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WRC at 50: Ranking the 10 greatest WRC drivers

The World Rally Championship celebrates 50 years this year, so it seemed an apt opportunity to assess the best drivers to compete at the peak of the discipline. Autosport polled some key figures in the paddock to formulate the ultimate top 10 list

Carlos Sainz, Tommi Makinen, Juha Kankkunen and Colin McRae

Photo by: Ralph Hardwick

Autosport’s top 10 was determined by a panel including Toyota WRC team principal Jari-Matti Latvala, M-Sport Ford managing director Malcolm Wilson and Hyundai Motorsport’s WRC programme manager Christian Loriaux. Autosport also produced its own list.

Each member of the panel selected an individual top 10 list, with the drivers each scoring points from 10 awarded to first down to one for 10th spot. The combined points from each list determined the final top 10.

10. Ari Vatanen

Vatanen won the world championship in 1981 and was adept on all surfaces

Vatanen won the world championship in 1981 and was adept on all surfaces

Photo by: LAT Photographic

Starts: 101
Victories: 10
Stage wins: 637
Titles: 1 (1981)

Finland’s first World Rally champion was perhaps one of the most determined and resilient drivers to grace the stages.

Vatanen made his WRC debut in 1974 but it wasn’t until 1980 that he achieved his first victory, at the Acropolis Rally. There was no doubting his natural talent behind the wheel, with his crowning glory arriving in 1981, when he and David Richards won the world title, driving a privately run Ford Escort RS1800.

The popular Vatanen was comfortable and fast in all conditions, evidenced by wins in Monte Carlo (asphalt), Sweden (snow), Safari (rough gravel) and Finland (fast gravel).

He was fortunate that his career wasn’t ended abruptly following a nasty crash driving a factory Group B Peugeot 205 T16 in Argentina in 1985, a season he was tipped to challenge for the title. Vatanen spent more than a year on the sidelines recovering from fractured lumbar vertebrae, a badly broken tibia, fractured ribs, and internal injuries that caused breathing difficulties.

He returned to the WRC in 1987 and was still challenging for victories in 1998, enjoying spells at the Mitsubishi, Subaru and Ford factory teams.

Jari-Matti Latvala says: “He reminds me a lot of myself, we have so much in common. Ari didn’t have an easy career and perhaps the toughest of careers when you think about his big accident in Argentina. He still came back to the WRC and took podiums and fought for victories. He had a strong character to come back, as many drivers could have given up.”

9. Hannu Mikkola

Mikkola was frequently a bridesmaid before taking his chance to win the title aged 41 in 1983 for Audi

Mikkola was frequently a bridesmaid before taking his chance to win the title aged 41 in 1983 for Audi

Photo by: LAT Photographic

Starts: 123
Victories: 18
Stage wins: 670
Titles: 1 (1983)

When it comes to versatility, Mikkola is among the finest of examples – he drove for factory teams across four decades.

The Finn started competing in 1963, driving a Volvo PV444, tamed the monstrous Group B Audi Quattro, and piloted Mazda, Subaru and Toyota Group A cars. His final WRC outing arrived in 1993. The high point of his 30-year career came in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he was a regular contender for world titles.

It seemed that he would be the perennial bridesmaid after finishing third in 1978, 1981 and 1982, and runner-up in 1979 and 1980. But he seized the moment in 1983 to beat Lancia’s Walter Rohrl to the championship at the ripe old age of 41, making him the oldest champion.

Mikkola, who died aged 78 in 2021, played a crucial role in the development of Audi’s revolutionary four-wheel-drive Quattro in the early 1980s, so it was fitting that he was the German car maker’s first World Rally champion.

Jari-Matti Latvala says: “He drove with factory cars in four decades. He experienced the evolution of the cars and to be a factory driver until he was 49 years old. I don’t think anyone did that at the time.”

8. Tommi Makinen

Makinen's 1996 title started a run of four in a row with Mitsubishi - although he had to ride his luck in 1998

Makinen's 1996 title started a run of four in a row with Mitsubishi - although he had to ride his luck in 1998

Photo by: Ralph Hardwick

Starts: 139
Victories: 24
Stage wins: 355
Titles: 4 (1996-99)

A winner of four consecutive world titles and the first to achieve the feat, Makinen rightfully earns a spot in the top 10.

Makinen burst onto the scene winning Rally Finland (aka 1000 Lakes) in 1994 driving a Ford Escort RS Cosworth, but became an unstoppable force once he joined the factory Mitsubishi squad. The Finn found himself regularly locked in battles with Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz.

Tommi Makinen column: How sustaining success can take its toll

The Monte Carlo Rally is often used a barometer of a driver’s ability given its complexity. Makinen was unbeaten on the famous mountain roads from 1999-2002, underlining his talent.

