Big WRC driver moves that didn’t work out

From Kankkunen to Ogier, some of the WRC's biggest names have lived to regret switching teams

Sebastien Ogier

Ott Tänak and M-Sport’s reunion has all the hallmarks of a successful World Rally Championship partnership.

Tänak’s roots are with M-Sport. Although he left it to join Toyota in 2018, he did so under the recommendation from M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson. Wilson was confident his prodigal son would be back – and so it’s proved.

But the pressure will be on. Tänak returns ‘home’ as a world champion and with 15 more WRC victories than he left. His intention is clear: to win the world championship again. Simply nothing else will do.

Time will tell if the mission proves fruitful, but confirmation of Tänak’s move does prompt memories of when WRC manufacturers made big driver moves, and they simply just didn’t work out.

Sometimes, even though the marriage appears to have been made in heaven, the reality can prove to be a living nightmare. Here are some of the biggest team switches that failed to deliver on their promise:

Ott Tänak – Hyundai


Let’s get the obvious one out the way first, as there’d be no Tänak and M-Sport reunion to speak about if Tänak’s time in orange-and-blue had lived up to expectations.

It’s fair to say news that Tänak was leaving Toyota – the team he was about to win the world championship with – for Hyundai came as quite the bombshell during Rally Spain 2019.

Hindsight is a funny thing, but might he now be regretting that switch?

Tänak’s move across the service park wasn’t without its highs – victory at home in Estonia in 2020 and a superb win on Rally Finland this year stand as clear peaks – but there was one obvious failing. No world championship trophy.

2022 was supposed to be the year Tänak’s fortunes changed, but the delayed development of Hyundai’s Rally1 program was an early sign that it wasn’t to be. By the time it got itself sorted and Tänak hit top gear, Toyota and Kalle Rovanperä were long gone in the title race.

Tricky team politics weren’t exactly bliss either, so after three years Tänak sought pastures new – walking out of his contract one year early – at his old stomping ground.


Craig Breen – M-Sport

Craig Breen

Tänak comes into an M-Sport Ford team that should have belonged to Craig Breen, had Breen delivered on the hype placed on him ahead of 2022. There was genuine belief that Breen and M-Sport could be a title-winning duo, but the reality was far, far different.

Breen’s stock was high when he made the jump from Hyundai, given he’d just bagged three consecutive podium finishes to conclude his part-season. The opportunity to lead a team and contest his first ever full campaign, coupled with his Hyundai form, created plenty of buzz.

It started well with a podium on the Monte, but an off-road excursion in Sweden was the first sign that the Breen/M-Sport axis would quickly plummet south.

The mid-season was particularly disappointing with three mistakes on the three rallies he’d been so impressive on the year before (Estonia, Finland and Ypres Rally Belgium). For the second half of 2022, Breen was either off the pace or struggled to get his Puma Rally1 home in one piece.

In the end, a divorce became inevitable. Breen accepted a far slimmer program to go and rejoin Hyundai, just a year after he had initially left.


Juha Kankkunen – Toyota

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Despite leaving the team twice, Juha Kankkunen spent more WRC seasons with Toyota than with any other manufacturer.

Kankkunen’s first departure from Toyota was clearly a success as he joined Peugeot and became World Rally champion for the first time after just one season. But his second of three Toyota spells didn’t live up to expectations.

After Group B was outlawed and Peugeot pulled out of the WRC, Kankkunen sought refuge at Lancia and duly won the world title again in 1987. But he wasn’t happy with team orders designed to benefit Italian driver Miki Biasion, and therefore engineered a move back to Toyota for 1988.

Toyota was at the beginning of a new project with the Celica GT-4 ST165, and although the car clearly had potential it proved hideously unreliable. The only rally Kankkunen would finish all season was the Safari which he had entered in the outgoing Supra Turbo.

1989 would prove more fruitful as Kankkunen rose from 37th in the drivers’ standings to third, but it was a season once again dominated by Lancia and Biasion. By the time Kankkunen gave the Celica its first WRC win in Australia, he had already put pen to paper on a move back to Lancia for 1990.

