Rally fans everywhere have been following the progress of the discipline’s greatest-ever driver, Sébastien Loeb, as he attempts to tame the Dakar Rally on his debut in the South American enduro with Peugeot.
And, unsurprisingly perhaps, he’s been doing rather well. The nine-time World Rally Champion had the measure of his Peugeot team-mates, former winners Stéphane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz, during the first week.
But then, as is its wont, the Dakar bit. Frenchman Loeb and long-time co-driver, Monegasque Daniel Elena, had been leading until an eighth-stage roll earlier this week dropped them to eighth overall, with – Loeb claims – little chance of a debut win thanks to his losing more than an hour.
Peterhansel, an absolute master of the event – he won six times in the motorcycle class for Yamaha and has five victories on four wheels for Mitsubishi and Mini – is now out front, with Sainz, winner for Volkswagen in 2010, holding second place.
There’s a long way to go, of course, so we’ve got time to reveal our favourite five WRC stars who, like Loeb, were lured by the unforgiving deserts and dunes of the Dakar.
5 Bruno Saby
Frenchman veteran Bruno Saby took part in 40 WRC events between 1973 and 1991, and had the unenviable task of taking his first win aboard a factory Peugeot 205 T16 in the tragic Tour de Corse in 1986 – the rally in which his Lancia rivals Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto perished. Saby switched to Lancia and its factory Group A programme for 1987 and would win one more WRC event, the Monte Carlo Rally at the beginning of ’88. He moved into the cross-country discipline in 1992 after quitting conventional rallying and won the 1993 Dakar for Mitsubishi, co-driven by countryman Dominique Serieys. His final moment of glory was clinching the 2005 FIA Cross Country World Championship for Volkswagen.
4 Juha Kankkunen
One of the greatest-ever exponents of the art of World Championship rallying, Juha Kankkunen was the first driver to win four world titles, taking the crown for Peugeot in 1986, the final Group B season, 1987 for Lancia, the advent of the Group A formula, and again for the Martini-sponsored Italian squad in 1991. His fourth and final title came in ’93 for Toyota. Between all that WRC success, which included 23 outright wins, he tackled the Dakar for Peugeot. Co-driven by regular navigator Juha Piironen, KKK triumphed in the African wilderness at his first attempt in a modified version of the fearsome 205 T16 in 1988, but only after team-mate Ari Vatanen lost hours of time when his car was stolen, later found unharmed. Kankkunen returned to the event, in 2005, with VW, but failed to add a second win to his CV.
3 Colin McRae
The world’s most celebrated rally driver – he won 25 times and became our first World Champion for Subaru in 1995 – applied his considerable skill and bravery to other forms of motorsport after his full-time WRC career had come to an end. The Scot duly joined the Nissan squad for an assault on the Dakar for 2004, alongside former multiple winner Ari Vatanen, South African Giniel de Villiers and fellow ex-WRC pedaller Yves Loubet. With experienced lady co-driver Tina Thörner on the notes, McRae proved to be competitive, winning two stages en route to a debut finish, albeit outside the top-10. Unbowed and determined to make another decent fist of it, he returned to the event 12 months later, this time leading early on. Sadly, he fell under the Dakar’s spell on stage six, crashing into retirement. And that was the end of Colin McRae’s Dakar dream. The tragedy of his death in September 2007 meant he never had the chance to return to an event that had briefly captivated him.
2 Carlos Sainz
Double World Rally Champion and Spanish sporting superstar Carlos Sainz was first bitten by the Dakar bug in 2006. Having racked up a record number of WRC starts (196 between 1987 and 2005), which netted 24 wins and the Drivers’ title in 1990 and 1992, he joined Volkswagen for its big-budget, high-profile attempt on the world’s toughest motorsport event. Like all the greats who can adapt to pretty much anything on wheels, he set fastest stage times in year one, eventually finishing 11th. And King Carlos has been back every year except 2008, when the event was cancelled, and 2012. He finally racked up a first victory in 2010, while still part of the factory VW effort, and followed that up with third a year later in the German firm’s Race Touareg. Now part of the works Peugeot effort, the 53-year-old legend is running up near the front of the 2016 marathon as I write…
1 Ari Vatanen
There’s one ex-rally king-turned Dakar conqueror who stands head and shoulders above the rest: lanky, blonde, supercool and charming Finn Ari Vatanen. World Champion in a David Sutton-run, Rothmans-liveried Ford Escort RS1800 in 1981, Vatanen scored 10 wins for Ford, Opel and Peugeot during the 1980s. Fast and spectacular with popularity to match, he always had a big following, particularly among British fans. And the Dakar Rally found itself even more prominent on the motorsporting map when he announced he’d been taken in by its charms.
He first appeared in Africa in 1987 with his former employer Peugeot. He’d missed the 1986 WRC season after cheating death in a massive accident in Argentina in ’85, but was reunited with the French squad for its maiden Dakar assault. And co-driven by Bernard Giroux, who would lose his life in the powerboat accident that also claimed ex-F1 star Didier Pironi later that year, Vatanen took a famous victory in the 205 T16. Over the next four years he would make the event his own. Disqualified in 1988 after returning to the event following the theft of his car, he then went on a rout, winning in 1989 and ’90 for Peugeot and for sister marque Citroen in ’91. Vatanen’s 13th and final appearance, in 2007, yielded a retirement for VW, but four wins in five years gives him clear number-one status in this poll.