Makinen retired in 2003 after a two-year spell at Subaru but remains sixth on the all-time winners list. He became team principal of the Toyota factory team in 2016, which won the manufacturers’ crown in 2018 under his management.

Jari-Matti Latvala says: “Tommi was very strong in the Mitsubishi years, winning the four titles in a row. When the conditions were difficult and challenging, this was Tommi’s strength – he could attack, like in Portugal 2001 in the wet conditions, when he won. He managed to take the advantage when the conditions were difficult and that is why he won Monte Carlo four times.”

7. Colin McRae

McRae was the first true rallying mega star whose tally of world championships didn't do justice to his talent

McRae was the first true rallying mega star whose tally of world championships didn't do justice to his talent

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Starts: 146
Victories: 25
Stage wins: 474
Titles: 1 (1995)

Perhaps unfortunate not to be higher in this list, McRae claimed only a single world title, but he was one of the most naturally gifted to ever tackle the stages.

The Scot’s flamboyant flat-out driving style made him a firm fan favourite but this approach did attract criticism, particularly in the early part of his career after a series of crashes. In addition to being blindingly fast, he embodied the never-give-up attitude. Perhaps the best example was when he overcame a puncture and broken suspension to win Rally GB to claim the 1995 world title, or when he used a rock to repair his Subaru in Argentina in 1998, or when he drove with a broken finger in Catalunya, 2002.

PLUS: Colin McRae's 10 greatest rallies ranked

He was unlucky not to win a second world title, finishing runner-up three times, the most high-profile near-miss in 2001 when he rolled his Ford Focus in the GB title decider. Despite his raw speed, McRae was a master of tough rallies, winning the Acropolis a record five times alongside three Safari Rally wins.

Malcolm Wilson, McRae’s former boss at Ford from 1999-2002 says: “Beyond driving ability, Colin did more for world rallying than any other driver. He captured the imagination of people that didn’t follow rallying. He had a never-give-up attitude. Colin was spectacular but what people don’t realise is he had the most mechanical sympathy of anybody. He knew exactly how far he could push a car. All of Colin’s great victories came on difficult rallies.”

6. Marcus Gronholm

The combination of Gronholm and the Peugeot 206 were a potent force that delivered two titles in three seasons

The combination of Gronholm and the Peugeot 206 were a potent force that delivered two titles in three seasons

Photo by: Ralph Hardwick

Starts: 153
Victories: 30
Stage wins: 540
Titles: 2 (2000, 2002)

Like McRae, Gronholm was a risk-taker and this combined with impressive raw speed ultimately took him to the summit of the WRC twice.

Gronholm was a late bloomer, landing a first factory WRC drive aged 31 years old. He made the most of this shot with Peugeot, winning the world title in his first full campaign. His first WRC podium was a victory at Rally Sweden in 2000.

The Finn endeared himself to the fans with his heart-on-the-sleeve character. He said exactly what he was feeling, often producing several humorous stage-end interviews.

Gronholm came close to adding a third world crown in 2006 and 2007, driving for Ford. It was in those two campaigns where he went toe to toe with Sebastien Loeb, which highlighted his talent.

Friday favourite: The Gronholm advice that helped Mikko Hirvonen take on Loeb

Christian Loriaux, who worked with Gronholm at Ford, says: “I think Marcus was one of the fastest. Marcus in terms of driving and speed was probably faster than Loeb and Ogier. He was one of the most honest, reliable and nice guys.”

Jari-Matti Latvala adds: “When Loeb came he was the only one who could stop him and he was so close in 2006 and 2007. Marcus was the one always willing to take the risks and wanted the championship. He was a fighter like Ogier. He has lots of legendary stories from end-of-stage interviews. He was very real and open as a character. He said exactly how he felt.”

5. Walter Rohrl

Rohrl won two titles despite picking and choosing the events he wanted to enter - a strategy that served him well in Monte Carlo

Rohrl won two titles despite picking and choosing the events he wanted to enter - a strategy that served him well in Monte Carlo

Photo by: LAT Photographic

Starts: 75
Victories: 14
Stage wins: 440
Titles: 2 (1980, 1982)

Winning the world title wasn’t as important to Rohrl as winning in Monte Carlo. This sums up the German, who carefully selected the events he contested – for example, he never competed in Finland because it wasn’t one of his favourites.

Despite this approach, he still won two world titles: in 1980, driving for Fiat, and in 1982 with Opel, when he pipped Audi’s Michele Mouton to the championship. But Rohrl measured success in Monte Carlo Rally wins, given how tough the event was for drivers. Rohrl won an astonishing four times in Monte Carlo, behind the wheel of different cars: Fiat 131 (1980), Opel Ascona 400 (1982), Lancia 037 (1983) and Audi Quattro (1984).

