This week’s season-closing Monza Rally marks the end of the World Rally Championship’s World Rally Car era. Beginning in 1997, it has produced some of the most iconic moments in rallying history and gone through periods of Mitsubishi supremacy to Peugeot resurgence and the combined domination of Citroën and Sébastien Loeb along with namesake Sébastien Ogier and Volkswagen.
Like any sport, the end of an era invokes its fair share of nostalgia of by-gone days. How good was the World Rally Car era? And which of its seasons stands out the most?
Our DirtFish writers rarely agree on anything, so what better excuse than to pit them against each other once again?
2001: We’ll never have another season like this
Anyone who knows me saw this answer coming. I will die on this hill. 2001 was the greatest season in WRC history, period. That it happens to fall into the World Rally Car era is a lucky coincidence for the purposes of this feature.
It had the Subaru Impreza. It had the Mitsubishi Lancer. It had Colin McRae, Richard Burns, Tommi Mäkinen, Carlos Sainz, Marcus Grönholm, Didier Auriol, Gilles Panizzi, François Delecour, Sébastien Loeb and Petter Solberg. It also had the closest finish to a WRC title race, ever.
We’ll never have another season like it.
Does that make these cars the best ever? No. But also yes. You see, I have a theory, inspired by single-seater racing.
Formula 1 cars are the pinnacle of engineering prowess in motorsport.
Insane budgets poured into aerodynamic development mean cars are ridiculously fast but also awful at racing one another. They’re also incredibly reliable now. All of this leads to boring, one-dimensional title fights. You want an exciting single-seater race? Go watch Formula Ford. No wings, no slicks, no problem.
Simple is fun. Figuring out how to make new stuff work properly and make it better is fun. Perfection, the cutting edge, is boring for us non-engineers.
Those cars lined up along the service park in 2001 were not blindingly fast like the final generation of WRC cars that we’re saying goodbye to. They were not the apex of what is possible to make a rally car do. They’re no faster than the latest generation of Rally2 cars. And actually, that’s what makes them great.
For me, it’s about competition more than the cars themselves. It’s about the narrative of the season unfolding like chapters in a novel, each rally providing a new twist as the season ebbs and flows towards a crescendo. And thanks to the wide selection of competitive machinery on offer in 2001 – the diminutive yet rapid Peugeot 206, the Ford Focus that was finally coming of age, the Citroën Xsara that took the series by storm from day one, the first Mitsubishi Lancer WRC that underwhelmed after years of Group A dominance, and the trusty Subaru Impreza, of course – we got a novel worthy of the Booker Prize.
2003: Manufacturers galore and an epic title fight
It’s got to be 2003. I was tempted by the excitement of year one in 1997 or 2018, a thriller from the current generation. But no, it’s got to be 2003.
The seventh year of the World Rally Car generation was the height of its population and the very pinnacle of its competitiveness.
Across 14 rounds we had six different winners and four drivers emerging from the penultimate round with a shot at the title at the Rally GB finale.
Citroën, Ford, Hyundai, Peugeot, Škoda and Subaru all pushed the boundaries to make what were arguably the most high-tech rally cars the sport would ever enjoy. Undoubtedly, today’s cars are by far the fastest we’ve ever watched, but the Impreza WRC2003 Solberg used to edge Loeb to the 2003 title was something special.
It had hydraulic-electric everything: dampers, ride-height adjustment, anti-lock brakes, traction control and a launch system that defined the prime position and timing to go from first to second gear… and then did it for you.
The progress made by the teams competing in the WRC in a decade was quite staggering. Compared with Group A, the World Rally Cars which succeeded them were in another world.
And that 2003 title race was insane. Burns led for nine rounds, despite never winning an event in his Peugeot 206 WRC. Had it not been for the illness which would tragically take his life two years later, he would surely have been odds-on for a second title in three years. As it was, Loeb and Sainz landed in Cardiff tied at the top of the table with Solberg a point behind.
A stellar drive from the Subaru star landed him the crown and capped off what was an unforgettable season.
2018: Recency leaves three-way title fight forgotten
I can understand arguments for 2001, or even 2003. Both seasons produced mega multi-driver title fights with thrilling conclusions.
But 2001, if we’re honest, was quite a random season and lacked a true title narrative until the end. 2003 scores better there but the finale was marred by Richard Burns’ unfortunate ejection from the fight and Sainz never really looked like a genuine contender.
