Is local experience still valuable in modern rallying?

The most recent WRC round had a home winner, yet such feats aren't common in today's world. But the matter goes deeper than that


Were you to pick up your cell phone right now, message one of your rally mates and ask if they believe previous experience of an event is as important as it used to be, they would probably tell you it isn’t.

That would’ve been me a few weeks ago. The catalogue of reasons as to why it’s easier for drivers to adapt to new surroundings in the 2020s than it was even in the 2010s, let alone stretching further back, is endless.

WRC+ is the main one if we’re talking about at the world level. With so many onboards of so many drivers going back so many years, I reckon even I – a proud veteran of one rally start (and that was as a co-driver around a racetrack) – could have a go at sussing out what’s what on Rally Portugal without ever having visited Portugal, let alone the rally.

But in reality at any level of rallying, there’ll be countless onboard videos online from previous years that drivers can study to get a feel for the surroundings they’ll be facing. That, and the extensive archive that is the world wide web, will ensure that a modern rally driver has far fewer excuses for not being prepared for a rally than their predecessors did.

WRC events’ last ‘home’ winners

*long-time resident of nation

Rally Year of last home win or best result Driver Series
Ypres Rally 2021 Thierry Neuville WRC
Rally Estonia 2020 Ott Tänak WRC
Monte Carlo Rally 2020 Thierry Neuville* WRC
Safari Rally 2019 Baldev Chager ARC
Rally Chile 2018 Pedro Heller Chile
Rally NZ 2018 Hayden Paddon NZ

The proof is in the pudding too. Take Rally Finland for example. Carlos Sainz blazed a trail when he became the first non-Scandinavian driver to conquer the 1000 Lakes 31 years ago, and over the next decade only Didier Auriol could acclaim a similar achievement.

But since Markko Märtin brought his Ford Focus WRC03 over the finish ramp in Jyväskylä as the 2003 victor, the home heroes have only won the ‘gravel grand prix’ two times more than the visitors; nine wins to seven.

The situation on Rally Sweden is arguably even more telling, as that rally has only been won by a Scandinavian once in the last five iterations. It took until 2004 for the Scandinavians to first be beaten.

Marry these revealing statistics to the blatant fact that rallies are more formulaic now than ever before – with cloverleaf service patterns and repeated stages across loops on nigh on all events – and it’s very difficult to evade the conclusion that experience just isn’t the ace card it once used to be in a driver’s hand.

But pace and results on some high-profile events in recent weeks have caused me to apply for my own retrial. Perhaps the picture isn’t as clear-cut as I’d convinced myself it was.


Photo: British Rally Championship/Jakob Ebery Photography

Despite all of the above undoubtedly ringing true, experience of an event’s stages and terrain can never, ever be considered a disadvantage. It might not guarantee you the win on Sunday, but it’ll never count against a driver to have a feel for what they are facing.

And can it really be a coincidence for example that on a recent round of the British Rally Championship, the entire podium of the Nicky Grist Stages – held on the Epynt military ranges in Wales – was locked out by Welsh drivers?

Granted, Matt Edwards, Tom Cave and Osian Pryce are some of the finest drivers you’ll find in the UK, but Rhys Yates can also be considered part of that club and the Nicky Grist was the only BRC event this season on which he wasn’t spraying champagne at the finish.

Then there’s the Ypres Rally in Belgium. All anybody could talk about ahead of the event was the advantage Thierry Neuville would have as a Belgian – who had considerably more mileage on the Flanders stages than anybody else – on the rally, proving that the experience theory hasn’t dissipated from consciousness.

