A History of the Top 10 All-Time WRC Drivers
Although rally racing's roots travel back to the turn of the 20th century, it was the conglomeration of many events and series to create the World Rally Championship in 1973 that had a profound impact on the sport.
Throughout the decades there have been a great deal of talented drivers who have honed their skills to either win rallies and/or championships. Winning a driver's title is not the defining character of being one of the best. As we all know in racing and anything else, everyone deals with luck, but it is those drivers that utilize their skill above and beyond what luck may provide that are able to be called great.
As with any 'Top 10' list there will be drivers that some may feel should have been on the list. There were many great drivers, it's just that there can only be ten, but please provide useful feedback, thanks!
10. Miki Biasion
Miki Biasion drove Lancia's during the Group B era, but it was not until Group B was banned and Group A surged that Biasion's career took off.
In 1986 Biasion won his first WRC event in the Group B Lancia Delta S4, the Rally Argentina. In 1987, the Italian skillfully piloted the Lancia Delta HF to three victories and finished runner-up to Juha Kankkunen by only six points. 1988 saw Biasion winning five events and winning the first of two consecutive driver's title. Piloting the new Lancia Delta Integrale, Biasion won the 1988 season by nearly 30 points!
The 1989 season also saw Biasion winning five events, but this was utter dominance as he won his second title by 41 points over teammate Alex Fiorio who did not win a single race in the season.
In 1992 Biasion signed with the Ford Rally Team to drive the Ford Sierra Cosworth. The car was known to be extremely poor, but yet Biasion finished second on the Rally Portugal giving the car its best result ever. Biasion won one more event in the Escort Cosworth in 1993 marking the last of his accomplished career.
Biasion went on to win championships in the World Truck Championship and recently competed in the 2007 Dakar.
9. Tommi Makinen
An extremely talented driver, Finn Tommi Makinen made history when he won four consecutive driver's championships between 1996-1999.
Makinen won his first WRC event in 1994 at the 1000 Lakes Rally piloting a Ford Escort Cosworth. He would not win another rally until 1996 in which he won five and claimed his first driver's title. 1997 saw Makinen winning four events and a second consecutive championship. Mitsubishi, whose prior involvement in the WRC was unsuccessful was now seeing a dominance not seen since Lancia's Delta in the late '80s, early '90s.
As in the previous two years, Makinen showed excellent form in winning five events and receiving a third consecutive title in 1998. Paired with former Subaru driver Richard Burns, Makinen helped Mitsubishi win its only manufacturer's title.
Makinen once again won four events in 1999 to win his fourth consecutive and final driver's championship. He had won an unprecedented 23 events, with his 24th victory coming in 2002 with the Subaru World Rally Team which he joined that year.
Many may be wondering why a great driver like Makinen is ninth on the list, and there are many factors. Makinen was truly dominant in 1996, there is no doubt about it. But the car he drove, from the Lancer Carisma to Lancer Evolution, was tailed specifically to him. The Mitsubishi package was not good in anyone else's hands but Makinen's, much like the 2004-2005 Subaru Impreza and Petter Solberg. Once the car was different, from the 2002-spec (but run in 2001) Lancer or Impreza, Makinen had trouble staying competitive. That being said though, he is still one of the greatest drivers of all time.
8. Hannu Mikkola
Finnish driver Hannu Mikkola had a spectacular 31-year career that began with a victory in 1974 at the 1000 Lakes Rally and ended with a win at the Safari Rally 13 years later.
In 1979, the first year for the driver's championship in the WRC, Mikkola won four events and finished second to Bjorn Waldegaard. He competed in both a Ford Escort RS1800 and Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC 5.0. Mikkola awarded Mercedes with its only victory at the 1979 Rallye Cote d'Ivoire.
He finished runner-up to Walter Rohrl in 1980 despite not winning an event. In 1981 Mikkola joined the Audi Sport Rally Team to drive their Quattro all-wheel drive car. Winning two events in both 1981 and 1982, it was not until 1983 that Mikkola won his only driver's championship. The Finn won four events and finished on the podium multiple times as he bested Walter Rohrl to win the season.
