The 2016 World Rally Championship gets underway with a dose of Monte Carlo magic this week. The quirky Alpine event that plays out on the treacherous asphalt roads above the Principality has been the traditional curtain-raiser to the WRC season almost every year since it hosted the inaugural event in the series in 1973. Only on five occasions has there not been a Monte WRC qualifier, which makes it one of the most capped rallies in championship history. In fact, only Finland and Great Britain have hosted more.
Since 1973, 18 drivers have tamed the Monte, some of them on multiple occasions. One of them, reigning World Champion Sebastien Ogier, is this week bidding to take a hat-trick for Volkswagen, which would elevate him into a pretty exclusive club.
Who else is in that club? As the world’s best rally drivers head out into the stages, ready to face an ever-changing cocktail of dry asphalt, ice and snow, we cast our minds back in recollection of the Monte Maestros, the great names who have tamed this famously fickle motorsporting institution.
5 Carlos Sainz
The Spaniard first tackled the Monte in 1989, his debut season with Toyota. He crashed on that occasion but came back 12 months later to nail second place behind Didier Auriol’s Lancia.
The first of three Monte wins came in 1991, and King Carlos showed typically high levels of consistency with second in ’92 and third in ’94. His second win came at the start of his second season with Subaru in ’95 and that incredible strike rate of top results continued with second in ’97, a third win on his return to Toyota in ’98 and four consecutive podium finishes between 2000 and 2003.
4 Tommi Makinen
The most successful of the flying Finns only hinted at his incredible Monte Carlo strike rate during his first four attempts. His debut came for Nissan in 1992 and he finished ninth in the Sunny GTI-R. Things improved once he’d joined Mitsubishi in 1995, taking fourth first time out in the Evo II and third in ’97 in the Evo IV (the event was non-championship in ’96).
A 1998 rally-ending shunt was his last faux pas in the Alps for four seasons, the three-time champion breaking his duck in ’99 and following it up with another three in a row, still with Mitsubishi. His final victory, in 2002, came after young pretender Sébastien Loeb was disqualified for a tyre-change infringement after winning on the road for Citroën.
3 Sandro Munari
The charismatic Italian, synonymous with the stunning and sonorous, Alitalia-liveried and Ferrari V6-powered Lancia Stratos during Lancia’s mid-1970s domination of world rallying, took part in the very first WRC-qualifying Monte in 1973. He crashed out on that occasion, in the Stratos’ predecessor, the more humble Fulvia HF, but came back armed with the Stratos in ’75 (the ’74 event had fallen foul of the global oil-crisis cutbacks). Co-driven by Mario Mannucci, who’d guided him to win in Sanremo and Canada in ’74, Munari defeated a trio of works Fiat 124 Abarths pedalled by no less than Hannu Mikkola, Markku Alén and Fulvio Bacchelli.
Partnered for ’76 by Silvio Maiga, Munari did it again, leading home fellow Stratos aces Björn Waldegaard and Bernard Darniche. The hat-trick, which sealed his place in Monte folklore, came in 1977.
2 Sébastien Loeb
What else can you say about rallying’s greatest-ever driver, whose event-victory tally and world-title haul may never be surpassed? Unsurprisingly, the Frenchman won the Monte Carlo Rally on numerous occasions – a record seven times, in fact. And that figure could so easily have been 10. He was denied his first victory in 2002 after being disqualified for an illegal tyre change. He made amends in 2003, ’04 and ’05 with a hat-trick in the Citroën Xsara, before finishing second to Marcus Grönholm’s Ford in 2006.
In the next four WRC qualifiers, he took two more wins in Citroën’s C4 and a brace in its DS3 to make it seven. On his return to the event last year, having missed the 2014 season due to World Touring Car commitments, he led until slipping off the road and fighting back to eighth.
1 Walter Röhrl
Surely, you may well be thinking, with seven Monte Carlo wins Sébastien Loeb tops the table when it comes to Monte Maestros. Statistically, of course, he’s unrivalled, but our ‘Famous Five’ candidates often fall into the ‘favourites’ category, not the ‘best’. On that basis, there’s a lanky German ace who comes out on top. Walter Röhrl has a unique record on the Monte, one that’s going to be very difficult to break: he won it four times for four different manufacturers. On top of that, three of those wins came first time out with the particular marque.
Röhrl’s first half-dozen Montes had yielded a best result of two fourth places – for Opel in 1976 and in a Fiat two years later, but his remarkable run began in 1980, armed with the potent 131 Abarth. He got the better of Bernard Darniche and Lancia, who had won together in ’79, to take a 10-minute victory. Amazingly, considering he ended the year as World Champion, Röhrl had no drive in 1981, contesting one event in a privateer Porsche.
Returning to Opel for 1982, he took Monte win number two in the Ascona 400, a more potent beast than the Kadett he had driven in ’77. It was another big Röhrl scalp, as his two-wheel-drive Opel defeated the total-traction Audi Quattro of Hannu Mikkola.
With a second world title on the CV, Röhrl joined Lancia. And guess what? He led home team-mate Markku Alén to a rear-drive 037 one-two, ahead of the Quattros of Stig Blömqvist and Mikkola.
The writing was on the wall for the two-wheel-drive brigade by then so Röhrl aligned himself with Audi for 1984. And, you guessed it, he made it Monte win number four, beating veteran Quattro aces Blömqvist and Mikkola at their own game.
He nearly made it five a year later, but for a terrific fightback by Ari Vatanen, whose Peugeot 205 T16 had been hit by a time penalty for an earlier time-control transgression.