Ironically, Toyota would beat him to the world title with Carlos Sainz.


Carlos Sainz – Lancia/Jolly Club


Sainz wasn’t immune to ill-fated driver moves either though, as proved by his swap with Kankkunen to join Lancia for 1993, with Kankkunen taking Sainz’s place behind the wheel of a Celica.

Fresh from winning his second world title largely against the odds in a season that looked to belong to Lancia’s Didier Auriol, Sainz left the team that gave him his big break to drive a car that had absolutely owned the Group A era since 1987.

It was mostly down to a clashing sponsor arrangement as Sainz’s personal backer Repsol was a market rival of Castrol, which was supporting Toyota for ’93. But unfortunately Sainz joined Lancia precisely at the moment where its Delta Integrale slipped off the pace.

By 1993 Lancia was no longer a fully-fledged manufacturer and instead just supported the private Jolly Club outfit. That meant that the already dated Delta design wasn’t being developed properly, and severely impacted Sainz’s performance.

As the season progressed the performances just got worse. One podium on the Acropolis was all Sainz really had to show for his efforts (he was second in Sanremo before being excluded for using illegal fuel).

Sainz didn’t just leave Lancia for Subaru at the end of the season; Lancia departed the WRC for good.


François Duval – Citroën


While not as high profile as some of the other drivers that have made this list, François Duval’s move to partner Sébastien Loeb at Citroën simply must make the cut given how spectacularly it backfired.

Duval burst onto the WRC scene aged just 22 with Ford, following Colin McRae and Sainz’s decisions to both move to Citroën. And Duval developed handsomely, scoring seven podium finishes across his two seasons in a Focus RS WRC.

But with question marks surrounding Ford’s commitment to the WRC for 2005, both Markko Märtin and Duval elected to move on – Märtin to Peugeot and Duval to PSA stablemate Citroën.

To say it went badly for Duval would be an understatement. A string of crashes, retirements and even fires led to long-time co-driver Stéphane Prévot deciding he couldn’t work with him anymore, and Sainz was even drafted back out of retirement for Rally Turkey and Greece due to Duval’s poor form.

Performances did pick up and Duval managed to claim his maiden WRC victory at the final round in Australia, on a weekend where team-mate Loeb made a rare mistake, but the damage was long since done.

Duval was out of there and in his place came Junior World Rally champion Dani Sordo. Duval would never earn a full season as a manufacturer driver again.


Colin McRae – Citroën

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We referenced 1995 world champion McRae’s move to Citroën for 2003 above, but it’s also deserving of its own section here given it, sadly, killed off his full-time WRC career.

Driving French WRC machinery was a smart move in the early 2000s. Peugeot’s 206 WRC was the class of the field at the turn of the century and Citroën’s Xsara WRC had already become a winner in the hands of Loeb in 2002 before the marque’s first full blown season in ’03.

But the style required to get the best out of a top-line rally car was evolving, and it didn’t necessarily play to the strengths of McRae’s spectacular style.

2003 was by no means an awful season for McRae, but there were precious few podiums (just one on debut at the Monte Carlo Rally – ironic given it’s a rally McRae famously disliked) and a few too many crashes.

And that was a particular problem as team-mate Sainz was doing a far more consistent job to back up Loeb’s title-challenging drives. With rules changing for 2004 that mandated teams could only run two works cars, not three, it was Sainz that got the nod and not McRae.


Tommi Mäkinen – Subaru

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Tommi Mäkinen was the one who, almost single-handedly, raised Mitsubishi to the very top of world rallying and kept it there. So to see him donning the distinctive blue overalls of arch nemesis Subaru took some adjusting to in 2002.

The move was well-founded though. Although Mäkinen was one of four drivers capable of lifting the 2001 title at the Rally GB finale, Mitsubishi’s new World Rally Car (its first after stubbornly running a Group A specification Lancer for four years) proved troublesome.

When Richard Burns decided to move to Peugeot, a vacancy was open at Subaru and Mäkinen duly pounced. Expectations of what this new partnership could achieve were only heightened when Mäkinen guided his Impreza S7 WRC to victory on debut in Monte Carlo.