Mikkola could not defend his title in 1984 but finished runner-up to teammate Stig Blomqvist despite winning only one event. 1985 marked a slow end to his career as he only participated in five events.
After Group B was banned, Mikkola continued to drive for Audi till the end of the 1987 season. In 1987 he won the Safari Rally in an Audi 200 Quattro Group A car.
Mikkola left Audi to join the new Mazda Rally Team where he remained until 1993 when he retired from motorsport. He did not win another rally and even entered semi-retirement in 1991 before officially retiring two years later.
7. Carlos Sainz
El Matador began his rallying career with Ford and participated in his first WRC events in 1987. It was not until his switch to Toyota in 1989 however that his potential was exercised and his career took off.
In 1990, Sainz won four events including the 1000 Lakes Rally for which he was the first non-Scandinavian to ever win the event. The four victories and series of points finishes won him his first driver's title. Sainz returned in 1991 to defend his title and won five races. However, Juha Kankkunen also won five races and had more points as he won his third driver's title.
The Spaniard returned to Toyota in 1992 and won the final two events of the season to edge out Juha Kankkunen for his second world title. In the same season, Didier Auriol won six events but with so many DNFs, could not garner the points to win the championship.
Sainz switched to Lancia in 1993 while Kankkunen went to Toyota, and while Kankkunen won his fourth driver's title, Sainz saw only one podium in the whole year. He quickly left the Lancia-backed team for the 555 Subaru Rally team to be paired with Colin McRae.
Piloting a Subaru Impreza, Sainz won one event in 1994 and finished runner-up to Auriol who won in a Toyota Celica. 1995 was an interesting year that featured only eight events, the shortest in the history of the WRC. Sainz won three events, but was edged out by teammate Colin McRae who won two events.
In 1996, Sainz signed with the Ford Rally Team and won one event, but finished third in the rankings. He won three events in 1997 but once again finished third behind Tommi Makinen and Colin McRae.
Sainz left Ford in 1998 to once again join Toyota and had an exciting season in which he won two events but lost the championship only 500 meters away from the finish line on the final stage of the final event of the season! 1999 did not see Sainz winning an event despite eight podium finishes.
At the end of the 1999 season, Toyota withdrew from the WRC and as a result Sainz joined the Ford World Rally Team for the third time in his career. In 2000, Sainz won one event, and in 2001, despite not winning any races, finished sixth in the standings in the closest contention in the series' history as Richard Burns won his only title.
In 2002 Sainz won one event as Marcus Gronholm won his second driver's title. At the end of the year, Ford opted to release both Sainz and McRae. The two drivers joined the Citroen Total Team in 2003 joining 2002 Junior World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb. Despite losing his seat at times to Francois Duval, Sainz won two events in 2003 and 2004 and continued with Citroen till the end of the 2005 season.
Sainz left the World Rally Championship but continues to participate in the Dakar, recently leading the race but crashing out last week. To many known as the classiest participant and an ambassador of the sport, Sainz has garnered the love of his native Spain as well as that of rally fans all around the world.
6. Markku Alen
Finnish driver Markku Alen impressed everyone when in his WRC debut at the 1973 1000 Lakes Rally he finished second. From there, his career has been historic despite never officially winning a driver's title.
In 1973 Alen signed with the Fiat Rally Team driving for them till the end of the 1981 season. He won his first event in in 1975, with another win in 1976 and 1977.
1978 marked Alen's first dominant season with three wins and claiming the FIA Cup for Driver's title as well as Fiat's second manufacturer's championship. It was in 1979 that the WRC Driver's Championship was established so technically Alen was not a WRC champion. In 1979 Alen won one event and finished third in the driver's standings.
At the end of the 1981 season, Alen signed with Lancia after Fiat withdrew from WRC competition. In 1982 he introduced the Lancia 037, but it was not until 1983 that he won in the car. He won twice in 1983 and finished third in the championship behind Hannu Mikkola and Walter Rohrl.