WRC events’ last home winners

Rally Year of last home win or best result Driver Series
Rally GB 2017 Elfyn Evans WRC
Rally Finland 2017 Esapekka Lappi WRC
Rally Croatia 2016 Juraj Šebalj CEZ
Rally Poland 2013 Kajetan Kajetanowicz ERC
Rally Italy 2010 (2nd place) Paolo Andreucci IRC
Tour de Corse 2009 Pascal Trojani French Cup
Rally Japan 2006 (6th place) Toshi Arai WRC

Ypres is of course fairly unique in character – amplifying the point somewhat – but guess who won that rally? You already know, it was Neuville. And who was second? The only other top-line driver to have competed on the rally, Craig Breen.

Barum Rally Zlín last weekend did little to dispel my new-found theory either. Andreas Mikkelsen is no slouch, but when the pace was ramped up he was left in the dust of local drivers Jan Kopecký and Erik Cais. It led Mikkelsen to admit that maybe if the leaders “weren’t Czech” he’d have been able to challenge them harder.

The case of Cais is an intriguing one too. You’ll often hear drivers branded ‘home heroes’ or ‘local stars’ when competing on an international rally in their home nation, but in reality they could live hundreds of miles from where the rally is actually taking place.

But for Cais, Barum Rally Zlín really is a home rally. He grew up, went to school and can trace his entire life up to this point to Zlín, and the rally was by far and away his most accomplished in the European Rally Championship to date.


Photo: FIA ERC Media/DPPI / Jorge Cunha

His previous best finish in the championship was seventh, and Cais really should’ve upped that statistic with over 20 seconds in hand over Kopecký but for a final-stage accident that left his dream in tatters.

As heartbreaking as that was to witness, it proved that local knowledge really can still make the difference.

Cais is an improving driver, of that there is no question, but he was a completely different animal for his rivals to tame than he was on the last asphalt round, Rally di Roma, just a few weeks earlier.

There, Cais was 10th, over 90s down on the winner. And want to guess what nationality the winning driver was there? You’re right, they were Italian.

Cais embodied all of us who love a romantic novel. Up against Kopecký – himself a master of his country’s asphalt roads – he had no real right to be putting up a fight, let alone steal 13s away from him on a 15.8-mile stage – a coefficient of 1.2s per mile faster.

WRC events’ last home winners

Rally Year of last home win or best result Driver Series
Rally Portugal 2006 Armindo Araujo PRC
Rally Turkey 2002 Ercan Kazaz Turkey
Rally Germany 1999 Armin Kremer DRM
Rally México 1999 Gabriel Marín Mexico
Rally Sweden 1997 Kenneth Eriksson WRC
Rally Argentina 1995 Jorge Recalde CODASUR
Rally Spain 1995 Carlos Sainz WRC
Acropolis Rally 1995 Aris Vovos 2L WC
Rally Australia 1988 (3rd place) Greg Carr APRC

Without wishing to criticize Cais, the only real reason he was able to do just that was his intimate relationship with the contours on which he was driving. It’s just a crying shame he wasn’t able to convert his credentials and arrive back in Zlín to a hero’s welcome.

One of the beauties of rallying is unpredictability is at its core; it’s a discipline of motorsport effectively designed to shake things up. Drawing concrete, one size fits all conclusions is therefore misguided, but equally there are trends that you cannot ignore.

I’ve felt saddened in recent years by the prospect that the home driver has lost their powers as, with the advance of technology, overseas competitors are arriving with more tools in their arsenal.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend that drivers are now much, much sharper on away turf – it’s quite clear that the effect of home advantage is evaporating – but all is not lost for the local.

In a rallying world where many traditional aspects are slowly being neutered, it’s a joy to see, and believe, that the local driver really can still make it count and create the underdog headlines that we all crave.

If nothing else, it allows me to cling on to the vision that if I ever managed to pluck up the courage to beg, borrow and steal for budget to compete on the Jim Clark Rally – the Scottish rally that included my commute to school – I could actually produce a result that far flattered my abilities as a driver.

Words:Luke Barry

Photography:British Rally Championship / Jakob Ebery Photography,  FIA ERC Media/DPPI / Jorge Cunha, Hyundai Motorsport