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WRC Rally Greece

WRC at 50: Ranking the world championship's 20 greatest moments

The World Rally Championship has produced countless moments of pure magic to stir emotions over the past 50 years. Here are the WRC’s top 20 moments as voted for by the championship’s panel of experts and fans

The Toyota Corolla of Carlos Sainz, Luis Moya after failing within yards of the finishing line in Margam Park losing them the 1998 World Rally Championship

Since it launched in 1973, the WRC has created a myriad of memorable moments from emotional victories and defeats, historic game changing achievements, to feats that simply defy belief.  

Distilling all the action from the last half century into 20 defined moments is by no means a small task. To attempt this the WRC collated a panel of experts to produce a list of 50 moments which were then put to a fan vote to determine this list.

20. Burns triumphs in Battle of Britain

Burns emerged on top after a chaotic four-way title decider in Wales to become the first and so far only English WRC champion

Burns emerged on top after a chaotic four-way title decider in Wales to become the first and so far only English WRC champion

Photo by: Ralph Hardwick

Four drivers had a mathematical chance of winning the 2001 World Rally Championship at the Rally GB finale, and it was Richard Burns who claimed an emotional maiden title.

The season-closer was perhaps one of the most dramatic in WRC history, with nine points separating Ford’s Colin McRae (42), Mitsubishi’s Tommi Makinen (41), Subaru’s Burns (40) and McRae’s team-mate Carlos Sainz (33), an outside bet who needed his rivals to hit trouble.

Without a podium in the first four rounds, Burns found himself in the title hunt after scoring second place finishes in Argentina, Cyprus, Finland and Australia, in addition to his one and only win that year in New Zealand. McRae and Makinen had both endured their fair share of retirements, but each had three wins apiece.

PLUS: Ranking lost legend Richard Burns' 10 greatest rallies

An unusually dry Rally GB, held in the Welsh forests around host city Cardiff, provided plenty of drama. Makinen was first to fall as the four-time champion cut a corner and ripped his front-left suspension from his Lancer on Friday’s first stage.

A puncture for Sainz effectively condensed the title fight into a Battle of Britain between Scotland’s McRae and England’s Burns. McRae pushed from the start, opening up a lead over Peugeot’s Marcus Gronholm, with Burns fourth after three stages. However, McRae’s title hopes were extinguished in spectacular fashion when he cut a corner and hit a hole, sending his Focus into a barrel roll.

 

Burns almost threw it away after seeing McRae’s damaged Focus at the side of the road. However, he and co-driver Robert Reid held their nerve to finish third, to win what would be the duo’s only world title.

“I drove even worse than my grandma in the last few kilometres but it feels fantastic to be world champion,” said Burns.

19. Unlikely champion Salonen comes from nowhere

After Vatanen's huge crash in Argentina, his Peugeot team-mate Salonen stepped up to the occasion magnificently in 1985

After Vatanen's huge crash in Argentina, his Peugeot team-mate Salonen stepped up to the occasion magnificently in 1985

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The penultimate season of the infamous Group B era produced a somewhat unlikely champion. It had seemed that the 1985 title fight would be between Audi’s Walter Rohrl and Peugeot’s Ari Vatanen, but it was the latter’s team-mate, Timo Salonen, who would shock the establishment to claim the crown.

Archive: The day that killed rallying’s greatest era

The bespectacled 34-year-old was far from the super-fit athletes of today, and even insisted that Peugeot fitted an ashtray and power steering to his fire breathing 205 T16. However, the chain-smoking Salonen, who had scored only three WRC wins in 11 seasons, took the season by the scruff of the neck to lead Jean Todt’s Peugeot squad.

A drought-ending victory in Portugal put the Finn in the fight before reeling off four consecutive wins in Greece, New Zealand, Argentina and Finland to effectively secure his only world title. Audi’s Stig Blomqvist was his nearest rival, 52 points adrift, with Rohrl third, having only taken part in eight of the 12 rounds.