In 1986 Alen narrowly missed out on the championship due to a controversy in which the FIA and World Rally Council handed the championship to Juha Kankkunen and nulled Alen's victory at the Rally Sanremo.
After Group B's ban, Alen remained with Lancia and won three events in 1987 with the Delta HF. In 1988 he again won three races as well as his first and only British RAC Rally victory.
Alen joined the 555 Subaru World Rally Team in 1990 and Toyota in 1992. After not having a full-time drive in 1993, Alen retired from rally racing. He participated in the Dakar as well as entered into the 2001 Rally Finland to celebrate his 50th birthday.
Despite not officially winning a world champion title in the WRC, Alen holds the record for stages won at 774.
5. Marcus Gronholm
The Flying Finn began his WRC career at the 1989 1000 Lakes Rally, but it wasn't until 1999 when he signed with the Peugeot Total World Rally Team that his career began to take off.
In 2000 Gronholm won the second round of the calendar, the Rally Sweden to mark his first ever WRC victory. He went on to win three more events to best Subaru's Richard Burns to become World Rally Champion. 2001 was successful for Gronholm as he won three events, but mechanical troubles saw him end fourth in the rankings as Richard Burns won the title.
Gronholm's five wins and points finishes helped him dominate the 2002 season and earn his second driver's title. In 2003 Gronholm won three events, but constant mechanical problems and crashes put him sixth in the driver's standings.
Peugeot introduced the overweight and unduly large 307 in 2004 and with it the team did not achieve much success. Gronholm won one event in 2004 and two in 2005, although one was due to Petter Solberg's voluntary retirement following the tragic death of Markko Martin's co-driver Michael Park. Peugeot Total opted to withdraw from the WRC after the death of Park.
Gronholm joined the Ford World Rally Team for 2006 and paired with Mikko Hirvonen brought Ford's first manufacturer's title in many years. Sebastien Loeb, who had never finished below second place, got injured and as a result allowed Gronholm to win three of the final four events. Gronholm however lost out to Loeb in the driver's standings by one point.
In 2007 Gronholm piloted his Ford Focus WRC to five event victories, but still it was not enough to win over Citroen's Sebastien Loeb who finished four points higher than Gronholm. At the end of the season, Gronholm announced his retirement from the top-level of rally racing.
In a career that really took off towards the end of it, Gronholm accomplished what most would dream to achieve. He overtook Carlos Sainz for second-place on the all-time win list with 30 victories as well as helped give Ford two consecutive manufacturer's championships.
For 2008, Gronholm agreed to participate in the FIA European Championships for Rallycross and has participated in local and pro-am rally events.
4. Juha Kankkunen
Four-time World Rally Champion Juha Kankkunen had an illustrious career that spanned 23 years of involvement at the top level of rallying.
In 1985, in the midst of the Group B era, Kankkunen piloted a Toyota Celica to his first two victories. He switched to Peugeot for 1986 where he replaced Ari Vatanen and piloted the immensely powerful 205 Turbo 16 to three victories and his first driver's title. He was instrumental in providing their second manufacturer's title and the final one prior to the Group B ban.
Following the withdrawal of Peugeot from the WRC, Kankkunen signed with Lancia in Group A in 1987. Despite winning only two events in the Delta HF, solid points finishes awarded him a second consecutive championship.
For 1988 Kankkunen left Lancia due to problems with team management and signed with Toyota. It would not be until 1989 that he would win in the Celica as he only had one points finish in '88 putting him tied for 37th in the rankings.
In 1989 Kankkunen finished third in the rankings with one win behind the Lancia pair of Biasion and Fiorio. Frustrated with his performance at Toyota, Kankkunen signed once again with Lancia.
He scored four podium finishes and one victory to help Lancia win the manufacturer's championship. His performance came back to form in 1991 as he won five events and became the first driver to win three driver's titles.
