Now that Kalle Rovanperä has sewn up his first World Rally Championship title, and Toyota is on the brink of a third manufacturers’ crown in five years, thoughts have started turning towards next year.
It’s one thing being the young prodigy on your way to the top. But what about when you’ve achieved your ambition and been crowned as the best in the world? What then?
Expectations change, you’re viewed differently and now the question is not whether you can reach the summit, but can you stay there?
In many sports, it’s often said that retaining a title is harder than winning it in the first place. So, with the help of our partner site, eWRC.com, what does history tell us about how the WRC’s first-time champions tend to fare?
Of the 18 different world champions before Rovanperä, five went on to retain their title, another eight finished second or third in the points the following year, and the remaining five were pushed further down the order.
Here’s the rundown of those who cemented their authority at the top of the WRC pecking order, and those who suffered a ‘difficult second album’.
Retained title in 2005, 10 wins
Having narrowly missed out on the 2003 world title to Petter Solberg, Sébastien Loeb’s first world championship came in commanding fashion the following year. He won four of the first seven rallies, then added two more later in the year, clinching the title on home soil with two rounds to spare.
Once he had claimed a first crown, the Citroën driver’s dominance stepped a gear as he wiped the floor with his 2005 opposition. Yes, Solberg won the next two events after Loeb’s Monte Carlo victory, to head the points after Rally México, but Loeb then went on a six-rally winning streak. He took 10 of 16 in total as he cruised to a second crown.
Having been successful in his first title defense, Loeb had put himself on the way to the most crushing period of sustained dominance the WRC had ever seen.
Retained title in 2014, 8 wins
Picking up the baton from his fellow countryman, Sébastien Ogier won the 2013 world championship in the new Volkswagen Polo R WRC with an astonishing nine wins in 13 events. He then crushed the opposition once again with his title defense, winning eight times on his way to a second world title.
It signified a new era of dominance by Ogier and VW which would extend to four consecutive titles as a partnership. Ogier added two more with M-Sport after VW’s withdrawal before Ott Tänak finally wrestled the crown away.
Between them, the two Sébastiens had set the benchmark for how to continue producing the goods while experiencing the different pressure that comes with the title of ‘world champion’.
Retained title in 1989, 5 wins
Lancia stalwart Miki Biasion became only the second driver to win the world championship twice with his successful defense of the crown in 1989.
Biasion’s successes came amid Lancia’s domination of the WRC in the second half of the 1980s. Having finished runner-up to team-mate Juha Kankkunen in ’87, Biasion stepped up to lead the team when Kankkunen switched to Toyota.
The introduction of the Delta Integrale only strengthened Lancia’s hand and Biasion did the business, taking the championship by winning five of only seven rallies contested.
Championship credentials well and truly proven, in 1989 Biasion simply carried on where he had left off the previous year. Only this time he improved his strike rate even further, taking five wins from six starts!
Retained title in 1997, 4 wins
Having shot to prominence with his Finland win in 1994, Tommi Mäkinen was swiftly snapped up by Mitsubishi, where he enjoyed a remarkable period of sustained success.
There were no points-paying wins in ’95 (his home rally did not count for the championship that year), but Mäkinen’s first title came in dominant fashion the following year as his Lancer E3 won five of nine events.
While Ford, Subaru and eventually Toyota introduced cars complying to the new World Rally Car formula for ’97, Mitsubishi stuck with the Group A rules for its Lancer E4. And it worked. With the calendar expanding to 14 events, Mäkinen won four of them and edged Colin McRae to the title by a single point.
In an era when several of the sport’s greats were at the top of their game, Mäkinen had shown that he was no flash in the pan. He would go on to retain the title twice more, unprecedented at the time.
Retained title in 1987, 2 wins
The first driver to take two world titles, Kankkunen is also the only person on this list to make a successful title defense having switched teams.