After making his last WRC appearance in 1987, Rohrl left the championship as one of the fastest and most clinical drivers.

Malcolm Wilson says: “For me, Walter was ahead of his time and was like the first computer – you could programme him and he would go and win the rally. It doesn’t really happen now where he got himself into a position where he could dictate which events he would do. You knew if he did an event you could almost guarantee he would win. He was the first, in my book, of the clinical drivers. Three consecutive Monte Carlos in three cars is just staggering.”

4. Juha Kankkunen

Kankkunen was adept in both Group C and Group A competition, winning his third crown and second for Lancia in 1991

Kankkunen was adept in both Group C and Group A competition, winning his third crown and second for Lancia in 1991

Photo by: Sutton Images

Starts: 162
Victories: 23
Stage wins: 699
Titles: 4 (1986-87, 1991, 1993)

Winning world titles across two definitive sets of regulations has earned Kankkunen a lofty spot in the top 10.

The Finn made his WRC debut in 1979, while his final appearance arrived courtesy of a one-off run to eighth at Rally Finland in 2010. Incredibly, he competed in Group 4, Group B, Group A and WRC-era machinery, four of the WRC’s five main sets of regulations to date.

Regarded as one of the most naturally gifted, Kankkunen was not only versatile but also possessed the ability to be super-fast and calculated, which resulted in titles driving the Peugeot 205 T16, a Group A Lancia Delta Integrale and a Toyota Celica.

He was the first driver in the championship’s history to successfully defend the title, in 1987, the feat made even more impressive given the transition from Group B to Group A.

Jari-Matti Latvala says: “He had a similar approach to Sebastien Loeb and was always thinking about the points and the championship. He didn’t make so many mistakes and was consistent, and I think this is one of his big strengths.”

3. Carlos Sainz

Sainz won his first world title for Toyota in 1990, but was unfortunate to only add one more

Sainz won his first world title for Toyota in 1990, but was unfortunate to only add one more

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Starts: 196
Victories: 26
Stage wins: 757
Titles: 2 (1990, 1992)

The fact that Carlos Sainz is still a competitive force in world motorsport at the age of 61 years old underlines the Spaniard’s abilities.

Sainz raised the bar when it came to professionalism in the WRC, with his meticulous preparation and approach to achieving success. After making his WRC debut driving a Ford Sierra Cosworth in 1987, he claimed a first win in 1990 and took podiums in 17 consecutive seasons, winning at least one rally in 12 of those campaigns, driving for Toyota, Subaru, Ford and Citroen.

In addition to title successes driving a Group A Celica, Sainz should have won more crowns had luck been on his side, finishing runner-up four times (1991, 1994-95, 1998). The most heartbreaking loss came in 1998 – he was 300 metres from the title when his Toyota Corolla’s engine expired on the final stage at Rally GB.

What could have been: When a rally king's Le Mans debut was scuppered

Christian Loriaux says: “Carlos was undoubtedly the most professional of them all. He is still driving and could still win a Dakar. I learned a lot technically from him and I had big respect for his commitment to do the job.”

Malcolm Wilson, who twice signed Sainz to his Ford team, adds: “He had drive, passion and determination. He was very much about attention to detail and made very few mistakes. He wasn’t as natural a talent as Juha [Kankkunen] and Colin [McRae], but he put an incredible amount of effort in to achieve what he achieved.”

2. Sebastien Ogier

Ogier remains active with Toyota and is still capable of showing the performances that earned him a seventh and eighth title with the Japanese brand

Ogier remains active with Toyota and is still capable of showing the performances that earned him a seventh and eighth title with the Japanese brand

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Starts: 179
Victories: 58
Stage wins: 688
Titles: 8 (2013-18, 2020-21)

Eight world titles driving three different cars means there is a strong case to put Ogier top of this list. But a statistical analysis of his career sees the Frenchman narrowly pipped to the top spot.
Ogier harbours a will to win unlike any other driver and can be simply untouchable when in full flight. Competing directly against Sebastien Loeb at Citroen in 2010-11, he was able to push and beat his more experienced multiple world champion team-mate on occasion.

At Volkswagen he was truly dominant, winning four consecutive titles, a streak that extended to six when he took an M-Sport Ford to back-to-back crowns. He then repeated that at Toyota in 2020-21. Only a difficult season at Citroen in 2019 ended his unbroken run of success, which otherwise would have matched Loeb’s nine titles in a row.

Now competing on a part-time basis, Ogier has won three rallies this year, including a record ninth Monte Carlo. He is one of the all-time motorsport greats.