But that was as good as it got for Mäkinen at Subaru. Six retirements in the next seven rallies, interrupted by a third place finish in Cyprus, ruled him out of the title fight and the following season it was team-mate Petter Solberg who led Subaru’s charge – ultimately winning the title for himself.

2003 was a more consistent season for Mäkinen but he wasn’t on the front-running pace, deciding to call it a day at the end of the year.


Mikko Hirvonen – Citroën


If you can’t beat them, join them. That’s the logic Mikko Hirvonen applied when he elected to leave Ford and join Citroën for the 2012 season.

When his old team-mate Marcus Grönholm retired, Hirvonen became the spearhead of Ford’s challenge and ran Sébastien Loeb close in 2009 particularly but also 2011.

After that second final-round defeat, Hirvonen fancied a shake up and moved to join his great rival in his own team as Sébastien Ogier headed for the exit door and into Volkswagen’s fold.

In a sense, nothing changed in 2012 as Hirvonen, just as he had been in a Focus or Fiesta, was ruthlessly consistent with a DS3 WRC between his fingertips and finished second to Loeb in the championship.

But with Loeb beginning the first phase of his WRC retirement and regressing to just a partial season in 2013, Hirvonen was many people’s favorite for the title in the same fashion that Elfyn Evans was in 2022.

It just never happened for the Finn though. No victories in a season Ogier dominated in a Polo R, and a particularly costly and telling crash in Sweden, curtailed his challenge.

And therefore for 2014, Hirvonen was back in a Ford and retired from the WRC a year later.


Richard Burns – Peugeot

To this day, Burns remains the only driver to win the world championship and then face the team with which he claimed that title in court a matter of weeks later, as he tried to agree a settlement for an impending move elsewhere.

It ended peacefully, but the pressure was on as Burns left Subaru behind to join Peugeot and its already established driver Grönholm.

Burns 29 sond

But in 2002, Burns couldn’t live with Grönholm who waltzed to a second world title in three years.

Burns, in fact, could only manage fifth in the final points table after a particularly damaging trio of rallies in Argentina, Greece and Kenya where he inherited victory and was later disqualified for an underweight flywheel, lost a wheel and retired outside service stuck in fesh-fesh sand, respectively.

The following season, Burns almost achieved the unthinkable – winning a world championship without winning a single rally. But cruelly the brain tumor that would ultimately claim his life first manifested itself before the GB finale and denied him the chance.

Burns’ Peugeot move had therefore yielded no victories let alone another championship, and a return to Subaru in 2004 was on the cards before it was called off due to his ill health.


Sébastien Ogier – Citroën

Sebastien Ogier

Ogier’s departure from Citroën in 2011 wasn’t so much a goodbye but a warning shot. He’d found a good offer to lead VW’s new WRC program and, well, went on to win every single championship he possibly could in a Polo.

When VW pulled the plug ahead of the 2017 season, Ogier landed at M-Sport Ford where he spent two years and topped his world championship tally up to six. But with concerns looming over how much the Fiesta WRC could be developed on M-Sport’s smaller budget, Ogier cast his old ill feelings aside and headed back to Citroën.

Perhaps it was always a risk, as the C3 WRC had proved a bit spiky in its characteristics throughout 2017 and ’18 – but it had also won rallies in multiple drivers’ hands.

It all started swimmingly with a win on the Monte and another victory on round three in México, but just one more win down the line in Turkey was nowhere near enough to repel Thierry Neuville or Ott Tänak’s advances.

Sebastien Ogier

The already troubled C3 WRC wasn’t developed quickly enough and Ogier began to grow increasingly exasperated – particularly on Rally Germany where he said he knew what the car’s problems were, but didn’t know how to fix them.

Indeed, 2019 proved to be the only full season Ogier contested since 2011 that didn’t net him a world title. He engineered a move to Toyota to replace the Hyundai-bound Tänak, and Citroën canned its WRC program – blaming Ogier’s decision to leave as the reason.

As big-ticket WRC moves go, this one really didn’t deliver what was said on the tin.