While trying to defend his title in 1992, Kankkunen failed to win but one event but finished second in the driver's standings due to strong podium finishes throughout the season.
Kankkunen rejoined the Toyota World Rally Team for 1993 and piloting the Celica Turbo won five events to claim a record four driver's championship titles.
The Flying Finn won one event in 1994, but the biggest shock came in 1995 when Toyota was banned from the World Rally Championship by the FIA for using turbo restrictor bypasses which were illegal.
Without a drive, it wasn't until mid-1997 when the Ford World Rally Team decided to replace Armin Schwarz that Kankkunen landed another factory-backed drive. In seven races running the new Escort WRC car, he finished four times on the podium.
Kankkunen left Ford at the end of 1998 and joined the Subaru World Rally Team. He won two events in 1999 driving the Subaru Impreza 22b WRC car. These would mark the final two victories in an extremely successful career.
In 2002 Kankkunen joined the Hyundai World Rally Team and finished fifth, the best finish that the Accent WRC ever had. Kankkunen retired from rally racing soon after.
Kankkunen set the world speed record on ice in a Bentley Continental GT in 2007. He has announced his interest in entering politics, following in the footsteps of Ari Vatanen.
3. Colin McRae
The Flying Scotsman attempted his first WRC rally in 1987 at the Rally Sweden driving a Vauxhall Nova and from there started a phenomenal career as he became the face of rally racing around the world.
He participated in the 1988 Rally Sweden finishing 15th driving a Ford Sierra and finished an amazing fifth place in a Sierra Cosworth. McRae signed with the Subaru British Rally Team in 1991 and was promoted to the World Rally Championship in 1993 after being crowned British Rally Champion in the two years he drove for the British team.
In 1993 he joined Ari Vatanen at Subaru and brought them their first victory in New Zealand. The next year he won two events and finished fourth in the standings.
1995 marked the most important of his career as he won two events and had important points finishes that helped him best two-time champion Carlos Sainz in winning his only World Rally Championship. He also played an important role in Subaru winning the manufacturer's championship.
He returned in 1996 to defend his title, but despite winning three events, he proved no match for Mitsubishi's Tommi Makinen. McRae won five races the year after, but due to the high number of DNFs, he finished second in the standings to Makinen by one point.
In 1998 McRae won three events but finished third in the standings. McRae was instrumental in Subaru's third consecutive manufacturer's title. He left Subaru to join the Ford Rally Team to pilot their all-new Focus. In the new car, he won two consecutive events, but only finished in the points one more time as the car was plagued with problems.
McRae won two events in 2000 and fared better than the year before by finishing fourth in the standings. He won three events in 2001 but crashed out of the final round of the year finishing second to Richard Burns by two points and missing out on a second championship once again.
In 2002, McRae won two events and finished third in the standings. At the time, he had set the record for more WRC wins. After both McRae and Carlos Sainz were not resigned by Ford, both joined the Citroen Rally Team as they joined Sebastien Loeb.
McRae finished second at the opening event, the Rally Monte Carlo. The rest of his season was lackluster though and as a result with the new two-car rule in place, Citroen opted to keep Carlos Sainz who was more successful.
Colin McRae did not receive a contract from another team and as a result found himself without a drive. He returned to the WRC-level in 2005 participating in a Skoda Fabia in two events, and even finished in the top ten in one.
He never did receive another WRC drive, but participated in the Dakar, Race of Champions, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the X-Games. His line of rally video games has become the most popular series available and has been sold in many countries around the world.
In 2007, McRae died in a tragic helicopter accident along with his son Johnny.
McRae made a name for himself by being extremely fast, and having a driving style that much resembled those that participated in the Group B cars. His driving and his personality quickly made him rally racing's most recognizable figure and a worldwide phenomenon.
Rest in Peace Colin
2. Walter Rohrl
Walter Rohrl began his WRC-era career by entering into the first ever WRC event, the 1973 Rally Monte Carlo. In 1975 Rohrl won his first even and his first ever podium at the Acropolis Rally driving an Opel Ascona.
