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WRC at 50:Most Outstanding WRC Drivers

A panel including Christian Loriaux, the WRC program manager at Hyundai Motorsport, Malcolm Wilson, the managing director of M-Sport Ford, and Jari-Matti Latvala, the head of the Toyota WRC team, decided the top ten in autosport. Autosport created a list of its own as well.

Every panelist made their own ranking of the top ten, and the drivers received points ranging from 10 for first place to 1 for tenth. The final top 10 were selected by adding the points from each ranking.

Ari Van Tanen

The first World Rally champion from Finland was perhaps one of the most tenacious and tough racers to ever grace the circuit.

Vatanen joined the WRC in 1974, but his first win didn’t come until 1980—at the Acropolis Rally. Without a doubt, he had a natural knack for driving. His greatest moment came in 1981, when he and David Richards drove a privately owned Ford Escort RS1800 to win the world championship.

As shown by victories in Monte Carlo (asphalt), Sweden (snow), Safari (rough gravel), and Finland (rapid gravel), the well-liked Vatanen was quick and comfortable in every situation.

Fortunately, his career did not end prematurely after he was predicted to contend for the championship in 1985 after a severe collision while operating a factory Group B Peugeot 205 T16 in Argentina. Vatanen was out for nearly a year while he recovered from internal injuries that impair breathing, a severely broken tibia, shattered ribs, and fractured lumbar vertebrae.

After making a comeback to the WRC in 1987, he continued to contend for wins in 1998, spending time with the factory teams of Ford, Subaru, and Mitsubishi.

“He reminds me a lot of myself; we have so much in common,” remarks Jari-Matti Latvala. Given his significant injury in Argentina, Ari’s career was not an easy one—in fact, it may have been the hardest of all. Even so, he returned to the WRC to compete for wins and claim podiums. He had the fortitude to persevere when many drivers would have given up.

Mikkola Hannu

Mikkola is one of the best instances of adaptability; throughout four decades, he drove for factory teams.

Beginning his career in 1963, the Finn drove a Volvo PV444, tamed the Group B Audi Quattro, and piloted Group A vehicles for Mazda, Subaru, and Toyota. His last trip with the WRC was in 1993. His 30-year career peaked when he was a consistent challenger for world championships in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

With his third place finishes in 1978, 1981, and 1982, as well as his runners-up finishes in 1979 and 1980, it seemed that he would be the eternal bridesmaid. However, in 1983, at the advanced age of 41, he seizes the opportunity to defeat Walter Rohrl of Lancia and win the title, becoming the oldest champion ever.

Mikkola was the first World Rally champion for German automaker Audi, which was appropriate as he was instrumental in the creation of the groundbreaking Quattro four-wheel-drive system in the early 1980s. Mikkola passed away in 2021 at the age of 78.

According to Jari-Matti Latvala, “He drove factory cars for forty years.” Up to the age of 49, he worked as a factory driver and saw the development of automobiles. At the time, I don’t believe anybody did it.

Makinen Tommi

Makinen, the first person to win four world championships in a row, is deserving of a place in the top 10.

Makinen made his debut driving a Ford Escort RS Cosworth and won Rally Finland (also known as 1000 Lakes) in 1994. However, after he joined the official Mitsubishi team, he was an unbeatable force. The Finn was often involved in fights with Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae.

Column by Tommi Makinen: The toll that sustained success may have

Because of its intricacy, the Monte Carlo Rally is often used as a gauge of a driver’s skill. Makinen’s skill was shown by his unbroken record on the well-known mountain routes between 1999 and 2002.

Despite retiring in 2003 following a two-year tenure with Subaru, Makinen is still ranked sixth among all-time wins. In 2016, he was appointed team leader of the Toyota factory team, which went on to win the manufacturers’ championship in 2018.

“Tommi was very strong in the Mitsubishi years, winning the four titles in a row,” comments Jari-Matti Latvala. This was Tommi’s strength in tough and demanding circumstances; he could attack, as he did in the rainy conditions of Portugal in 2001 when he prevailed. He won Monte Carlo four times because he was able to seize the opportunity when things became tough.

The late Colin McRae

McRae only won one world championship, which is regrettable given his innate talent, but he was among the most remarkable performers who have ever graced the stage.

