Sudden Death - 1998 Proton Putra WRC Prototype
In 1987 Group A had taken over as the World Rally Championship's top category after the bonkers Group B had spiraled out of control. The cars were now much closer to a road going specification, and were subject to very strict homologation requirements. This for instance meant that any aerodynamic improvement seen on the rally version had to be fitted to the road legal vehicle as well. By 1997 most manufacturers had had enough of this expensive way of handling things, and the FIA switched over to the more liberal World Rally Car specification.
Now manufacturers weren't troubled with overly complicated homologation regulations, which allowed them to freely make more purpose-built machines. With WRC they were free to stretch any 4-cylinder engine to 2.0L, add a turbo with an anti-lag system and fit a sequential gearbox. Aerodynamic aids could be implemented more freely, allowing for massive spoilers and wide wheel arches. The car could be strengthened for added rigidity, and had to weigh a minimum of 1230 kg (2711 lbs).
With the liberalization of the rules in 1997, building and racing a top level car in WRC had gotten a lot easier and a damn side cheaper. This was of course good news to the major manufacturers already involved, but even better for potential newcomers. The decreased cost had made the threshold much lower for companies with smaller wallets.
One such potential newcomer was Malaysian car company Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional (National Automobile Company). Proton had been established by the Malaysian government in 1983. Through a badge engineering deal with Mitsubishi Motors, the Proton Saga became the first ever Malaysian car design. In 1993 the company struck gold by introducing the Wira, a restyled version of the 1992 Mitsubishi Lancer. In 1995 the Putra, a coupe version of the Wira, was introduced. The new car was the first step in an attempt to cultivate a sporty image for the brand which was normally associated with boring economy cars.
Proton's second step was taking up the dark art of motorsport. Modified versions of the Saga, Wira sedan and the Satria hatchback did their rounds in the national rally championship quite successfully under the banner of Petronas EON Rally Team. But Proton wanted more. As Malaysia's only serious manufacturer it held a confident position in the domestic market, but exporting their vehicles proved a lot tougher. The company realized that building an international image was their biggest challenge yet.
To accomplish this feat Proton decided to enter the prestigious World Rally Championship for 1998. They were confident that the company could build its image very quickly by performing in such an international arena. But that opportunity was also a big problem. Nobody at Proton had any knowledge of the inner workings of a complicated WRC machine, which meant they needed outside assistance.
To this end Proton contacted legendary racing specialists Prodrive, who were also tied to the championship winning Subaru team. Somehow Proton's management convinced the Brits to help them figure things out, and the search began for a viable rallying platform.
With the sporting image still in mind, the Putra was selected to defend the company's honor. Prodrive completely stripped the cutesy coupe to its bare bones, and started building it up into a savage rally racer that would annihilate the competition.
Prodrive started with the basic WRC ingredients. A modified version of Mitsubishi's legendary 4G63T 2.0L 4 cylinder engine was crammed into the engine bay, supplying all four wheels with the mandated 300 horsepower through a Hewland 6-speed sequential gearbox. The chassis received a full roll cage and numerous strengthening beams coupled to an aggressive aero package.
The humble Putra recieved massive bulging wheel arches, a gaping front bumper, large cutouts in the bonnet/hood and a big, square rear spoiler. Prodrive's hand in its development was very obvious. From just a short distance, the Putra WRC looked eerily similar to their other creation, the Subaru Impreza WRC98.
With the design and backing of the engineers responsible for Subaru's three successive World Manufactures titles (1995, 1996, 1997), Proton and its Putra looked all set to compete at rallying's highest level. An immediate win would probably be out of the question, but the company was sure it could run with the big boys at Ford, Toyota, Seat, Subaru and ironically their "parent" Mitsubishi.
Surprisingly Proton pulled the plug on the project before the Putra had turned a wheel in anger. All plans to race in WRC with the car were cancelled in silence. The Putra WRC had not yet been unveiled, so Proton simply denied its existence. Prodrive adopted a similar attitude to the aborted project, and quietly continued preparing Subaru's cars without mentioning the Putra ever again.
The Proton Putra WRC was an ambitious project from an up and coming manufacturer. Malaysia's state-sponsored car company wanted to shake off its image of dull reliability. Instead they wanted to make a big impression on the world rally stage to promote the brand to a global audience. To this end they hired the greatest help they could find. Despite help from the experts at Prodrive, Proton still called it quits.
Although Proton never explained why exactly they cancelled the Putra WRC, there are some suggestions. Prodrive's active ties to Subaru were of course slightly problematic. Supporting two competing manufacturers would always anger one of the two, as both teams would be very worried about one gaining an advantage over the other.
The fact that Proton's parent Mitsubishi was also competing for top honors was another factor that hindered the Putra. Maybe the Japanese giant was not too keen on Proton getting in their way, pressuring the Malaysians into backing down. This theory finds some support in Proton's 2002 entry in the Production class with the PERT, a rebadged Lancer Evolution VI. Proton had apparently been sidetracked to the lower category by its parent, and the Putra became the unfortunate victim. Whatever actually happened, the two Putra WRC prototypes remain as silent witnesses to a wasted opportunity