Vatanen lived up to the early billing by ending Rohrl’s run of consecutive Monte Carlo wins (1982-84) at the time-honoured season-opener despite an error from co-driver Terry Harryman that resulted in an eight-minute penalty for checking into the Gap control early.

A win at the next round in Sweden followed but his championship challenge unravelled following retirements in Portugal (crash), Kenya (head gasket), Corsica (crash) and Greece (steering).

The 1981 world champion missed the final four rounds following a frightening crash in Argentina that sidelined the Finn for more than 12 months. Vatanen was lucky to be alive after suffering a fractured lumbar vertebrae, a badly broken tibia, a number of fractured ribs and other internal injuries that caused breathing difficulties, which required time in intensive care.

Salonen’s victories not only secured the drivers’ title but helped Peugeot to its first manufacturers’ crown. The marque defended its success in the final year of Group B in 1986, but it was Salonen’s team-mate Juha Kankkunen that took his first of four drivers’ titles.

18. El Matador breaks through in Finland

No non-Scandinavian had ever won in Finland prior to Sainz's breakthrough in 1990 on his way to a first world title

No non-Scandinavian had ever won in Finland prior to Sainz's breakthrough in 1990 on his way to a first world title

Photo by: Motorsport Images

It was thought you had to be a Finn or herald from Scandinavia to conquer Rally Finland – until Carlos Sainz changed that in 1990.

The Spaniard had damaged his left foot in a violent roll in Argentina a month prior, but still became the first driver born outside of the nordic countries to win the fast gravel rally, and went on to claim the first of his two world titles.

“When I came to the WRC I wanted to change the way it was by starting to win rallies like Finland – I thought a good rally driver must be able to win everywhere,” says Sainz.

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

17. Privateer Vatanen becomes champion

It didn't matter that Vatanen's Escort RS1800 wasn't a works-prepared machine in 1981 as he took his only world championship

It didn't matter that Vatanen's Escort RS1800 wasn't a works-prepared machine in 1981 as he took his only world championship

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Toyota, Talbot, Fiat and Audi – with its new Quattro – all deployed factory teams to do battle in 1981, but they couldn’t stop Ari Vatanen and David Sutton’s privately run Rothmans Rally Team from taking the title.

 

Ford had withdrawn from the WRC at the end of 1979, but Sutton’s own outfit kept the Blue Oval current with the iconic Escort RS1800. Vatanen and co-driver David Richards claimed wins in Greece, Brazil and Finland to beat Talbot’s Guy Frequelin to the championship, Vatanen’s only world title.

16. Loeb’s record-breaking 2008

Loeb destroyed his rivals in 2008, winning all but four of the 15 rallies to secure a fifth title in utterly dominant fashion

Loeb destroyed his rivals in 2008, winning all but four of the 15 rallies to secure a fifth title in utterly dominant fashion

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Already a four-time world champion, Sebastien Loeb was unstoppable in 2008. The Frenchman swept to his fifth consecutive crown, winning 11 of the 15 rounds in his works Citroen C4 WRC. Loeb was only absent from the podium twice that season when he retired in Sweden and finished 10th in Jordan.

The run of victories in Monte Carlo, Mexico, Argentina, Italy, Greece, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Spain, France and Great Britain set a new benchmark for most wins in a single season by a driver, which is yet to be beaten.

15. The birth of the World Rally Car rules

Liatti only ever won a WRC event once, on the 1997 Monte Carlo Rally, the first held to the new World Rally Car rules

Liatti only ever won a WRC event once, on the 1997 Monte Carlo Rally, the first held to the new World Rally Car rules

Photo by: Ralph Hardwick

In a bid to level the playing field in the top class and entice more manufacturers, World Rally Car regulations were adopted in 1997.

The brainchild of Ford head designer John Wheeler, Prodrive’s head of technology David Lapworth and FIA engineers Gabriele Cadringher and Jacques Berger, the rules were based around front-engined, four-seater mass production cars, at least four metres in length and limited to around 300bhp.