The Scot was a huge fan favorite due to his outrageous, no-holds-barred driving style, although this strategy was criticized at times, especially in the early stages of his career after many collisions. Not only was he lightning quick, but he also personified perseverance. The biggest examples are perhaps the times he recovered from a puncture and a damaged suspension to win the world championship in Rally GB in 1995, the time he fixed his Subaru in Argentina in 1998 using a rock, and the time he drove in Catalunya in 2002 while suffering a fractured finger.

Having finished runner-up three times, the most notable near-miss was in 2001 when he rolled his Ford Focus in the GB championship decider. He was unfortunate not to win a second global title. McRae was a master of difficult rallies despite his sheer speed; in addition to winning three Safari Rally races, he set a record five times at the Acropolis.

According to Malcolm Wilson, McRae’s former manager at Ford from 1999 to 2002, “Colin did more for world rallying than any other driver, beyond driving ability.” He aroused the interest of non-rallying folks as well. He was a never-say-die kind of guy. Although Colin was amazing, few people know that he possessed the strongest mechanical compassion of all. He had a precise idea of how far he could push an automobile. Colin’s greatest triumphs were all achieved during challenging rallies.

Marcus Gronholm

Similar to McRae, Gronholm was not afraid to take chances, and this, together with his remarkable speed, allowed him to win the WRC twice.

Gronholm was a late bloomer; at age 31, he secured his first factory WRC drive. With Peugeot, he took full use of the opportunity and won the world championship in his first season. His triumph at the 2000 Rally Sweden was his maiden podium in the WRC.

With his genuine and vulnerable demeanor, the Finn won over the admirers. He expressed his emotions honestly, which often resulted in several amusing stage-ending interviews.

Driving for Ford, Gronholm almost added a third world championship in 2006 and 2007. His skill was brought to light over those two seasons when he faced off against Sebastien Loeb.

According to Christian Loriaux, who coworked with Gronholm at Ford, Marcus was among the quickest. Marcus was definitely quicker than Loeb and Ogier when it came to driving and speed. He was among the nicest, most trustworthy, and most honest individuals.

“When Loeb came, he was the only one who could stop him, and he was so close in 2006 and 2007,” continues Jari-Matti Latvala. Marcus was the one that desired the title and was always prepared to take chances. He was Ogier’s equal in combat. He has a ton of legendary tales from interviews conducted after the show. As a character, he was quite honest and genuine. He expressed his feelings precisely.

Walter Rohrl

For Rohrl, the importance of winning in Monte Carlo outweighed winning the world championship. This encapsulates the German, who picked the competitions he participated in carefully. He never went to Finland, for instance, as it wasn’t one of his favorite competitions.

Despite this strategy, he managed to win two world championships: one with Fiat in 1980 and another with Opel in 1982, when he defeated Michele Mouton of Audi. But considering how difficult the competition was for drivers, Rohrl gauged success in Monte Carlo Rally victories. With four separate cars—a Fiat 131 (1980), an Opel Ascona 400 (1982), a Lancia 037 (1983), and an Audi Quattro (1984)—Röhrl won an incredible four times in Monte Carlo.

One of the quickest and most ruthless drivers in the series, Rohrl retired from the WRC in 1987.

Malcolm Wilson states: “Walter, in my opinion, was ahead of his time and comparable to the first computer in that he could be programmed to win the rally.” He didn’t really put himself in a situation where he could choose which events he would attend these days. You were aware that he would almost certainly win if he entered an event. In my opinion, he was the first clinical driver. It’s really incredible that three automobiles can drive three consecutive Monte Carlos.

Kankkunen Juha

Gaining global championships in two final sets of rules has propelled Kankkunen to a high ranking within the top 10.

The Finn made his WRC debut in 1979, and in 2010 he made his last outing at Rally Finland with a one-time run to eighth place. Amazingly, he participated in four of the five major WRC rules to date: Group 4, B, A, and WRC-era machinery.

Known as one of the most naturally talented people, Kankkunen won championships driving the Peugeot 205 T16, a Group A Lancia Delta Integrale, and a Toyota Celica. He was not only flexible but also very quick and calculating.

In 1987, he became the first driver in the history of the championship to successfully defend the title, an accomplishment made even more remarkable by the change from Group B to Group A.

“He had a similar approach to Sebastien Loeb and was always thinking about the points and the championship,” comments Jari-Matti Latvala. I believe that one of his greatest assets was his consistency and lack of errors.

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