Takamoto Katsuta joined an elusive, yet unenviable, club of drivers to lead a round of the World Rally Championship but not win on last weekend’s Safari Rally Kenya.
Katsuta had been second before the final day, and moved into the lead when Thierry Neuville exited the contest with a broken rear damper. The Toyota junior then gamely led the toughest round of the WRC before eventually being overhauled by Sébastien Ogier.
Of course, Katsuta’s time may come, and one day he may well become a world rally winner. But as it stands, he is now part of a category of drivers who have challenged but fallen just short – although his case is quite unique as you’ll discover later on.
We’ve gone back to 2000 and picked out all the drivers who have led a WRC round but not gone the distance in the 21st century. Here, they’re listed in chronological order from the first event they managed to lead.
Some shout-outs must be given to Mark Higgins, Federico Villagra and Lorenzo Bertelli who have each sat just 0.1 seconds adrift of the overall lead (after a superspecial stage) but not managed to assume the position.
Part of Ford’s line-up when it unveiled the much-hyped Focus WRC in 1999, and a major player in Citroën’s development as it readied itself for its ultimately successful first full-time WRC campaign, Thomas Rådström was a very accomplished rally driver.
Indeed, during his WRC career he stood on the podium four times – thrice at home in Sweden and once on the Safari Rally in 2002.
Rally Sweden was also the event he led in the WRC – twice. The first time was in 2000 with a privately-run Toyota Corolla WRC where he outpaced reigning world champion Tommi Mäkinen on the opening test, and then a year later when he was driving for Mitsubishi alongside the four-time champion.
In 2001 he led for two stages before falling to third, which became second when Mäkinen tried too hard to catch leader Harri Rovanperä on the final stage and ditched his Evo into a tree.
Toni Gardemeister was one of the hottest talents around in the late 1990s, competing for Seat in the 2-Liter World Cup before transitioning into the team’s Cordoba World Rally Car. While his promise was never fully realized, he competed for Škoda, Ford and Suzuki after Seat and claimed six podium finishes – including three second-place spots.
Gardemeister would never taste the winners’ champagne, but he did lead two rallies throughout the 2000s – the first of which was the 2001 Monte-Carlo Rally, in a Peugeot 206 WRC.
Driving for attention with Seat’s program in the trash can, outpacing the works 206 WRC of Didier Auriol – his former Seat colleague – was a good start. Gardemeister eventually finished fifth.
His best season in the WRC was undoubtedly 2005 where he claimed fourth in the world championship, but Gardemeister would have to wait until 2007 to head the field again. Driving a private Mitsubishi Lancer WRC05, he was quickest on the Rally Sweden superspecial at Karlstad but soon fell down the order and finished sixth.
One of the most entertaining, charismatic and naturally gifted drivers to have rallied in the 2000s, Gigi Galli stunned the WRC when he ripped the lead out of Sébastien Loeb’s hands on the first stage after Friday morning service in Turkey in 2005.
Driving the unfancied Mitsubishi Lancer WRC05, Galli was 9.6s quicker than anyone else and assumed a 6.4s lead over Loeb. It was the first time Mitsubishi had led a WRC rally since the Safari in 2001.
Unfortunately, Galli’s joy was short-lived as he dropped close to 30s on the very next test on a set of stages that didn’t suit the handling of his car. He gamely clung on to trail Loeb by just over a minute ahead of day two, but a turbo pipe broke off the line of Saturday’s first stage and Galli slid to eighth by the end of the event.
As Mitsubishi quit, Galli went on to claim two podiums in the WRC before a promising 2008 season with the Stobart Ford team was cut short when he crashed heavily in Germany and broke his leg. It was a sad and unfitting end to his WRC career.
No driver has led as many different rallies but failed to win one than Chris Atkinson. The Australian headed five different rounds of the WRC for Subaru in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and established himself as more than a match for world champion team-mate Petter Solberg during that time, but cruelly never took that elusive win.
Atkinson’s first shot at leading came in Japan in 2005 where he opened up a narrow gap over Solberg on the first stage. He was overhauled on SS2 but retook the lead on SS,3 only to lose touch with Solberg, Loeb, and Marcus Grönholm. He did take his first podium in third though as Solberg crashed on the penultimate stage.
He then had shots in the lead on the first day in his native Australia in both 2005 and 2006 and also led the Acropolis Rally in 2007 with a string of quickest times. Atkinson’s final appearance at the head of the WRC leaderboard came on the very next round as he led Grönholm on the short spectator stage in Finland.