The rules attracted eight factory teams in 2000, a WRC golden era. The opening round, Monte Carlo, was won by Subaru’s Piero Liatti.

14. McRae’s Argentina heroics

McRae furthered his growing cult hero status with his quick thinking in 1998

McRae furthered his growing cult hero status with his quick thinking in 1998

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Colin McRae was loved for his flamboyance but it was his grit and determination to never give up that endeared him to many.

In Argentina in 1998, the Subaru driver hit a rock that left his right-rear wheel pointing inwards, two stages before service. McRae deliberately popped the tyre on the wheel and then he and co-driver Nicky Grist attempted to straighten a bent suspension arm with a rock found by the roadside.

Amazingly, the duo were soon posting fastest stage times and finished fifth, 1m17.6s behind winner Tommi Makinen.

13. Elena’s bizarre rally-saving antics

Despite this major damage, Loeb was able to continue after co-driver Elena hung himself from the moving Xsara on the road section

Despite this major damage, Loeb was able to continue after co-driver Elena hung himself from the moving Xsara on the road section

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

The WRC has produced its fair share of bizarre moments, such as this one in Mexico in 2005.

Citroen’s Sebastien Loeb damaged his Xsara’s suspension and, on the road section back to service, the right-rear wheel broke. As the rear of the car dragged along the ground, co-driver Daniel Elena sprung into action, hanging out of the passenger window and using his weight to act as a counterbalance.

 

It caught the attention of the police but, instead of issuing a ticket, the authorities escorted the pair back to service. After the Xsara underwent repairs, Loeb and Elena recovered to finish a remarkable fourth.

12. Audi changes the game with the Quattro

Audi changed the game when it introduced the Quattro in 1981, although Mikkola had to wait another two years to take the title

Audi changed the game when it introduced the Quattro in 1981, although Mikkola had to wait another two years to take the title

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Today’s WRC cars can all be traced back to 1981 when Audi gave its turbocharged, four-wheel-drive Quattro its debut. Regulations had outlawed four-wheel drive, but Audi requested a rule change in 1979 and faced little resistance from rival marques.

PLUS: The Group B pioneer that transformed rallying forever

Years of development resulted in Audi’s game-changing Quattro, which made its debut in Monte Carlo 1981. Hannu Mikkola blew the field away to build a six-minute lead after six stages only to be thwarted by alternator belt failure and a brake issue. Once the flaws were fixed, Mikkola swept to victory in Sweden, the first of 24 wins for the Quattro.

11. From car park excursion to victory – Meeke’s Mexico save

Meeke came close to throwing away victory in Mexico in 2017 with an excursion into a car park before rejoining the road

Meeke came close to throwing away victory in Mexico in 2017 with an excursion into a car park before rejoining the road

Photo by: Sutton Images

Perhaps the most dramatic and bizarre WRC finish belongs to Kris Meeke, who somehow recovered from an off into a car park to win Rally Mexico in 2017. The moment has clocked up hundreds of thousands of views online.

Citroen’s Meeke headed into the final stage with a 37.2s lead, a first win of the season seemingly in the bag. Then he misjudged a fast right, 750 metres from the finish. A compression bounced the C3 off and into an adjacent car park, prompting co-driver Paul Nagle to utter the words: “Jesus Christ, Kris!”

The pair weaved in and out of parked cars and trucks in search of a way back to the stage. Luckily, they found one and amazingly saved their blushes, taking the win by 13.8s from Sebastien Ogier.

“I made a mistake, a big mistake,” Meeke said. “I braked and got the car too sideways through this fast right and, as I hit the compression, it popped me out and we went into a field.

 

“After that I was in the hands of the gods. I went through some trucks and they started to narrow up. I thought I was heading for a dead end so I handbraked around a truck to go back the way I came, saw a gap in the fence and went for it.

“I’m not particularly delighted with myself but we’ve won the rally, so I’m happy. I had no idea I’d won when I crossed the line but quickly people started shaking their fists and then I knew. I’m sure [team principal] Yves Matton will shake his fist at me later for a different reason!”

