Back in Don’s mancave he proudly shows us round his domain, at his newly acquired milling machine and tooling, at the pedal box freshly restored on the Celica, the rear suspension componentry and new Kevlar differential guards he has had commissioned, and the hydraulic brake pipes he has rerouted how they would have been in the factory – another legacy of the switch back to left hand drive some years ago.
He’s also just fitted a new handbrake cylinder, and shows this to me, along with the aluminium lever for adjusting the front anti-roll bar stiffness. This mans work is nothing other than pure attention to detail, and it shows. He’s spent hours restoring the factory jack which straps into the boot floor of the car, and the bringing the fuel tank and piping back up to the required finish.
The best thing about this car is that despite it being an OCD masterpiece, it is not a show car, having, pre-Covid, done Rally Festival Trasmiera in Spain, with Juha Kankunnen at the wheel (which did end up with a retirement following a visit to the scenery at the hands of the Finn). More recently, Nicky has assumed a drivers role after so many years in the passenger seat – and taken his car to Eifel Rally Germany, Lombard Rally Bath, Chester Rally Revival and Rallyday Legends Stages in 2019, where I was fortunate enough to sit alongside Grist and experience this car in full stage mode, amongst much other legendary period WRC machinery – a memory I will cherish forever.
There is a small clique of ‘Celica people’ who would scoff at me for only thinking of Subaru and Mitsubishi when I remember WRC in the 1990s, and I’m pleased to say that now I have met some of them – Don and his team - that circle of people with a true appreciation of 3SGTE engined Group A rally cars has just gained one more member.
Don’s newly established company looks after a number of high-end rally cars, including Gary Le Coadou himself the owner of a Celica 185 that regularly appears at Goodwood Festival of Speed and also an ex-Sordo Hyundai i20WRC which Don runs on rallies.
You can watch our visit to RDR Developments and my chat with Nicky Grist on our YouTube channel, where you can also find lots of stories, history, car build projects and more – go check it out, and if you enjoyed the video, please give it the thumbs up, share it so others can enjoy it too, and stay subscribed to our channel for plenty more to come!
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