Four decades of the drivers’ World Rally Championship have delivered some quite extraordinary results. Selecting six of the best is a tricky business, but here are the half-dozen we’ve come up with.
The six greatest WRC rounds of all time
6. 2018 Rally Italy Sardegna
In modern terms, seven tenths of a second is a relatively comfortable win in a WRC round. As a gap, it’s three and a bit times bigger than Sébastien Ogier’s margin over Jari-Matti Latvala when the pair got to the end of the 2011 Rally Jordan.
But last year’s Rally Italy was a classic. The weather went mad on the opening day as the Sardinian sun deserted a drenched Italian island. The times were all over the place as the crews splashed down through the stages, but when the roads dried out, and the opportunity to gamble on tyres lessened, the gaps got smaller and smaller. With one day left, Thierry Neuville trailed Ogier by 4.9 seconds. Unusually for the Frenchman, he was 19 points behind the Belgian in the title race and knew a retirement could be catastrophic for his hopes of keeping his crown for a sixth straight season. But he also knew he couldn’t give up on this rally.
The pair pushed and pushed, arriving at the start of the final stage with the Hyundai trailing Ogier’s M-Sport Ford by 0.8 seconds. For the next 8.73 miles, the watching world held its breath as the pair gave absolutely everything. Neuville survived a heart-stopping two-wheel moment to turn his rival over to the tune of 1.5 seconds. A win was his. And what made this one even better was the championship website’s streaming service; for the first time a world watched in real time as a genuine modern day thriller played out before them.
5. 1981 Swedish Rally
Had Hannu Mikkola’s foot not slipped off the brake pedal on the opening round of the 1981 season, this section would almost certainly have been about the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally.
The start of ’81 was, you see, Audi time. Quattro had arrived. Still, even as the cars lined up for the beginning of the new year, a new era, rival team bosses remained dismissive of the plan to mate big turbos with what they saw as heavy, cumbersome, agricultural, four-wheel-drive transmissions.
How could it work? How could it fail?
Six stages – and just 93 miles – into an admittedly snowy Monte and Mikkola’s Quattro was 5 minutes 54 seconds ahead. Nearly six minutes up in under 100 miles… The future had arrived.
The future then lost a front corner against a bridge parapet (in a car all about traction, little could be found between the sole of Hannu’s shoe and the middle pedal) and the world had to wait a fortnight for the Finn to embarrass his rivals on the Swedish Rally. Where second-placed Ari Vatanen short-shifted his RS1800 in an effort to persuade the Escort into forward motion, Mikkola wound the boost up and let all four wheels haul car towards an inevitable and sport re-defining win.
4. 1997 1,000 Lakes Rally
No top six would be complete with the 1,000 Lakes. Finland, the sport’s spiritual home. This place isn’t short on tales to tell or heroes to tell them. But the choice event has to be 1985, a story of a world title for Peugeot and home win for its driving hero Timo Salonen. The bespectacled superstar was just ahead of fellow local legends Markku Alen and Henri Toivonen, the Lancia pair stunning everybody with the pace of their rear-wheel-drive 037s.
Actually, stop. Yes, 1985 was good. But the deal was done with a day to run. Let’s fast forward to 1997 for a proper Finnish squabble. Mitsubishi man Tommi Mäkinen was chasing a record-equalling (then) third straight win, but Ford pair Carlos Sainz and Juha Kankkunen simply wouldn’t let the Lancer loose.
The faster roads on the event’s first half disguised the Escort WRC’s comparative lack of low down grunt, but the combination of a new turbo on his Mitsubishi allied to twistier stages on the final day (and a terminal hydraulic problem on Sainz’s front differential) helped Tommi across the line, just seven seconds clear of Kankkunen.
Marcus Grönholm had served notice of Toyota’s intentions with its all-new Corolla WRC, running in the lead before running out of petrol.
3. 1985 Monte Carlo Rally
Walter Röhrl arrived at the start of the 1985 season as a pre-event favourite for the opener through the French Alps. Admittedly, Audi’s Sport Quattro S1 would come up against some stiff competition in Group B, but the German was chasing a fourth straight Monte win and a fifth in total.
Peugeot was out in force with three factory 205 T16s and it was Ari Vatanen’s car that would forever be associated with this rally. The Finn’s event started badly after he slid wide and collided with fans at the end of the St Bonnet test, but after a loop on the roads around Grenoble he and co-driver Terry Harryman were firmly in control. They arrived in Gap leading the Röhrl Audi by close to four minutes with 250 miles of competition remaining.
Harryman then endured every co-driver’s nightmare and checked the 205 into a control four minutes early, earning the #2 Peugeot an eight-minute penalty.
A four-minute lead had become a four-minute deficit. Most drivers would have thrown the towel in. Not Vatanen. He advised the Northern Irishman alongside him it that might be worth tightening his belts for the next 250 miles and then drove the rally of his life. He caught, passed and, for the second time in a week, crushed Röhrl to win the rally by five minutes.
2. 2003 Tour de Corse
When Petter Solberg crossed the ceremonial start of the 2003 Tour de Corse, nobody gave him a chance. How could they? He was on foot. His Subaru Impreza WRC was still in bits, having been twisted around a telegraph pole off the edge of a Corsican cliff just hours earlier.
An all-nighter from the Prodrive team, a nail-biter from Solberg and a late delivery of some Pirelli-pleasing rain helped turned disaster into one of the most unlikely triumphs in the history of the World Rally Championship.
The paint was still wet on Solberg’s Subaru when he stepped aboard on the morning of the rally. He didn’t mind. It worked. And, what’s more, it was vaguely straight. Eighth fastest on the opener would do; he was just happy to be there.
But the times tumbled as the stages rolled on by and the final day neared, to everybody’s astonishment, Solberg was posting fastest times and into the lead. He stayed there through that last loop of four stages, winning the event to move within three points of championship leader Carlos Sainz with just two rallies remaining.
Two rallies later, Petter was a world champion.
1. 1995 RAC Rally
Honestly, this isn’t a British thing… this genuinely was one of the all-time great rallies. Not least because the lead into it was so spicy following a team orders row between Subaru drivers Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and team principal David Richards.
Who said what to who means little now, but Richards’ instructions were for a Sainz win and a Scot in second. Predictably, the Scot didn’t take that lying down. In fact, the only thing lying down in the Catalunya Rally service park was the team’s bin, after McRae volleyed it across the Lloret de Mar seafront.
That result meant McRae and Sainz went to Chester for the finale tied on points.
The boys traded times through Sunday’s stately homes, but stopping and changing a puncture in Pundershaw cost McRae almost two minutes and left the Spaniard out front.
McRae responded to massive – and previously unseen – levels of support from the side of the road, reeling his rival in with fastest times on 16 of the next 19 stages. This was McRae in his pomp and Sainz had no answer. The double world champion was at the marauding Lanark star’s mercy as he thundered towards a maiden title of his own.
McRae won the event by 36 seconds and the title by 15 points after a most epic RAC Rally.
Photography courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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