10. Loeb’s perfect weekend in Corsica

Loeb was truly unstoppable on his way to winning at Corsica in 2005, as he was never beaten in any of the 12 stages

Loeb was truly unstoppable on his way to winning at Corsica in 2005, as he was never beaten in any of the 12 stages

Photo by: Sutton Images

The WRC has witnessed several dominant drives over the years but Sebastien Loeb is the only driver able to claim a perfect weekend. Loeb produced a benchmark in Corsica in 2005 that is yet to be matched. The Citroen driver was untouchable on the twisty asphalt roads, winning all 12 stages of the event to claim victory with a margin of 1m51.7s over Ford’s Toni Gardemeister.

This was Loeb’s ninth of 10 wins during the campaign on the way to his second world title.

“I really wanted to win this rally, it is the first time I have won it,” said Loeb. “I have won a few times in Germany and Monte Carlo, but this is my first time here. To win it by winning all the stages is a great moment for me.”

9. Lancia thinks small to create the Stratos

The Stratos enjoyed enduring success, winning in Corsica with Bernard Darniche in 1981 seven years after its introduction

The Stratos enjoyed enduring success, winning in Corsica with Bernard Darniche in 1981 seven years after its introduction

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Lancia is the WRC’s most successful manufacturer with 10 titles. Its run began with a wedge-shaped wonder: the Stratos.

The Bertone-designed car, powered by a 2.4-litre V6 from a Dino 246GT, weighed in at approximately 950kg – a pocket rocket. The car was the brainchild of Lancia boss Cesare Fiorio, Giampaolo Dallara, Marcello Gandini and former Ferrari man Mike Parkes.

It proved an instant success, claiming the manufacturers’ crown in 1974 with Sandro Munari’s wins in Sanremo and Canada, and Jean-Claude Andruet’s triumph in Corsica.

The Stratos helped Lancia to titles in 1975-76 and was still capable of fighting for wins in 1981. It scored 17 WRC wins during its lifetime, earning itself a place in the WRC’s top 10 most successful cars.

8. Mikkola triumphs as the oldest champion

After several years as the bridesmaid, Mikkola finally became champion in 1983

After several years as the bridesmaid, Mikkola finally became champion in 1983

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The 1983 season developed into an intense battle between Lancia and Audi. While Lancia claimed the manufacturers’ title with its 037, the last two-wheel-drive car to do so, it was Audi’s Hannu Mikkola who finally claimed a coveted drivers’ title.

Mikkola joined Audi at the start of its Quattro journey. The Finn had already finished third in 1978, when the series was known as the FIA Cup for Drivers, before finishing runner-up in 1979 and 1980 prior to joining the German car maker.

In the 1983 season, four wins and three second-place finishes were enough to beat Lancia’s Walter Rohrl to the title. Achieving the feat at 41 years old, Mikkola (who died in 2021 aged 78) remains the WRC’s oldest crowned world champion.

7. M-Sport’s ultimate (and wet) repair job

Somehow M-Sport managed to repair Tanak's Fiesta after its trip into a Mexican lake, with Tanak and Molder marking the feat at the finish by donning snorkels

Somehow M-Sport managed to repair Tanak's Fiesta after its trip into a Mexican lake, with Tanak and Molder marking the feat at the finish by donning snorkels

Photo by: Colin McMaster / Motorsport Images

Rally mechanics are regarded among the best in world motorsport and this was proved with the ultimate repair job after M-Sport’s Ott Tanak crashed into a lake at Rally Mexico in 2015.

The Estonian lost control navigating his Ford Fiesta, resulting in his car plunging into an adjacent lake. Tanak and co-driver Raigo Molder fled the vehicle and swam to safety as they watched their car sink.

 

Using trained divers, incredibly M-Sport was able to fish the car out of the lake. It was drained, completely refitted and rejoined the rally after a mammoth rebuild. Tanak and Molder reached the rally finish, jumping out of their car wearing snorkels to make light of the experience.