Throughout his time with Subaru Atkinson grabbed six podiums but his career was ultimately sent into freefall by the marque’s decision to pull out of the WRC after the 2008 season.
He did complete sporadic appearances thereafter – completing a part season in a private Mini JCW WRC in 2012 and two rallies for Hyundai in 2014 – but his time at the very forefront of rallying had long since expired.
Before he was spearheading the organization of Estonia’s round of the world championship, Urmo Aava was a promising rally driver and a veteran of the Junior WRC in a Suzuki Ignis and then Swift S1600.
In 2008, Aava progressed to drive a Citroën C4 WRC for World Rally Team Estonia on 10 of that year’s 15 rounds and turned in some eye-catching performances that included a strong fourth on the Acropolis and a fighting fifth in New Zealand.
But Aava’s best moment in the WRC – aside from organizing the lauded Rally Estonia – was on the opening round of the 2009 season in Ireland. Second fastest on the first stage in a Ford Focus WRC08, a further two second-fastest times moved him into a lead he would hold for two tests before being overhauled by Loeb’s C4.
In disgustingly treacherous conditions, Aava showed his class but would eventually finish down in 10th and only started one more WRC round in a World Rally Car.
It’s strange to consider that Henning Solberg – the older brother of 2003 world champion Petter – never won a rally, and actually only led one once after a superspecial test in Portugal 2009.
Henning never quite got the break his brother did in the WRC and would have to wait until 2006 for his first proper chance with a team in the world championship. That season in a Peugeot 307 WRC would yield a maiden podium, in Turkey, before he moved to a Stobart Ford for 2007 and was a fine sixth in the standings, just 13 points shy of his Subaru-driving brother.
Solberg won 33 stages in the WRC but arguably his most important was Estádio Algarve 12 years ago as it was the opening stage of Rally Portugal and therefore moved him into a 0.1s lead over Dani Sordo.
A regular in the WRC until the end of 2011, Solberg has kept his eye in since with sporadic outings across 2014-2016 in a Fiesta WRC and appeared as recently as 2019 in a Škoda Fabia R5.
Per-Gunnar Andersson will go down as one of the WRC’s wasted talents, as for one reason or another, he just never quite got the chances he perhaps deserved. He’s best remembered for his time with Suzuki as he won two Junior WRC titles (in 2004 and 2007) with the marque before joining Gardemeister for Suzuki’s single WRC season in 2008 with an SX4 WRC.
With Gardemeister also on this list, clearly Suzuki wasn’t bad with its driver calls but it coulnd’t give either the tools to make that final step.
Andersson’s one shot at leading the WRC came in 2011, by which time he was behind the wheel of a Ford. Stopping the clocks 0.6s faster than Jari-Matti Latvala on the opening Karlstad superspecial of Rally Sweden, Andersson earned himself a place in the history books as the first stage winner of the WRC’s new 1.6-liter era.
While he couldn’t hang onto that stage-winning pace and it was up to another young ace, Mads Østberg, to steal the limelight, Andersson salvaged a solid seventh overall on what proved to be one of his final events in a WRC car.
He now competes back in his native Sweden and won a Swedish Tarmac round as recently as last weekend in a Ford Fiesta Rally2.
Another stalwart of the WRC’s support categories, Jari Ketomaa was a force to be reckoned with in the inaugural SWRC season for Super 2000 machinery. He won three rounds in 2010 with his Fiesta to seal fourth in the standings behind Xavier Pons, Patrik Sandell and Martin Prokop.
However, what happened next was truly sensational. Handed an opportunity in a Fiesta WRC on his home event, Rally Finland, the following year, Ketomaa beat Sébastien Ogier’s Citroën DS3 WRC on the opening stage to lead the way on not just his second ever event in a World Rally Car.
And this was no superspecial test, it was a proper forest stage: Lankamaa. Ketomaa eventually drifted out of podium contention but was fifth before crashing out on the first stage of Saturday.
Four rounds in a Fiesta WRC would follow in 2012 – with a best finish of eighth in Finland – before Ketomaa joined DMACK and narrowly missed out on the 2014 WRC2 title to Nasser Al Attiyah by three points.
Evgeniy Novikov was devastatingly fast but far too accident prone, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he should find himself on this list as a driver with a sublime turn of speed but a penchant for bending metal.
