Efrén Llarena and MRF’s Vivek Ponnusamy’s celebrations at the end of the Rally Azores powerstage were almost as famous as the victory. But it was because of his superb, against-the-odds win on the second round of the European Rally Championship that the pair were in such a frenzy.
With two stages to go, Llarena was 13.8 seconds behind local driver Ricardo Moura’s similar Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo and hadn’t won a stage all rally. He put that right on the famous Seta Citades to slash the deficit to 6.1s, but Moura was calm – assuring us all he was just being safe and had it under control.
Llarena had other ideas. A simply stunning time on the powerstage – seven seconds faster than anyone else and 8.8s up on Moura – allowed him to snatch a sublime victory that seemed incredibly unlikely just a couple of hours earlier.
Last year’s ERC runner-up is far from the only rally driver to pull off such a heroic feat on the final stage though (even if his comeback has to be up there with the very best of them).
Here are 10 of our favorite final stage comebacks, all plucked from the World Rally Championship. For the purpose of this feature, the driver has to have taken the lead on the last stage and we’ve ignored examples like Rally Italy 2019 as it was mechanical drama that cost Ott Tänak rather than Dani Sordo’s driving.
Sébastien Ogier – Rally Sweden 2015
Despite sweeping the road as the championship leader, Frenchman Sébastien Ogier was leading his two Scandinavian team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen on Rally Sweden seven years ago before he ended up in a snowbank and dropped to fourth.
That left him with 26.1s to recover to Mikkelsen who now led (as Latvala also went off) with Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville and Citroën’s Mads Østberg also in the mix.
Over the course of the second day, Ogier pulled himself back into contention but dropped a little bit of time to trail by 9.6s ahead of the final day. The then two-time world champion was duly fastest on Sunday’s opener and jumped past Neuville on the penultimate test, heading into the powerstage three seconds down on Mikkelsen.
Mikkelsen was on the cusp of a maiden WRC victory with Volkswagen but unfortunately the occasion got the better of him and he spun into a snowbank, dropping to third as Ogier – who monstered the stage to defeat next-best Neuville by 4.8s – earned one of his finest ever victories the hard way.
Jari-Matti Latvala – Rally New Zealand 2010
The rally that nobody wanted to win.
Ford’s Latvala was never outside the top four throughout the entirety of Rally New Zealand in 2010, but he only led the rally once and that was at the very end. He never even won a single stage, making this one a truly remarkable feat.
The rally was a bit of a rollercoaster throughout. Sébastien Loeb struggled early on, spinning over a bridge and dropping over 1m30s to leave it up to a trio of other Citroëns – Petter Solberg, Ogier and Dani Sordo – to uphold brand honor.
But Loeb was absolutely inspired on the second day, racing up the leaderboard to second and just 5.3s adrift of rally leader Ogier overnight, with Latvala another 27.9s further back in third.
Loeb then moved past Ogier on the first stage of the final morning, only to wreck his victory bid by hitting a tree. Ogier therefore held Latvala to a 6.2s deficit ahead of the final stage. But a spin just three corners from the end of the rally opened the door for Latvala to sneak by and claim victory – much to his surprise.
Ironically, Loeb spun again on that final stage and that potentially cost him the most outrageous of comeback victories, while Solberg crashed out of third place in one of the most bizarre finishes to a rally ever.
Gilles Panizzi – Rally Spain 2003
By 2003 Gilles Panizzi was no longer the established asphalt king of the WRC. That title instead belonged to Loeb. But on Rally Spain in 2003, Panizzi taught the new boy a lesson with a superb and opportunistic win.
The first day was a Loeb masterclass as he led Citroën team-mate Carlos Sainz by almost 30s. Panizzi was fourth, just behind Markko Märtin, but both moved forward onto the provisional podium as Sainz slipped backwards on Saturday.
However Loeb was in complete control and held a 49.7s advantage over Panizzi with just three stages remaining as Märtin lost time with brake fade. But from there, Panizzi began to turn the tables in absolutely treacherous conditions.
Sunday had been wet throughout, but Loeb – now famous for his optimum tire selections – made a mistake as he had taken the same compound as he had in the morning. That was no good when the rain had become even worse.
Panizzi was still some 31s behind starting the final stage though, so any hopes of a victory seemed optimistic at best. But optimism isn’t always misplaced, and Panizzi blasted through the Villadrau stage – the same test he famously performed surprise donuts on 12 months earlier – to teach Loeb a valuable lesson.
Sébastien Ogier – Rally Croatia 2021
Certainly one of the most dramatic final days in WRC history that also happened to be the closest asphalt finish ever, Ogier simply couldn’t be kept out of the headlines.
