Two Englishmen, a Scot, a Northern Irishman and a Welshman. No, not the start of one of those ethnic-archive jokes, but the realisation that the British Isles nations now have a full set of World Championship Rally winners.
Wales’ new motorsporting sensation Elfyn Evans’ historic victory on last weekend’s Wales Rally Great Britain, the penultimate round of WRC 2017, means the 28-year-old has finally joined an elite band of aces to stand on the top step of a WRC-event podium.
With a 37.3-second advantage aboard the M-Sport Ford Fiesta RS WRC after the 21 special stages that made up his home event, which he’d only tackled on two previous occasions in a full-blown World Rally Car, Evans became the 79th driver to win at rallying’s top level since the series began in 1973 – and only the fifth Brit. Here’s how he ranks against the other four home-grown WRC heroes.
Clark was a multiple British champion, turning the Ford Escort and himself into a household name during the late-1960s and early ’70s. His stock rose enormously when he and future Top Gear TV star Tony Mason won the RAC Rally aboard an RS1600 in 1972. It wasn’t that win that guaranteed his place in this list, though, for the WRC as we know it wouldn’t begin until the start of 1973, at least for manufacturers. Clark was assured of British-motorsport-hero status when he took the Cossack Hairspray-liveried RS1800 Mk2 Escort to another RAC victory, this time with South African Stuart Pegg on the notes. It was to be the only win at the top level for the darling of British rallying – not quite the James Hunt of the WRC, but close – and he’d continue competing, on and off, until the mid-1990s. He died, aged 58, in January 1998. Sons Olly and Matthew continue to fly the flag for Roger Clark Motorsport, with Olly taking the team’s outrageous Subaru Impreza ‘Gobstopper II’ to back-to-back Goodwood Festival of Speed hillclimb victories in recent years.
Not, in statistical terms, the most successful driver the sport has known, but almost certainly its most famous and spectacular. McRae, son of five-time British champion and WRC podium finisher Jimmy, brought speed and drama in equal measure into the WRC, first with Ford Sierras and then with Subaru’s Legacy and Impreza models. The sight and sound of McRae fully lit in a blue-and-gold, boxer-engined Impreza 555 is part of motorsport folklore. After entering the winners’ circle in 1993, he became the sport’s youngest World Champion in ’95 with his second RAC Rally win. A high-profile move to Ford for ’99 bought more wins but another title eluded the Scot over his four seasons with the Blue Oval. After a year with Citroën in 2003, he finished his career with two outings for Skoda in ’05 and a final hurrah with Citroën the following year. There were rumours of a return to Subaru in 2008 but tragedy struck on September 15, 2007 when McRae, son Jonny and two family friends were killed in a helicopter crash at home in Scotland. Rallying had lost its biggest-ever star, with a following that’s unlikely ever to be matched.
WRC starts: 146
First WRC event: Sweden 1987
First podium finish: Sweden 1992
Wins: 25 (New Zealand 1993; New Zealand, GB 1994; New Zealand, GB 1995; Greece, Sanremo, Spain 1996; Safari, Corsica, Sanremo, Australia, GB 1997; Portugal, Corsica, Greece 1998, Safari, Portugal 1999; Spain, Greece 2000; Argentina, Cyprus, Greece 2001; Greece, Safari 2002)
After impressing in a scholarship campaign in the British Championship with a little Peugeot in the early 1990s, Burns emulated Colin McRae by landing a plum seat in a Prodrive Subaru Legacy RS for 1992. Back-to-back National and British titles thrust him into the WRC spotlight and he finished seventh on the RAC at the end of ’93. A frustrating bit-part campaign over the next two years (although he was part of a Subaru 1-2-3 on the ’95 RAC) as Subaru focused on McRae meant he jumped ship to Mitsubishi for 1996. Burns’s maiden WRC win came in the Safari in ’98 and he followed that up with victory at home at the end of the year. With McRae Ford-bound for ’99, a super-fast and super-smooth Burns returned to Subaru whereupon a classic rivalry between the pair ensued. Runner-up in ’99 and ’00, he finally became England’s first and, to date, only World Champion in ’01 after a third-place finish on Rally GB. A move to Peugeot brought superb consistency in 2002/’03 but no more wins. Diagnosed with a brain tumour ahead of Rally GB at the end of ’03, Burns fought bravely against his illness, finally succumbing, aged just 34, on November 25, 2005 – exactly four years after standing atop his Subaru Impreza in Wales’ Margam Park as World Rally Champion.
Northern Irishman Meeke, who worked by day as a mechanic at Ford’s M-Sport WRC operation, became a protégé of Colin McRae as he battled hard in the Junior ranks of the WRC in Ford Puma, Opel Corsa and Citroën C2 machinery. After winning the Intercontinental Rally Challenge for Peugeot in 2009, Meeke landed a works Prodrive Mini seat for a WRC return in 2011. The programme was beset by political and financial issues but Meeke did take a strong fourth on Rally GB at the end of the year, only to find himself on the sidelines again for 2012. A lifeline came from Citroën in 2013, with two outings – in Finland and Australia – aboard a pukka DS3 WRC. His speed and bravery were enough to land a full-time ride for 2014, and he scored two third places. For 2015, the breakthrough win came in Argentina, where Meeke ended a 13-year victory drought for Brits. In the past two seasons, Meeke has enjoyed something of a love-hate relationship with Citroën, winning more rallies, but also finding himself on the bench after a bit of previous-event over-exuberance.
WRC starts: 83
First WRC event: GB 2002
First podium finish: Monte Carlo 2014
Wins: 5 (Argentina 2015; Portugal, Finland 2016; Mexico, Spain 2017)
Most recent WRC event: GB 2017
Stage wins: 68
Cars: Ford, Opel, Citroën, Subaru, Renault, Mini
The newest addition to the line-up of British WRC winners, Evans made history on home soil by becoming the first Welshman to win at rallying’s top level. He took the lead of last weekend’s Rally GB from the second stage and stayed out front to rack up a famous maiden victory. All 61 of his WRC starts since 2007 have come in Ford’s Fiesta model, although he’s only had the top-spec, M-Sport-built RS WRC at his disposal for three season. Winning the WRC Academy (a one-make series for youngsters) in 2012 further aligned Evans, son of former British and World Championship fan-favourite Gwyndaf, with Ford and M-Sport. Sixth place on his World Rally Car debut in Sardinia in 2013 landed him a full-time ride in 2014. He took a brace of fourth places – in Mexico and Germany – and bettered that in 2015 with runner-up spot on the Corsican asphalt. Three wins in an R5-spec Fiesta in the second-string WRC2 class in 2016 led to a return to the top rank for this season. Second in Mexico and Finland proved he was fast and consistent enough to win – something he finally managed in Wales last weekend.