Novikov burst onto the scene in 2009 with the Citroën Junior Team but it’s in a Ford that he had his biggest highs. Despite his erratic tendencies, Novikov was always a strong performer on the rough rounds with high attrition rates and snared two podiums in 2012 in Portugal and Sardinia on rallies that caught out the best of the best – Loeb crashed on both.
But he would have to wait until 2013 to finally lead a rally. It came on the 2013 Acropolis, where Novikov was quite simply in a class of one on the early stages. Quickest by over 20s on the first stage, Novikov’s Fiesta WRC topped the timesheets on SS2 and shared the honor with Latvala’s Volkswagen Polo R WRC on the third stage to command a 39.1s lead over anyone else.
However, a puncture wrecked Novikov’s charge and he would eventually finish way down in ninth. He would not start another world rally after that 2013 season for M-Sport.
Former BMW Sauber and Renault Formula 1 driver Robert Kubica may, in a small way, resent rallying as the discipline that cost him a move to Ferrari and a successful F1 career. But he was at least a dab-hand at it.
Suspecting his F1 dream was in tatters (he would later prove that to be false by returning to the grid with Williams in 2019) Kubica, who had rallied as a hobby previously, took it up full-time in 2013 and won the WRC2 crown at the first time of asking with a Citroën DS3 RRC – essentially a detuned DS3 WRC.
A WRC car therefore beckoned, and Kubica moved to drive a Ford Fiesta WRC in 2014. It couldn’t have started much better as he led the Monte by north of 35s after two stages with a pair of fastest stage times. But, as would become a theme throughout his succeeding two-year spell in the WRC, Kubica crashed out – running wide, smacking the side of a bridge and sliding down a bank.
Coincidentally though, Kubica’s exit promoted another promising driver to the top of the leaderboard who would ultimately fail to convert their lead into a WRC win too.
Bryan Bouffier was that man who took over the lead from Kubica on the 2014 Monte Carlo Rally and held it for six stages – the longest streak of any driver on this list.
Bouffier was immensely impressive. A previous winner of the Monte when it was a round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, he aced the tricky conditions again in 2014 to lead Ogier’s Polo WRC overnight and into the second day of the rally.
Ogier’s pressure would prove too much as he soon disposed of Bouffier, but Bouffier held on in his Ford Fiesta WRC to claim a standout second place. The drive caught the attention of Hyundai, which gave him a shot in one of its i20 WRCs in both Germany and France, though neither performance would match his frankly exceptional one on the season opener.
Bouffier would therefore be restricted to sparse WRC appearances in WRC and R5 machinery, but would compete for M-Sport on both the 2018 Monte Carlo Rally and in Corsica a few months later in the latest-generation Fiesta WRC. His best result was eighth on the Monte.
Juho Hänninen’s is one of the most perplexing and unfortunate international rallying careers. Had his WRC shot come sooner, he could well have avoided his position on this list but as it was, the 2010 IRC, 2011 SWRC and 2012 ERC Champion ended his spell with just one WRC podium to his name and three shots in the lead of a rally.
The first came on Rally Italy in 2014, driving for Hyundai. In the mix from the very off, Hänninen moved into a narrow 0.4s lead over team-mate Thierry Neuville after the third stage but lost it on the next and then rolled on SS5.
After a disappointing season, Hänninen’s career stalled before he was picked up by Toyota to drive a Yaris WRC on the brand’s world championship return in 2017. He developed an accident-prone reputation throughout the season but would lead two rallies – firstly Rally México where he aced the opening two superspecials, and then later in Sardinia on the rally’s third test.
Hänninen wouldn’t ever sustain a challenge for a rally win though, although he would visit the podium at home in Finland in that 2017 season. He was relegated to the role of test driver in 2018; a position he still holds. But Hänninen is also working closely with Takamoto Katsuta this season, which is paying off handsomely given his superlative 2021 season to date.
There are lots of parallels to be drawn between P-G Andersson’s earlier entry and this one on Pontus Tidemand. Both are Junior champions (Tidemand won in 2013), both showed strong potential in other classes of car but never truly kicked on in World Rally Cars, and both only led a World Rally Championship event following a Rally Sweden Karlstad superspecial.
Tidemand achieved the feat four years after Andersson, in 2015, but he did have the distinction of doing so in a lower-class car. His Fiesta was an RRC, not a full-blown WRC car, and followed on from a promising World Rally Car debut on the same event a year earlier.
