Rally has always been the bad boy of the racing world. There are no safety cars or rain delays. Unforgiving stages characterize the sport, and it requires patience, skill, and balls so big they could be ballasts. It’s no wonder, then, that most racing fans consider rally racers to be the best drivers behind the wheel. But no great driver sets landmark times without a great car. From the nearly stock classics of the ’50s and ’60s to the monstrous, no-limit cars of the Group B era, rallying has placed fabled racers in finely tuned cars and there’s been one result: some of the greatest moments in motorsport history. Here’s a driver-driven retrospective.
Erik Carlsson: Saab 96
Working for Saab as a brand ambassador and rally driver in the ’50s and ’60s, Erik Carlsson rightly earned his nickname “Mr Saab.” His driving style was exuberant — to put it politely — and despite his tendency to put the car on its roof, Carlsson had significant wins in his Saab 96 at Monte Carlo, San Remo and Wales. Those wins helped put the beloved Swedish manufacturer on the map.
Paddy Hopkirk: Mini Cooper
Love it or hate it, the Mini Cooper is an automotive icon both on and off the track. That status is thanks in no small part to Paddy Hopkirk’s ace driving abilities. Piloting the Mini to victory in the 1964 Monte Carlo rally, Hopkirk beat the Mini’s more powerful adversaries by utilizing its nimble handling characteristics through Monte Carlo’s tightly wound corners.
Walter Röhrl: Opal Ascona 400
Röhrl at Pikes Peak
In 1987, Röhrl became the first driver to finish the 14.4-mile Pikes Peak hill climb in less than 11 minutes in his Audi Quattro S1, a car he also used in Group B rally. He completed the course in only 10 minutes and 47.85 seconds.
Most would associate Röhrl with Audi for his handy work behind the wheel of the batshit Quattro S1, but his most important rally work was done behind the wheel of an Opal Ascona 400. Ironically, it was his ability to fend off the new AWD Quattros in the 1982 World Rally Championship and win the driver’s title in his less advanced RWD Opal that wins our admiration. He proved that pure driving prowess can trump technology.
Timo Salonen: Peugeot 205 Turbo 16
Though he may not have looked the part with his stocky build, thick glasses and tenacious smoking habit, Timo Salonen was the winningest rally driver during WRC’s insane Group B years. He had seven overall wins and a driver’s championship in 1985. These victories came from behind the wheel of the Peugeot 205 Turbo, a car that — compared to other Group B monsters like the Audi Quattro and Ford RS200 — looked as much an underdog as Salonen. But also like Salonen, the Peugeot became the Group B champ, winning two constructor’s titles in 1985 (by Solonen) and 1986.
Juha Kankkunen: Lancia Delta Integrale
Juha Kankkunen drove a Peugeot 205 Turbo to victory in 1986 for his first WRC championship title. Then, after the ban of Group B, he became the only driver to win both during the Group B era. Kankkunen moved to Lancia in 1987, where he won his second driver’s title (post Group B) at the hands of a Lancia Delta Integrale, a feat he would repeat again in 1991. In 1993, Kankkunen won his fourth WRC championship, this time behind the wheel of a Toyota.
Carlos Sainz: Toyota Celica GT-Four
Though Toyota had some success with their previous Celica rally cars (at longer endurance races, like the Safari Rally), it wasn’t until Carlos Sainz got behind the wheel of the new Celica GT-Four in the early ’90s that Toyota became a major contender in WRC. El Matador himself was also the first non-Nordic driver to win the 1,000 Lakes Rally behind the wheel of his Toyota, and he still holds the record for most career starts in WRC.
Tommi Makinen: Mitsubishi Evolution
Mitsubishi isn’t exactly in a good spot in the automotive industry currently, but the manufacturer’s rally history and Evo models have still won the hearts and minds of auto enthusiasts. The credit is almost entirely due to Tommi Makinen, who was responsible for every one of Mitsubishi’s driver’s titles in WRC, winning four consecutive championships between 1996 and 1999 at the wheel of the Lancer Evolution.
Colin McRae: Subaru Impreza “555”
The McRae R4
With the help of DJM Motorsport, Colin McRae became one of the few racers to develop his own car. Originally designed as a cost-effective alternative to “regular” WRC cars, the R4 ran 350 horsepower from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Unfortunately only one prototype was built and has not seen competition outside the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
If Makinen is to thank for Mitsubishi’s rally history, the late, great Colin McRae is the man behind Subaru’s rally acclaim. Though he won only one driver’s title, he does hold the record for the youngest to do so, at the age of 27. His enthusiastic driving style is best characterized by his personal motto: “When in doubt, flat out.” He also won Subaru 3 WRC constructor’s titles in 1995, 1996 and 1997.
Petter Solberg: Subaru Impreza WRX
After the McRae era, Subaru managed to stay competitive in the early 2000s with Petter Solberg piloting the newer Impreza WRC cars that spawned the road-going WRXs. Solberg won his only WRC championship in 2003, and continued to race with Subaru until they finally pulled out of WRC in 2008. Solberg later went on to win the first-ever World Rallycross championship, though he was behind the wheel of a Citroen.
Sebastien Loeb: Citroen
It is extremely hard to dismiss nine WRC championships, which is why Sebastian Loeb is arguably rally’s greatest driving talent of all time. Though he specialized in tarmac events (and has won all but three in his career), Loeb has proven himself to be competent in just about any driving scenario. Helping push him to victory were his Citroen Xsara, C4 and DS3 WRC, cars that stood out as exceptional in an era where regulations made WRC cars mundanely alike.