Who have been the top performers of the 2021 World Rally Championship season? It would be obvious to point to the championship table and argue the classified order is the top 10, but things in rallying are never that simple.
To get a gauge on who’s been the most impressive this season, we asked our in-house ‘voice of rally’ Colin Clark for his thoughts. And for a bit of fun, we’ve compared each driver’s position in this list to their placing in Clark’s half-term ratings back in July.
Here’s what he delivered:
10 Gus Greensmith
A definite year of progress for Greensmith and there’s no question that the introduction of Chris Patterson to the co-drIiver’s seat was an inspired move. But it was far from an easy year for any of the M-Sport drivers and the lack of testing pre-event was a major factor in Greensmith perhaps not making the major strides forward that we’d hoped to see.
There is no question that Gus has speed and with a new co-driver, a new car and renewed energy he may yet surprise a few with his results in the coming year.
9 Dani Sordo
What more can we say about Dani Sordo that’s not already been quite eloquently said? He’s the ultimate team player and professional and proved that once again this year.
Very much in the twilight of his career, Sordo is perhaps driving as well as, if not better than, he ever has. He’s comfortable in the role that’s been defined for him at Hyundai and while he keeps delivering the finishes and the points, he will remain a sought after commodity in the WRC.
Will be a useful team-mate for Oliver Solberg as the pair share Hyundai’s third i20 next year.
8 Adrien Fourmaux
Maybe the surprise package of the season for many. You know, Fourmaux never really set the time sheets on fire for me in the R5 car but when he stepped up to WRC machinery in Croatia he looked like he was always destined to be there.
Fourmaux already has a fastest time to his name and when he’s on form and comfortable, his pace is admirably and encouragingly close to the top boys.
His biggest weakness though is his impatience – he has a great opportunity next season with M-Sport and he’ll only make the most of it if he keeps his Puma Rally1 on the road. Yes there will be mistakes and offs, it’s the only way to learn, but he needs to minimize those and make good choices about when to show us his prodigious talent and when to get the kilometres under his belt.
A successor to Messrs Loeb and Ogier? Possibly, but he has good couple of years of learning in front of him yet.
7 Takamoto Katsuta
After the first six rounds of the season, I put Katsuta-san at the top of an equivalent list. A sensational turn around in form (don’t forget Katsuta exited 2020 on the back of a string of very heavy accidents) saw him claim three sixth place finishes, followed by a brace of fourths and then topped off by a sensational first podium for a Japanese driver in decades.
He was riding the crest of wave that looked like it was stretching out to the horizon and beyond. But this wave came crashing down in the most spectacular and worrying fashion. More big offs and a perplexing merry-go-round of co-driver swaps seemed to have derailed the Japanese chargers ascent to the top level of the sport for a while.
But Katsuta is made of strong stuff: he’s bright, he’s talented and he’s resilient.
The championship needs a genuine Japanese challenger and in Taka we have just that. It must have been a bit nervy for a while, but Toyota’s faith in its young star has rightly been reaffirmed by conformation of a full-time drive next year.
Expect more podium pace, but don’t be surprised if we see one or two more spectacular offs along the way.
6 Ott Tänak
An enormoulsy disappointing season for the 2019 champion who was looking to put an underwhelming 2020 firmly behind him.
OK, Tänak had his fair share of bad luck this year – the suspension issues that plagued the Hyundai quite possibly cost him a couple of wins. But here’s the point, even when things were on the face of it going well, Ott never seemed entirely happy or comfortable.
There is no question that Hyundai let Tänak down this year, but that car is a difficult one to master and I’m not sure Tänak ever did master it.
He’ll be as happy as anyone to see the back of this generation of cars because there is no question that on his day, Tänak is the fastest, the bravest and the most ruthless of drivers out there.
5 Craig Breen
It’s hard to overstate the brilliance of Craig Breen’s performance over the season just gone. OK, he had a bit of a wake up call in Croatia, but to deliver three podiums and a fourth place from a five event program is quite some effort.
Very often when you’re judging a performance it’s not just the result you have to consider, it’s the context. And when you consider the pressure to perform, both from a team and personal point of view, that Breen was under, perhaps you get a better perspective of just how good a season the Irishman actually had.
To jump in this machinery after what were quite often lengthly lay-offs and be quick from the get-go is enormously impressive.