PLUS: How WRC legend Ogier will be remembered by his peers

Malcolm Wilson, who managed Ogier at M-Sport in 2017-18, says: “The combination of Seb and co-driver Julien Ingrassia is certainly the most professional pairing I have worked with in my 26 years doing this job. He has that fighting spirit to win. He was able to destroy people on stages and it would leave you wondering how it was possible. It is something totally unique to Seb.”

Ogier’s current boss, Latvala, agrees: “He is a fighter. Loeb drove in a very clever way but Ogier is much more of a fighter. I would say his passion was even greater. One thing that is different between Loeb and Ogier is Ogier has won titles with different car manufacturers, and Loeb won everything with Citroen.”

1. Sebastien Loeb

Loeb won all nine of his world championships consecutively for Citroen before turning attentions to other pursuits

Loeb won all nine of his world championships consecutively for Citroen before turning attentions to other pursuits

Photo by: Sutton Images

Starts: 184
Victories: 80
Stage wins: 935
Titles: 9 (2004-12)

With an extraordinary 80 World Rally Championship event wins, nine titles and a host of records, Loeb takes the top spot.

The Frenchman’s unbeaten run of nine consecutive world crowns from 2004-12 is yet to be matched, but it’s his most recent WRC performances at 47 years old that arguably give him the edge in this top 10.

The statistics of Loeb’s career are simply mindboggling. Loeb has accrued a podium strike rate of 65% and a win percentage of 43.5%. Ogier has so far competed in five fewer events than Loeb, achieving a 32.4% win rate.

Loeb is the only driver to win all stages of a WRC event, which he achieved in Corsica 2005, and has the most wins in a single season, winning 11 of 15 rounds in 2008. Last year, he achieved his 80th career win – his eighth Monte Carlo victory, driving for M-Sport – to become the oldest WRC victor.

PLUS: The early setbacks that shaped the WRC's greatest driver

Jari-Matti Latvala says: “It is very difficult to split them [the two Sebs]. I think in terms of skills both are on the same level, but on statistics this is why Loeb comes out on top. For me, he has 80 wins under his belt and one of the important points is he won Monte Carlo at 47 years old. To become the oldest WRC winner I think this shows his skills. He was very clever when driving. He didn’t take unnecessary risks and very rarely made mistakes.”

Malcolm Wilson, who worked with Loeb at M-Sport last year, adds: “From a natural driving point of view Seb is probably number one. It just shouldn’t happen at his age, where he can jump in a car and win.”

Loeb showed he was still a top performer when he won his first rally for five years, his 79th in all, on the 2018 Rally Catalunya

Loeb showed he was still a top performer when he won his first rally for five years, his 79th in all, on the 2018 Rally Catalunya

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Honourable mentions

While determining the World Rally Championship’s top 10 greatest drivers, a number of names were discussed and narrowly missed out on selection.

Among those was Michele Mouton, who finished runner-up in the 1982 championship, and made history by becoming the first woman to win a WRC event outright when driving for Audi in 1981. Mouton scored four WRC wins in her career during the championship’s most dangerous Group B era.

“She is the only woman that was able to beat the men fair and square at a time when it was even more a man’s sport,” says Christian Loriaux. Malcolm Wilson, who competed against Mouton, says: “What she was able to do with a car that was not easy to drive was remarkable.”

Members of the panel also voted for Finnish superstar Henri Toivonen, whose career was tragically cut short by a fatal accident while leading in Corsica for Lancia in 1986. The Finn won three WRC rallies and seemed destined to win a world title before tragedy struck.

“I would say he was the bravest driving a Group B car, nobody could push the car to the limits as Henri did,” says Jari-Matti Latvala. “In the Group B era if it had continued he would have won the championship, I’m 100% sure.”

Reigning world champion Kalle Rovanpera received votes following his recent performances, headlined by a run to become the youngest world champion at 22. The panel agreed that the Finn has the potential to be the WRC’s greatest in the future.

Four-time championship runner-up Mikko Hirvonen was also listed among the candidates, having pushed Sebastien Loeb to the limit on several occasions, missing out on the 2009 title by a point. Likewise, panellist Latvala, who holds the record for the most WRC starts, was also mentioned by other panel members, with Wilson declaring the Finn as the “fastest driver not to win the title”.

World champions Richard Burns and Petter Solberg were also among the considerations, while the versatile Stig Blomqvist and Markku Alen are another two who deserve honourable mentions.

Toivonen is widely touted as a driver capable of winning a world title, but was killed at Corsica in 1986

Toivonen is widely touted as a driver capable of winning a world title, but was killed at Corsica in 1986

Photo by: LAT Photographic

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