6. Loeb rolls back the years in Monte Carlo

After a thrilling battle with Ogier, Loeb rolled back the years to win the first event of the WRC's new hybrid era at the 2022 Monte Carlo Rally

After a thrilling battle with Ogier, Loeb rolled back the years to win the first event of the WRC's new hybrid era at the 2022 Monte Carlo Rally

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Sebastien Loeb added yet another record to his glittering WRC career in 2022 by becoming the oldest rally winner following an epic duel with Sebastien Ogier.

The championship’s most successful drivers went head-to-head at their favourite event in Monte Carlo. Loeb conceded the lead to countryman Ogier, who seemed on course to win before a puncture struck the Toyota driver on the penultimate stage.

 

Loeb, then 47, held his nerve to claim his 80th career win on his debut for M-Sport. His co-driver Isabelle Galmiche, a 50-year-old school teacher making her WRC debut, was the first woman to stand on the top step of a WRC podium since Fabrizia Pons in 1997.

5. Sainz’s heartbreak hands Makinen title

Sainz's co-driver Moya sits dejected inside the Corrolla after it failed within sight of the finish, costing them the 1998 world title

Sainz's co-driver Moya sits dejected inside the Corrolla after it failed within sight of the finish, costing them the 1998 world title

Photo by: Sutton Images

It’s not often you win a world championship while sitting in a hotel room, but this was the case for Tommi Makinen as Carlos Sainz suffered final-stage heartbreak in 1998.

The title fight came down to the wire at the Rally GB finale as Mitsubishi’s Makinen held a two-point advantage over Toyota’s Sainz, both drivers eyeing a third world title. The championship swung heavily in Sainz’s favour when Makinen retired on stage seven. The Finn was caught out by oil left by a historic car, resulting in his Lancer losing the right-rear wheel after swiping a concrete block in the Millbrook Proving Ground.

“It was one of the worst moments for me,” said Makinen at the time. “We were in no hurry to clinch the title, there was no hurry at all. I just need to drive and finish the rally.”

Sainz was able to cruise knowing a finish in fourth or higher would secure him the spoils. With the championship seemingly in sight, glory was snatched away from the Spaniard as his Corolla’s engine expired 300 metres from the end of the final stage in Margam Park. Sainz was shell-shocked, while co-driver Luis Moya took out his frustration by throwing his helmet through the rear windscreen, before kicking the stricken Toyota. The title was Makinen’s in the most dramatic of circumstances.

 

Planning to head home, Makinen was conducting a final interview in the reception at his hotel when he received a phone call from his brother, with the news of Sainz’s retirement: “My brother phoned from the end of the stage and he said, ‘Can you believe Carlos’ car has caught fire and he is just 300 metres for the end?’ I said, ‘Don’t be joking me’. I couldn’t believe it.”

Reflecting on the moment years later, Sainz said: “At the time it was a very hard situation but I think I learned many, many things. It was not my mistake but it was something that came. What can you say? It made me stronger.

“It was really unfortunate and I think we should have won maybe two or three more championships with more luck but, at the end of the day, I’m happy with what we achieved.”

4. Tanak ends the era of the Sebastiens

Tanak delivered Toyota its first world title since 1994 in 2019, becoming the first driver other than Loeb or Ogier to claim the crown since 2003

Tanak delivered Toyota its first world title since 1994 in 2019, becoming the first driver other than Loeb or Ogier to claim the crown since 2003

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

For a 15-year period, the WRC was dominated by French drivers Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier, until Ott Tanak broke the stranglehold in 2019.

Citroen’s Loeb rattled off nine consecutive titles from 2004-12, before Ogier won six on the bounce for Volkswagen and M-Sport-Ford, ahead of a move to Citroen for 2019.

Ogier turned Citroen’s troublesome C3 into a regular rally winner but he was unable to match Tanak and his Toyota Yaris. Tanak didn’t have it all his own way as niggling technical issues emerged early in the campaign. But he and Martin Jarveoja were soon the pair to beat, winning five of the last eight rallies.