The final day began in sensational circumstances as Ogier was involved in a road traffic accident on his way to the first stage. Up until then, the event had been a constant shootout between him, Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans and Neuville.
Now, Ogier was compromised. With a slightly damaged car and the shock of the morning’s events, he was beaten by both Evans and Neuville across the morning which cost him the lead, putting him 3.9s behind Evans with just the powerstage to go.
But Ogier used the lengthy regroup between SS19 and SS20 wisely. He set the powerstage alight, lighting up the split times to set a time some four seconds quicker than rival Neuville.
Next was Evans – and Ogier was quicker. We’ll never quite know if on pace alone Ogier would’ve been able to usurp Evans, but a mistake from Evans at the final corner settled the contest. He ran wide and gave up 4.5s on the final stage to lose by 0.6s.
Ogier had pressured his rival into an error, and pulled off one of the craziest WRC victories ever. Instead of celebrating a win, he was in the stewards’ room being fined and handed a suspended ban for driving away from the accident with a policeman’s hands on the hood of his Toyota Yaris.
Thierry Neuville – Rally Argentina 2017
Over the period of 2017-19 particularly, Neuville garnered a reputation as a final stage specialist. His first victim was Evans back on Rally Argentina, 2017.
On Dmack rubber against his Michelin-shod rivals, Evans’ Ford Fiesta WRC was utterly dominant for the first half of the rally. His rally lead was a mammoth 55.7s at the end of the first day with Neuville one minute down in third.
Evans – who was yet to win a round of the WRC – and Neuville were closely matched on the second day but the door was opened ajar for Neuville when Evans spun on Saturday’s final test and allowed the Hyundai to close to 11.5s behind.
It was anybody’s game, but Neuville’s experience shone through. An eye-watering time on Mina Clavero – 8.4s faster than Evans – did the real damage and put Neuville just 0.6s behind before the powerstage.
Evans had been close to Neuville’s time on the first pass and could well have had enough to hold him off, but a small mistake before a narrow bridge cost him precious seconds and allowed Neuville to win by 0.7s. Evans had led from SS2-SS17, but Neuville led when it mattered most.
Thierry Neuville – Rally Italy 2018
This rally was all about Sébastien Ogier and Thierry Neuville going in, as it marked the start of the second half of a season where the pair were fighting for the title.
And the fierce rivals ended up exclusively fighting for the win of the rally after Neuville’s Hyundai team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen was ruled out by gearbox trouble, and each firmly shaded the other at times during the event when on top of their game.
On a wet day one stage where Neuville was first on the road due to his points-leading status, Ogier was able to go faster than him by 17.5s and move from 23s off the rally lead in fifth place to being the overall leader by 3.5s. Despite not winning another stage that day, he ended it with a 18.9s buffer to Neuville.
The second half of the rally over the next two days belonged to Neuville, with the lead cut down to 3.9s going into Sunday despite Neuville knocking a tire off its rim during one of the stages.
Five stage wins in a row left Neuville just 0.8s behind Ogier going onto the powerstage, and across the last 4.32 miles of the rally the advantage switched between the two several times. Neuville was put on two wheels after going through a downhill rut but it didn’t sap his momentum, using the final half-mile to take a second out of his opponent to win the stage by 1.5s and the rally by 0.7s.
It was hailed the best finish to an event since Rally Argentina the previous year (mentioned above) where yet again Neuville pulled off a final stage masterclass to lead the rally just once: at the end.
Colin McRae – Tour de Corse 1997
Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz have a famous rivalry in the WRC because of their intense fight for the 1995 world championship as Subaru team-mates. But Corsica back in 1997 was one of the rare occasions where the two greats squared off in a winner-takes-all final stage contest.
Subaru’s McRae led early on but this was the first time the lighter, two-wheel-drive Formula 2 Kit Cars became a thorn in the side of the World Rally Cars. Peugeot’s Gilles Panizzi and François Delecour soon hit the front in what were second-tier cars.
However rain on the second day reset the balance and allowed the four-wheel-drive WRC cars to haul back the time they’d lost. Ford’s Sainz was at the front of the queue, drawing level with Delecour at the end of the leg. McRae meanwhile was 19s further back in fourth – seemingly a distant player in the battle.
Not so – even if halfway through the final day McRae, now up to second, had only chipped one second out of his deficit to Sainz. But the pace of the Impreza WRC was too much for the Escort WRC – or either 306 Maxi – to live with.
McRae had closed to seven seconds behind Sainz with just the final stage left to run, so was in the ascendency but firmly up against it to snatch victory. But never shy of a challenge, McRae found 15s on anyone else on that wet final stage to grab the win from Sainz right at the death.