For the 1978 season Rohrl joined the Fiat Rally Team to pilot the 131 Abarth. He won his second Acropolis Rally as well as the Rally Quebec but finished sixth in the standings. The next year would be disappointing for him as he would finish only once on the podium.
Rohrl returned in the 131 Abarth in 1980 and in an absolutely dominant display won four events and finished on the podium twice more to win his first driver's title. The next year he failed to finish in the points and joined Opel to compete in the 1982 season.
He battled with the famous Audi Quattro's using an Opel Ascona and after winning two events and finishing on the podium five additional times, won his second driver's title.
In 1983 Rohrl joined the Lancia team to drive their 037 Group B car. He won the Monte Carlo Rally and two others, but finished second in the points behind Audi's Hannu Mikkola.
Audi signed Rohrl to drive for the team in 1984 and he won the Monte Carlo Rally to begin the year. Unfortunately, he finished only once more in the points. The following year he had one victory and three podium finishes as he battled against the famous Peugeot 205 rally cars.
In 1986 Rohrl did not see the success he had in years past, and with the tragic death of Henri Toivonen and his co-driver, Audi's immediate withdrawal left the two-time champion without a drive.
After the WRC, Rohrl went onto Pike's Peak, IMSA, Le Mans, and has been one of Porsche's top test drivers.
Rohrl was known for being a very controlled driver who could drive anything anywhere he so chose. Numerous nations in the past have voted him the best driver of all time due to not only his immense skill, but his sportsmanship and class.
1. Sebastien Loeb
Although Sebastien Loeb competed in the 1999 French Rally, it would not be until 2002 that the Greatest WRC Driver would truly enter the scene.
After winning the Citroen Saxo Trophy and Junior World Rally Championship, Loeb got promoted to drive for the Citroen Total World Rally Team in 2002. In his first year, and in a limited program run by Citroen, Loeb won the inaugural Rally Germany and the first of many wins.
The next year he was joined by two-time champion Carlos Sainz and former champion Colin McRae. Despite being surrounded by the two juggernauts, Loeb won three events and missed out on the driver's title by only one point to Subaru driver Petter Solberg.
He showed no mercy in 2004 as he won six events (and became the first non-Scandinavian to win the Rally Sweden) and dominated the championship to earn his first driver's title.
2005 was nothing short of Schumacher-esque as Loeb won 10 events, becoming the first driver to ever earn more than six, as well as becoming the first driver to ever win six events in a row. Citroen announced alongside partner Peugeot that the it would withdraw from the WRC at the end of the year.
Loeb ran a factory-support private outfit for 2006, and still showed his dominance as he won eight of the first 12 events. Of the four he did not win, he finished second place on all of them. He however injured himself due to a biking accident and could not participate in the final four events of the year. Ford's Marcus Gronholm made a run to beat Loeb but failed by one point as Loeb won his third consecutive championship.
For 2007 Citroen returned from their hiatus with the all-new C4 WRC which Seb led to eight victories and a fourth-consecutive championship, tying Tommi Makinen's feat. He also tied Juha Kankkunen on the number of championships.
This past year, Sebastien dominated the WRC just as he has these past years with 11 wins and his fifth consecutive driver's title. He is not only the first driver to have five in a row, but the first to have five period. He was also the fourth Non-Scandinavian person to win the Rally Finland and has won the Rally Monte Carlo five times in a row.
Loeb has participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, has won the Race of Champions, has tested an F1 car, and will return for the 2009 season to continue with the Citroen Total World Rally Team.
Some argue that Loeb is not the best because of the package he's got or how the WRC is different than it was. True it is, but he is simply dominant on every surface and he does it with such grace and elegance throughout the special stage that it is hard not to draw comparisons with Schumacher. His 47 rally wins is 17 more than Marcus Gronholm who is in second place with 30 victories. He has smashed near every record when it comes to winning and will continue to do so. He is an extremely talented driver and the Greatest WRC driver.