Breen has been rewarded for his efforts with his first full season in the WRC heading up the M-Sport Ford challenge. He’ll revel in that challenge and will show Hyundai how short-sighted it was to let him go.
He’s a driver who’s very much still on the upward trajectory in his career and his abilities. How long that will continue and how far that will ultimately take him is anyone’s guess.
But for me, he’s a title challenger for 2022.
4 Thierry Neuville
Thierry Neuville’s season couldn’t have started in a more disruptive fashion than it did – losing your long time co-driver a few days before the start of the Monte recce was seen by many as fatal to Thierry’s title aspirations. But what followed was possibly the best start to a season that Neuville has ever had – well for the first three events anyway.
What ultimately killed off Neuville’s chances of throwing off the perennial bridesmaid label however was a combination of bad driving, Portugal’s roll was a silly mistake, but perhaps more pertinently poor reliability. Kenya was a bitter blow and Finland and Greece were not much better.
Neuville is a champion in waiting, he showed that with commanding performances in Belgium and Spain. He’ll need better reliability and a trouble-free year, coupled with the brilliance he showed on tarmac this year, if he’s to challenge the Toyotas for ultimate honors next year though.
3 Elfyn Evans
Another year as championship runner-up and another year of confirmation that Evans has genuine title winning credentials. He’ll look back on this season that perhaps could be defined by two corners, one in Croatia and the other in Kenya, that arguably cost him his maiden championship.
Evans made tremendous progress in 2020 and would have hoped to build on that this season. He by no means went backwards, but this campaign consolidated the gains made last year and you know what, sometimes that’s no bad thing.
Strangely we didn’t see the best of Evans until Finland this year. He talked many times about how things just weren’t quite to his liking and it’s a sign of where Evans is at that even without being 100% comfortable, he still pushed Ogier right to the wire.
Finland however was Evans at his sublime best. Fearless and ferociously fast, he drove the best event of his career. A bit more of that next year and quite possibly it’ll be third time lucky for the likeable Welshman.
2 Sébastien Ogier
Not a classic year from the champ, but more than good enough for him to claim title number eight.
Four wins in the first six events hinted at perhaps a runaway, dominant year from the mercurial Frenchman but unusually Ogier seemed to take his eye off the ball mid-season to let both Neuville and Evans in with a sniff of a chance of victory.
But we really should never have doubted the quality and the determination of the reigning champion. Some of us were genuinely questioning whether Ogier still had the desire to go that extra percent needed to win after a very lackluster Spain, but those questions were answered in emphatic style on the deciding round in Monza.
He may not have won the most rallies or the most titles but for me Ogier is the greatest of all time. He is a true statesman on the global stage and has represented our sport better than anyone else has in the past two decades.
Champions come along every year, great champions, well you’re lucky to see them once in a lifetime. Ogier is truly a great champion and as such the sport will miss him.
1 Kalle Rovanperä
I’m always reluctant to put anyone other than the world champion at top of my list but once in a blue moon someone comes along who does something so extraordinarily brilliant that you just can’t ignore it.
Step forward the boy wonder, the Finnish freak, call him what you like, but in 2021 Kalle Rovanperä rewrote the history books and firmly established himself as the bright and brilliant future of our sport.
The first win in Estonia was impressive enough, but for me the following two results showed what Rovanperä is truly capable of. Ypres was new to everyone and you’d have got long odds against Rovanperä being the first Toyota home. But the challenge clearly didn’t faze him, he kept his cool and comprehensively outclassed his two far more experienced and, on the face of it, more capable team-mates.
And then came the mud bath that was Accropolis. A rally that should have massively favored the more experienced in the field was dominated by the young Finn visiting Greece for the first time. And what did this tell us? Well, for me it ably demonstrated how quickly Rovanperä learns and adapts.
We’ve known for many years that there’s massive raw speed but becoming a champion is about way more than that. Intelligence, comprehension, adaptability, sympathy; all weapons that Rovanperä has shown in his armory this year that will stand him in very good stead for a shot at the title next year.
If there is something missing in his make-up, and this is perhaps a touch over critical, I’d suggest he needs to develop a bit more of a ruthless streak. He’s almost too nice. I’m not saying that nice guys can’t be champions but great champions always have that single minded determination that translates into win at all costs.
Find that, and I’d suggest Rovanperä could be almost unbeatable in the years to come.