The 2018 WRC season can’t have the same accusations thrown at it. Three drivers in three teams were at it hammer and tongs all season and it was impossible to call a winner.
In his second season with M-Sport, Sébastien Ogier was more at home with his new ride while Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville was out to atone for his near-miss of 2017. Ott Tänak was the dark horse in the Toyota camp, switching from M-Sport the previous season.
The first half of the season belonged to Neuville, the second half to Tänak but the season was Ogier’s. His peaks were lower, but troughs were shallower, and he proved his prowess in a thrilling battle in the most spectacular cars WRC design offices have ever commissioned.
This one gets overlooked because it was only three years ago, but – particularly if Neuville ever becomes World Rally Champion – it’ll be looked back upon as one of the great seasons of a great era.
1998: The most dramatic season-finale
Don’t worry DirtFish readers, I won’t cop out by selecting a number of grouped years, I’ve gone flat out by selecting 1998, Mäkinen vs Sainz.
It was all change for 1998 as Mäkinen swapped co-drivers with Risto Mannisenmäki coming in, while Sainz left Ford for Toyota in a bid to turn the fortunes of the new Corolla – resplendent in Castrol livery in this era – around. He did this by immediately giving the car its first win at his first attempt on the Monte Carlo Rally as early leader Mäkinen rolled off the road.
In a ding-dong season, McRae actually won more rallies than Sainz by taking the honors in Portugal, France and Greece, but bad luck and a lack of consistency led to another failed title charge. Perhaps that’s the only blotch on the 1998 season.
Mäkinen claimed his fifth win of the season for Mitsubishi in the penultimate round in Australia – in a rare but epic Winfield livery – after turning a lead of 0.1s heading into the last stage to 18s over Sainz by the end. That left Mäkinen with a two-point lead heading to Cheltenham and the RAC.
Drama hit almost immediately though as Mäkinen took a wheel off at Millbrook on a patch of oil and then retired on a following road section escorted by police bikes on leg one.
Sainz was seemingly handed the title and needed to finish fourth in his Corolla that had retired only once that year due to a suspension failure on the Safari – hardly a condemnable incident. Perhaps team-mate Didier Auriol’s clutch woe was a sign of things to come, though.
At Margam Park, within 300 meters of the finish and while running fourth, Sainz’s car infamously ground to a halt in smoke with engine issues.
Sainz’s co-driver Luis Moya threw his helmet through the rear window, a teary-eyed Sainz said “that’s life” and in a hotel not too far away, Mäkinen rejoiced, or as much as he could anyway.
Mäkinen led the race against Sainz to become the second three-time world champion (after Juha Kankkunen) and added another stat, Mäkinen became the first to win three in a row.
With an ending like that, how can it not be the best season of the era?
1997: The hybrid season which laid the foundations
Picking one season out of the entire World Rally Car era is an incredibly difficult task, but if there was one year which had the biggest impact, it was arguably the first. Something of a hybrid campaign, which produced a partial uptake in the new cars – notably with Ford and Subaru – 1997 was a transition year, a changing of the guards so to speak.
Defending champion Mitsubishi continued with its Group A machinery as it wanted to maintain links with the road car operation of the firm, but this only helped to produce another season-long title battle which went right down to the wire.
Rather aptly, this hybrid year of Group A vs WRC, the championship was a straight shoot-out between Mäkinen and McRae – in a Group A Lancer and Subaru Impreza WRC respectively.
The World Rally Cars had the advantage early on as Piero Liatti and Kenneth Eriksson won the opening two winter rallies before McRae picked up the victory in Kenya.
Mäkinen then responded with two on the bounce – in Portugal and Spain – with McRae taking his second success in Corsica. McRae then retired four rallies in a row, while Mäkinen secured another win to extend his points lead.
McRae ended the year with one more win than Mäkinen – five to the Finn’s four – but fell agonizingly short of the title, by a point; Mäkinen’s ability to reach the finish on two rallies more than McRae – and more importantly, only finishing off the podium once – proved the difference.
The 1997 season wasn’t a full-blown World Rally Car campaign, but it was the start of an era which eventually enticed more manufacturers to come and join the fun. Citroën, Hyundai, Škoda, Seat and Peugeot entered in subsequent years, while Mitsubishi eventually followed suit at the end of 2001 despite winning four titles in a row with its Group A car.