There’s no doubt that the improved reliability of machinery and reduced overall mileage in the World Rally Championship over the last 20 to 25 years has changed the face of rallying.
Yet these two aspects have contributed to producing some of the closest, most dramatic finishes to events, which is no bad thing.
Dominant victories are impressive in their own right, but they often take from the excitement of the final day’s action. It is much easier to get yourself out of bed early on a Sunday morning when there’s an enthralling lead battle which could go either way.
With this in mind, we take a trip down memory lane and pick out the closest WRC finishes of the previous decade.
Spain 2015 – Magic Mikkelsen takes first victory (+3.1s)
For the bulk of the 2015 campaign, Andreas Mikkelsen well and truly played second fiddle to his more experienced Volkswagen team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and world champion Sébastien Ogier. Indeed, Ogier probably should have tasted victory in Spain had it not been for an uncharacteristic last-stage crash which forced him out.
The 7.5-mile Duesaigües powerstage should have been a cruise for Ogier. After all, the recently crowned triple world champion held a 50-second margin over Mikkelsen and the allure of an extra three points was hardly worth pushing for.
A medium-speed left-hander didn’t pose any obvious problem for Ogier, but the Frenchman arrived too fast, dipped his front-left wheel in the crown of the road which unsettled the rear of the car and sent his Volkswagen Polo into the armco barrier on the outside of the corner.
It brought a shuddering halt to Ogier’s rally, which up until that point had been perfect. Seven stage wins and on course for his eighth win of the season – which he’d eventually get at the final round in the UK – Ogier was unbeatable. In fact, the only driver who could beat him turned out to be himself.
For Mikkelsen, it was victory at last, albeit in slightly unusual circumstances. “I can’t believe it; I don’t know how to feel. Unreal,” he said.
Spain 2018 – Loeb beats Ogier for final WRC win (+2.9s)
Nine-time champion Loeb’s partial WRC comeback had not quite yielded the same success as the previous decade, but it was hardly surprising. The Citroën driver was still getting used to the 2017-spec cars, although he had briefly led in Mexico earlier in the year before a puncture robbed him and co-driver Daniel Elena of a podium result.
Back on his preferred surface, Loeb’s path to what ultimately turned out to be his 79th and final WRC win was rather inconspicuous. Somewhat opportunistically, Loeb only hit the front on the final day after Toyota’s Jari-Matti Latvala elected not to use the hard Michelin tyre on a damp final morning.
Loeb did use the hard compound and found himself in the lead by seven seconds with three stages remaining. A puncture two stages from home did for Latvala’s hopes of a first victory since Sweden the previous year and opened the door for Ogier to have one final crack at his nemesis.
A fraction over three seconds split the two into the final stage, with 44-year-old Loeb clinging on to claim victory by 2.9s. Job well done, and an unlikely but popular win which showed that the master had lost none of his speed.
New Zealand 2010 – Ogier loses out to Latvala at the death (+2.4s)
Loeb was one rally away from running away with the 2010 season when the WRC field arrived in New Zealand for round five of the year. Until then, it had been something of a slow burner. The Fords of Latvala and Hirvonen had shown well – with Hirvonen kicking off the season with victory in Sweden and Latvala claiming a pair of podiums – with Loeb’s new part-time team-mate Ogier still looking for that elusive first WRC win.
It looked as though New Zealand would deliver that victory.
The opening day’s lead was shared across Petter Solberg, Dani Sordo (both in Citroën C4s) and Latvala’s Focus.
Day two belonged to the factory Citroëns, with Ogier heading Loeb by just over five seconds at the end of the loop. Loeb moved ahead on the final morning but understeered into the trees and dropped to fourth and off the podium.
Step up Ogier, who only had to fend off Latvala for another two stages to claim his maiden win. He extended his margin over the Finn to 6.1s ahead of the last stage but unbelievably spun just a few corners from the end of the rally, crucially losing a full 8.6s and the victory to a jubilant Latvala.
Argentina 2011 – “How did he win that?” (+2.4s)
On the face of it, Loeb won Rally Argentina despite being the road sweeper for the whole of Friday. But that is only half of the story. In truth, the road cleaning hadn’t been as bad as the Frenchman anticipated, just 18s adrift of Latvala arriving at mid-day service. But his rally took a depressing turn in the afternoon as he and Daniel Elena copped a one-minute penalty for checking in early to time control ahead of SS5.
So how did he end up winning? Ask his rivals.
Day one leader Latvala had a healthy lead over Ogier but lost it all when he slid wide on one of the event’s controversial asphalt sections on the second stage of Saturday afternoon. The Finn made it to the end of the stage but found that he had broken a link in the front-left corner of his Fiesta and was soon out of the rally on the next stage.
One rival out of the way, more would follow. Petter Solberg was the next to drop out, with power steering problems, while Loeb’s superior pace meant he closed right up on Hirvonen for second by the end of the day.
Then the road opened up for Loeb on day three, as Ogier rolled his Citroën DS3, but miraculously landed back on all four wheels and only dropped 25s to Loeb by stage end.
Ogier somehow kept his lead, but he was a sitting duck as a broken powersteering pipe sent fluid spewing out of the car. Only three stages remained, but Loeb was able to not only get by Hirvonen for second but overturn the three-second deficit to Ogier on the final stage to come out on top. To add insult to injury, Hirvonen nabbed second on the last stage as well, relegating Ogier and Ingrassia to a dejected third.