The WRC chance would be put on ice for a few years though. Tidemand joined Škoda Motorsport after Rally Sweden 2015 and swept to the 2017 WRC2 title before another year treading water in R5. M-Sport picked him up in 2019 for four outings on the Monte, Sweden, Turkey and GB but his strong R5 form never translated.
He was last seen in the WRC last year driving for Toksport, trying to win the WRC2 series for a second time. Ultimately he lost out to Mads Østberg in a final-event showdown.
By 2015, there wasn’t a lot Martin Prokop hadn’t done in a rally car. He’d worked his way through the various support categories – even contesting a dual campaign in 2009 between the PWRC and JWRC. He then moved up to a World Rally Car and scored some respectable results, but he’d never led an event.
That all changed in Sardinia when the Czech driver’s Fiesta edged Andreas Mikkelsen’s Polo by 1.7s on a short street stage and Prokop led. While he would immediately slip back to 11th on the rally’s first true gravel test, Prokop did fight back to as high as seventh before oil pressure problems ended his rally prematurely.
The 2015 season would be Prokop’s last big commitment to the WRC as his involvement would later scale down to fewer rounds each season. This year he downgraded his car, ‘Fiona’, from a WRC to a Rally2 specification machine to compete in WRC2.
There’s a running joke within DirtFish’s online office whenever a superspecial stage is running that somebody might be about to ‘do a Kopecký’. This, for the uninitiated, means a driver upsetting the applecart and putting an R5 car to the top of the time sheets and subsequently ruining a report or social graphic that had already been created.
Kopecký earned this reputation for his exploits on Rally Germany in 2017. Superspecial tests can equalize the power differential between R5 and World Rally Cars, but Kopecký’s performance on Saarbrücken was nothing short of sublime. Quicker than Ott Tänak’s Fiesta WRC by 0.3s, Kopecký’s Škoda was the quickest R5 by over five seconds on a two-minute stage. He remains the only driver to ever lead a round of the WRC in an R5 car.
The Czech ace is well renowned for his success in Škoda cars, mainly in the Fabia S2000, R5 and current Rally2 evo. But he did enjoy a stint behind the wheel of a Fabia WRC in the mid 2000s with two full seasons in 2006 and 2007, winning a total of three stages with a best finish of fifth on Rally Spain 2006.
As a semi-active WRC driver, sharing a Hyundai seat with Sordo, Craig Breen is among a handful of drivers who still have the opportunity to erase themselves from this list. In fact, he and the remaining three drivers are all in that particular boat.
Breen’s best WRC performances have arguably been Rally Estonia last year and Rally Sweden in 2018, but it was in Turkey that same year that he led his one and only round of the WRC to date.
Driving for Citroën, Breen was a contender from the off with second place on the superspecial behind Mikkelsen’s i20 Coupe WRC. Second quickly became first on the first ‘real’ stage which he held onto SS3 before being overhauled by Mikkelsen again.
A puncture dumped Breen down to eighth before it got an awful lot worse and his C3 WRC was lost to a fire.
M-Sport’s young Finn has led three rounds of the WRC in his career so far but has never quite gone the distance.
After showing impressive speed on his two breakthrough rallies at the top level in Poland and Finland 2017, Suninen would have to wait two years before he got his shot at leading the field in Sweden.
This was probably his best chance to win a WRC round, leading the way overnight at the end of the first day, before slipping behind Tänak’s Toyota on the first Saturday stage and then faltering, ploughing his Ford into a snow bank.
Suninen has also led Rally Italy twice. In 2019 he notched up one of his best ever drives, leading the rally after SS2 and SS3 before eventually finishing second to Sordo when Tänak’s steering famously broke on the powerstage. A year later, he destroyed the field by over 12s on the opening stage but was soon overhauled, again by Sordo, just before morning service.
The newest driver in the club, and one with a unique distinction we teased in the intro. Takamoto Katsuta is the only driver on this list to actually lead an event on the final day but not go the distance and win.
Whether this is a coup or not depends on your personal perspective, but nobody can deny that Katsuta is knocking on the door of going all the way. He won his first stage on the very final test of the 2020 season and has kicked on ever since.
On the Safari, Katsuta played himself in sensibly, which resulted in him steadily climbing up the order as his rivals ran into strife. Second became first when Neuville retired on Sunday morning and he led outright after 15 of 18 stages before sharing the honor with team-mate Ogier on SS16.
Ogier would stretch clear with more experience and a better tire package, but Katsuta proved his point. Another to likely find his name quietly deleted from this article in events to come.