Ralliart returns to competition at the AXCR

I have always been a fan of Mitsubishi. Maybe it was because I grew up with Mitsubishis in the family.

Pops had a 1987 Lancer; a car I remember so well. When we moved to Japan in 1992, we rented a Minica for a while up until we purchased a Chariot MPV; in the Philippines that would have been known as the Space Wagon. When we came back and started a business, the vehicles we chose were the L300 FB and the Adventure.

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In 2002 it came time for me to buy my own car and with my own money saved, I selected a used 1993 Lancer EL. Being a young 20-year-old meant I couldn’t resist racing it, even though it only had a puny carbureted 1.3L engine and did consistent (slow) 17.9 seconds on the quarter mile at the MHC.

Later on, I would sell that Lancer and get another of the same “vintage” but with a much larger 2.0L V6; yes, I found a crazy dude who swapped a 6A12 into the Lancer. After Typhoon Ondoy, I would start a restomod process that saw the car get fitted with a naturally aspirated 4G63, upgraded electronics (hello MegaSquirt), and uprated suspension and brakes. If you visited the 2014 Manila Auto Salon, she was there. And only in the nick of time.

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Yes, I am a Mitsubishi fan, and if you opened this and kept reading it until now, chances are so are you. The automaker that many Filipinos love, however, hasn’t had an easy time in the last decade or so. The brand has had one problem after another, and that led to tough times in various markets around the world, up to and including the arrival of a new majority shareholder: Nissan.

The troubles resulted in many casualties for the brand. Gone are the legendary models like Pajero, Lancer and Galant, but the real loss that Mitsubishi had can be summed up in one word: passion.

And the manifestation of that is the dormancy of their performance arm: Ralliart.

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Mitsubishi Ralliart has chalked up a total of 4 consecutive drivers’ titles in the World Rally Championship from 1996 to 1999 with the Lancer Evolution. Mitsubishi Ralliart was also a dominant force in the Dakar Rally. They won the title in 1985, 1992, 1993, and 1997 with the Pajero, but proceeded to dominate in the millennium by securing 7 straight from 2001 all the way to 2007.

The dormancy of Ralliart is significant. Imagine BMW without M, Nissan without NISMO. Imagine Jollibee without Chickenjoy. When Mitsubishi stopped rallying, they lost a big part of what made the brand so unique and special.

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In 2022, that all changed: Ralliart is back. And not just as a special package of decals that they announced last year; they’re actually racing again. That’s why we’re here in Thailand for a few days: Team Mitsubishi Ralliart is making a competitive comeback at the Asia Cross Country Rally or AXCR for short.

Mitsubishi Ralliart has some familiar names and faces in the regional rally scene. Rifat Sungkar is an Indonesian rally driver who already competes with the Xpander AP4 rally, uh, MPV. There’s also Thai driver Chayapon Yotha in the sister car. Actually, we can’t call it a car: Ralliart is racing with the Triton (AKA Strada) trucks.

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Perhaps the most famous name and face is Hiroshi Masuoka; a two-time champion of the Dakar (he won in 2002 and 2003). He is one of only two Japanese drivers to win the grueling race; the other one is Kenjiro Shinozuka who also won for Team Ralliart in 1997. If you’ve attended any of the customer test drive events of Mitsubishi in the pre-pandemic, uh, era, maybe you’ve even met him. Maybe you’ve even had a hot lap with him on the course. It’s kind of hard to forget the feeling of sliding around on dirt or jumping a ramp.

Masuoka, however, isn’t driving. He jokes that he’s already 62, so he’s focused more on developing and mentoring the drivers in his new role as team director. We can tell that he misses competing; going so far as to joke that if his drivers perform poorly he himself will take the wheel of a Strada next year, earning a rather nervous look from the drivers sitting next to him. Given how we’ve seen him drive and his uncanny ability to read how a surface will behave, we won’t be surprised if he does well.

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That is perhaps what makes Masuoka and Ralliart special: these guys hate to finish in any position other than first. And from what we understand now after the first few days of the AXCR which will see the teams race in and around Thailand and Cambodia, Ralliart is back. Rifat is in 4th place so far, while Chayapon is in 1st overall. And in trucks that aren’t so heavily modified. Actually, there are no engine or powertrain modifications; just suspension, chassis, and the stripping of some weight.

If the rally continues to go their way, Team Mitsubishi Ralliart will be triumphant on their competitive debut.

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The only thing really missing is a Filipino driver for Team Mitsubishi Ralliart. Actually, that’s the one idea I’m bouncing around with Takanobu Suzuki, the EVP of Mitsubishi Motors Philippines. We need a Filipino rally driver in Team Ralliart because Mitsubishi’s presence in the Philippines is by far their strongest compared to any other market they are in the world. This is the only place where they have the highest market share and one they value.

While many say that Ralliart faded away for so many years, I beg to differ. Ralliart isn’t so much about racing or having a team or branding: it’s about engineering to win.

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The proof is in the drive. A lot of Mitsubishi models we’ve driven in the past are easily some of the best handling in their respective classes. We’re not talking just special models like Lancer Evolution, but also vehicles like the Montero Sport, Lancer, Outlander, Strada, and even the Xpander. Try driving Mitsubishi’s MPV and compare it against its rivals in the class to see for yourself.

Ralliart never left. It’s always been there because it was never about the car or the brand or the stickers. Ralliart is about the people at Mitsubishi… the ones that live to compete. And win.