The title was sealed with a second-place finish on Spain’s asphalt stages, which ultimately proved to be the year’s final round after bushfires forced the cancellation of the season finale in Australia. Tanak took the crown by 36 points from Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, with Ogier third in the standings.

Tanak then left Toyota for Hyundai in 2020 before this year moving back to M-Sport, where he started his WRC career.

3. Mouton makes WRC history in Sanremo

Mouton became the first and to date only female to win outright in 1981

Mouton became the first and to date only female to win outright in 1981

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Michele Mouton realised her potential to see off the likes of Ari Vatanen, Hannu Mikkola and Henri Toivonen to claim the first of four WRC wins in Sanremo in 1981. In doing so, Audi pairing Mouton and co-driver Fabrizia Pons became the first and only female duo to win an event overall in the championship’s history.

 

“The first victory in the WRC was important but I think, for most people, from what I read, it was the first time a woman was winning,” says Mouton. “For me it didn’t mean that. For me it was important for my career and my mental game to be able to fight and to be able to cope with the pressure to win.

“To control all that was a very important moment.”

2. Rovanpera smashes McRae’s record

Rovanpera received a pair of Colin McRae’s boots from his daughter Hollie to honour his achievement

Rovanpera received a pair of Colin McRae’s boots from his daughter Hollie to honour his achievement

Photo by: Hans De Bauw

Already the youngest WRC podium finisher and rally winner, Kalle Rovanpera swept the opposition aside to claim a record-breaking maiden world title in 2022.

The son of one-time WRC rally victor Harri Rovanpera won five of the first seven rallies to open up a commanding lead. He sealed the title in style with victory at Rally New Zealand.

The 2022 season was only Rovanpera’s third full-time top tier WRC campaign after making his debut with Toyota in 2020 – although he started driving cars from just eight years old.
Rovanpera’s triumph arrived a day after his 22nd birthday, smashing the previous youngest world champion benchmark set by Colin McRae when he lifted the title in 1995, aged 27.

 

“I have never been a big fan of records regarding what age I have done something,” said Rovanpera, who ended a 20-year drought for a Finnish world rally champion. “But taking the record from Colin McRae is quite special.”

Rovanpera leads the 2023 standings thanks to wins in Portugal and Estonia, putting the rising star on a par with Richard Burns and Ari Vatanen, who both scored 10 WRC rally wins.

1. McRae defeats Sainz in intense finale to soar to WRC stardom

McRae beat Sainz in an all-Subaru showdown on home soil in 1995 to win his sole world title

McRae beat Sainz in an all-Subaru showdown on home soil in 1995 to win his sole world title

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Colin McRae’s gutsy drive to win the RAC Rally and become Britain’s first world rally champion in 1995 remains one of motorsport’s most iconic moments.

More than two million spectators came out to cheer on McRae on the Welsh gravel stages, such was the impact this flamboyant Scot had not only on a nation but rally fans worldwide. He was simply one of the most exciting drivers in world motorsport, taking rallying’s popularity to new heights.

His charge to what would sadly be his only world title was far from straightforward. McRae and Subaru team-mate Carlos Sainz headed into the season finale level on points after tempers boiled over at the penultimate round in Spain. Sainz led McRae by eight seconds into the final day, which prompted then Subaru boss David Richards to issue team orders to hold position. This wasn’t received well by McRae, who ignored the call and went on to win the rally, before deliberately checking in late to hand Sainz the victory.

PLUS: Colin McRae's 10 greatest rallies ranked

It set up a tension-filled grandstand finish in Great Britain. McRae’s hopes were initially dented when he lost two minutes with a puncture on the second day and drove 16 kilometres with broken front-right suspension. On top of that, he also had a nervous moment when his car’s hydraulics failed on day three. Sainz had his own issues, but he couldn’t match McRae’s speed.

Despite the knocks, a determined McRae battled on, winning 18 of the 28 stages to claim a famous win, defeating two-time world champion Sainz by 36s.

 

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