Jointly alongside Carlos Sainz, ‘Triple K’ is also the least experienced world champion of all time, in terms of WRC starts (when events from 1973-78, before there was a drivers’ title, are counted). When the political wrangling was complete, and Kankkunen was eventually confirmed as the 1986 world champion driving a Peugeot 205 Turbo 16, he had contested only 25 WRC events.
The demise of Group B forced a change of employer for the new world champion. Kankkunen joined Lancia, the best-prepared manufacturer for the new Group A era.
Without fully exerting his superiority, the still relatively inexperienced Kankkunen racked up strong results more consistently than team-mates Biasion and Markku Alén, who each won three rallies to Kankkunen’s two. Victory on the RAC Rally sealed an historic second world title for the 28-year-old.
4th in 2001
Marcus Grönholm had been on the fringes of the WRC scene for some years before getting his big chance with the returning Peugeot team in the second half of 1999.
A win in Sweden in early 2000 showed he could be a contender for the crown and back-to-back successes in New Zealand and Finland rocketed Grönholm into a points lead he wouldn’t lose.
But if Kalle Rovanperä is looking for an example of how not to do a title defense, he’d be wise to consider Grönholm’s and Peugeot’s disastrous 2001 season.
His countryman retired from six of the first seven events, with only a customary win in Finland and victories in the last two rounds in Australia and GB lifting him to an eventual fourth in the standings.
5th in 2002
Rather like Auriol, Richard Burns’s world championship success was a long time coming. Taking over as Subaru team leader after McRae switched to Ford in 1999, Burns twice finished second in the points, establishing himself as a perennial contender.
It came good in 2001 when he was the model of consistency, taking the title with only one victory (in New Zealand) but scoring five other podium finishes as he prevailed in a four-way showdown on Rally GB.
But by then, a switch to Peugeot was already on the cards. The short-wheelbase 206 WRC didn’t seem to suit Burns’s style and he was well beaten by incumbent team leader Marcus Grönholm who waltzed to the crown.
Burns did not manage a single win and while consistent podium finishes had at least kept him well in contention for the runner-up spot, three consecutive end-of-season retirements left him only fifth in the points.
13th in 1982
Winning the 1981 world championship, in a battle that went to the wire, took a monumental effort from Ari Vatanen and the David Sutton team running his privately entered Ford Escort RS1800.
The following year, the combination contested only a couple of WRC events, finishing second in Sweden and retiring from Vatanen’s home rally in Finland. Otherwise, they contested a British-based program.
Vatanen signed for Opel in time for the season-closing RAC Rally, but another retirement meant that his Swedish points were all that he scored, leaving him outside the top 10 in the championship.
Unplaced in 1981
Walter Röhrl became the WRC’s second drivers’ champion in 1980 when he took the crown with four wins in a Fiat 131 Abarth, while combining his rallying with racing sportscars for Lancia.
He signed to drive for Mercedes in 1981 but his title defense couldn’t have got off to worse start when the Stuttgart marque withdrew from the sport.
Instead, Röhrl went to Porsche. Focusing on racing, he finished seventh in that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, while his rally outings were based mainly in Germany.
Röhrl contested only one round of the WRC, retiring his 911 SC from Rally Sanremo. He then returned to Opel, with whom he had driven for much of ‘70s, and added a second world title in 1982.
Excluded from 1995 championship
Didier Auriol had long been a championship frontrunner, including a then-record six wins in 1992 as he finished only third in the points, before he took his first world title in 1994.
Auriol stayed with Toyota for his title defense, as the Cologne-based squad replaced the ST185 model Celica Turbo with the new ST205 Celica GT-Four.
His season didn’t start well, with retirement in Monte-Carlo followed by a pair of fifth-place finishes in Portugal and Sweden. But a win on the Tour de Corse and second in New Zealand put him narrowly atop the standings.
Then it all went horribly wrong. A crash on Rally Australia preceded exclusion in Spain – from the rally and the entire championship – after the Toyotas were found to have illegal modifications to their turbos.