Sébastien Loeb – Rally Argentina 2011
Loeb was best known for winning rallies on the second day rather than the third and final one – struggling on Friday as first car on the road but obliterating the opposition on Saturday to control proceedings on Sunday.
But Rally Argentina in 2011 was different. Firmly up against it, Loeb overturned a 90s deficit to steal the win from title rival Mikko Hirvonen on the final stage in what was the tightest victory margin of all his 80 WRC wins.
Loeb wasn’t the pacesetter early on, but the battle was close. Latvala led but just 6.7s split him, Solberg, Hirvonen, Ogier and fifth-placed Loeb after three stages. But then Loeb’s event unraveled as he and Daniel Elena checked into El Condor one minute early and copped an equivalent penalty.
He ended the day still in fifth but 1m30.3s down on Latvala’s lead. Then came the fightback. Fastest on the majority of Saturday’s stages, Loeb all but halved the gap over the course of the day to trail team-mate Ogier by 47.7s (Latvala plummeted down the order with damaged suspension).
Victory looked impossible, despite Loeb’s herculean efforts. But Ogier handed him a lifeline, rolling his Citroën DS3 WRC on the first stage of the final day. The race now was whether Loeb could recover enough time against an ailing Ogier.
He did. Beginning the powerstage 3.3s in arrears, Loeb pulled off the unthinkable to edge Hirvonen (who tied with him on the final stage) by 2.4s as Ogier slipped to third.
Tommi Mäkinen – Rally Sanremo 1999
Tommi Mäkinen was never particularly known for his success on pure asphalt rallies. But his performance on Rally Sanremo 1999 was one of the finest ever documented on the black stuff.
The Mitsubishi driver struggled early on, complaining of an electrical glitch and then struggling with the cockpit of his car being “like a swimming pool” as water seeped in from the water tank. He was seventh, over half a minute down on the leading Peugeots of Delecour and Panizzi.
The 206 WRC pair continued to squabble – as they often did in this era, on and off the stages – on the second day as Panizzi jumped ahead, 2.8s to the good. But Mäkinen was a silent assassin, creeping up the leaderboard to third courtesy of winning half of the day’s stages.
Trailing the two Peugeots by 22.9s with four stages left to run, the reigning world champion came alive when the weather turned. A superb time on SS15 propelled him into the lead, only for Delecour to snatch it back on the very next stage.
An electrical problem dumped Delecour out of the running on the second-to-last stage but Panizzi wasn’t sleeping, moving into a 1.8s lead with just the finale remaining. Beating a French driver in an accomplished asphalt car like the 206 WRC would be a big ask, particularly when Mäkinen had his quest for a fourth successive title to consider.
But he only knew one mode: flat out. Now in drier conditions, Mäkinen took a far better tire than Panizzi had.
“If somebody comes any faster, they will be very fast,” a sweaty Mäkinen said at the end of it all.
They didn’t. Mäkinen destroyed his rival by 19.8s to seal victory by 18s.
Sébastien Ogier – Rally Jordan 2011
An event that still stands as being host to the closest finish in WRC history, Rally Jordan 2011 was a lively send-off to the gravel round by the Dead Sea and also an early chapter in a road order debate that would live rent-free in drivers’ heads for the rest of the decade.
Day one of the rally didn’t go ahead due to shipping delays, and when the event did begin it was Loeb who led while Ford’s points leader Hirvonen swept the roads. Ogier drew level with and then ahead of Citroën team-mate Loeb as the day went on.
As anticipated pre-rally, being further back on the road was going to bring the second Ford Fiesta RS WRC of Latvala into contention and two stage wins meant he hounded the Citroën pair. Whoever led at the end of the day would have to run first on the road all the way through Saturday’s two loops.
Loeb, at a time when split times were available to drivers during stages, decided it wouldn’t be him and tactically stopped. The idea was to prompt Ogier into also slowing to avoid road-sweeping the second leg, but that wasn’t the case as the then-27-year-old pushed on to go to sleep with a lead of 31.6s over Loeb and have 33.1s in hand over a victory-seeking Latvala.
This set up the drama to come, with sections of day one’s morning stages being used on day two and making Ogier’s task a little easier. Loeb wasn’t consistently fast enough to be a victory threat though, and a rapid Latvala took chunks out of Ogier with every stage until he was leading by 0.5s with just one to go.
Hirvonen laid down the benchmark time for the powerstage, and Latvala was 0.6s slower as he rued a few small mistakes and front-left tire wear from how hard he had pushed earlier in the day. If Ogier could match Hirvonen, he would win the rally.
He did it, by just 0.046s through the 6.52-mile test, and with it beat Latvala to victory by 0.2s. A brave decision had been matched by a gutsy drive to net a famous win.