“It was my mistake,” Ogier said. “I had ‘cut’ in my notes and I shouldn’t have.”
Monte Carlo 2019 – Final stage shootout between Ogier and Neuville (+2.2s)
You know there is a lot on the line when the two leading cars effectively straight-line the final hairpin of the rally, even making the nervous camera operator consider backing away. For Ogier and Thierry Neuville, it was the end of an intriguing season-opening rally which offered both drivers a chance to deal the first psychological blow of the year.
Among the countless Cols of the Monte Carlo Rally route over the years, the Col de Braus is a tricky, technical one. It might not have the allure of the Col de Turini or the fast, open turns of the Col de Bleine, but it’s rally-winning if you hit all the right braking points and master the conditions perfectly.
Neuville and Ogier began their battle on day one and were barely separated by more than three seconds for the bulk of the rally. Each was driving to the limit, with the final stage a veritable shootout to determine the victor.
Ogier was under pressure, having ceded time to Neuville on the final morning with a throttle issue, leaving him downbeat about his chances in the powerstage.
But a sensational drive on the second pass of Col de Braus, stamping on the brakes as he piled everything into the final centimeters, was enough to beat Neuville by 2.4s.
Argentina 2017 – Neuville denies Evans (+0.7s)
Elfyn Evans’s maiden WRC win on home soil in 2017 was a perfect display of poise, pace and determination. But it was as much of a relief as it was an outpouring of joy. That’s because, for the Welshman, his first should have come much earlier in the season in Argentina.
The road cleaning had a devastating effect on the opening day. Evans moved into the lead on the second stage and built a mammoth 57s advantage over Mads Østberg by the end of Friday.
Neuville began to make inroads into Evans’s lead though. Big inroads. The Belgian shaved nearly 20s off the DMACK-shod Fiesta in just four stages and another 36s by the end of day two. Game on.
Just 11s separated the pair for the final day’s three stages. Two passes of El Condor and one on Mina Clavera. Neuville beat Evans by 2.5s in the first as Evans struggled with a braking issue, then 8.4 in the second as the Fiesta’s engine began to overheat, leaving just six-tenths of a second between them ahead of the powerstage.
The final stage looked to have gone in Evans’s favor, with the Fiesta nearly three seconds up on the split, but the smallest of mistakes on a bridge forced Evans to run wide and clip it. The end of the stage came and Neuville had nicked it by seven-tenths of a second.
In Neuville, who had to endure that final run from Evans while standing at the finish, the relief was evident.
“That was the worst time of my life, waiting. He was quicker at the split and I didn’t know. Unbelievable.”
Sardinia 2018 – Neuville defeats Ogier in straight fight (+0.7s)
Indeed, Neuville has quickly become accustomed to prevailing in close fights on the final stage. But his victory over Ogier was an important one, the releasing of the floodgates it was hoped would yield a first world title in 2018. Alas, that didn’t happen but the Hyundai driver’s powerstage performance to stick one to his French rival was sensational.
Ogier came into the weekend with a 22-point lead over Neuville after securing just his second win of the season in Portugal the previous round. It meant that the M-Sport driver would open the road on the opening loop, but that worked to both his and Neuville’s advantage as the Sardinian heavens opened on day one.
Fifth heading into service, Ogier vaulted straight into a 3s lead on the first stage of the afternoon, which was held in heavy fog. His lead soon became 18s over Neuville at day’s end.
Neuville’s comeback was on though, and he took 14s out of Ogier on Saturday morning, with the gap ebbing and flowing throughout the day before finishing at around three seconds heading into the final day.
It was a titanic scrap which culminated in Neuville closing to within 0.8s before the final stage. The Belgian went 1.5s quicker on the Sassari powerstage to steal an unlikely win by seven-tenths.
Jordan 2011 – The closest finish ever (+0.2s)
David Evans described it as “an absolute epic, almost worthy of the biblical backdrop it was played out in front of”. That’s how good Rally Jordan in 2011 was. Coming into the weekend, Citroën’s Loeb and Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen were tied on points, with Loeb’s team-mate Ogier needing a win to keep in touch.
Logistical issues in getting infrastructure and cars to the Middle East forced the cancellation of the opening leg and threatened the rest of the rally. When it did get started, Hirvonen suffered a disaster. The Finn opened the dusty roads and ended the day over two minutes behind Leg 1 leader Ogier.
Loeb was in the mix, just 31s adrift of Ogier, but the man on the move on day two was Hirvonen’s Ford colleague Latvala who passed Loeb for second and began to mount an attack on Ogier.
Ogier had somehow managed to hold onto the lead despite suffering with road cleaning. He started Sunday with a lead of 24s over Loeb but arrived at Service just 18.4s ahead of Latvala.
The Finn proceeded to carve chunks out of the Citroën, bringing the margin down to just 5.3s on stage 18 before hitting the front on the penultimate test.
Despite lamenting that there was “nothing I can do” with the road cleaning out front, Ogier had performed superbly to stave off Latvala for this long and knew one final push, for not only the powerstage points, but victory, was needed.
The final stage was stunning, just 0.046s separated the pair, with Ogier scraping the win by a mere 0.2s, making it the closest ever WRC finish.