Subaru. Of all the manufacturers to enter rallying, there has never been one more synonymous with the fabulous discipline than Subaru.
It has a rich heritage in rallying both in the World Rally Championship and to this day in the American Rally Association, where it’s building upon the legend that was constructed in the 1990s and 2000s by Subaru World Rally Team.
Three icons of rallying have won the drivers’ championship with Subaru – Colin McRae, Richard Burns and Petter Solberg – with fellow champions such as Ari Vatanen, Hannu Mikkola, Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Mäkinen also steering either a Legacy or an Impreza around the globe.
But of all of these great drivers, who has been the most successful? DirtFish has compiled all eight of Subaru’s world rally winners into a ranked list to answer that very question.
=7 Piero Liatti
First win: Monte Carlo Rally 1997
No. of wins: 1
Car: Legacy RS, Impreza 555, Impreza S5 WRC
Piero Liatti might only have one WRC victory to his name but he will always have the accolade of being the first driver in history to win in a World Rally Car. In a tight fight with Tommi Mäkinen’s Mitsubishi and Carlos Sainz’s Ford, Liatti took the lead on the final day in Monte Carlo in 1997 and gave the new Impreza WRC its first victory straight out of the box.
This might have been the only time Liatti struck gold in blue-and-yellow, but the Italian was a stalwart of Subaru’s WRC attack as it grew from a challenger to a title-winning operation.
Liatti started his first WRC round for Subaru in 1993 and regularly dovetailed sporadic world championship appearances with campaigns in his native Italy and the European Rally Championship – which he won in 1991.
Completing his first full season in the WRC in 1996, Liatti scored a further seven podiums alongside his Monte victory and helped contribute to Subaru’s three consecutive manufacturers’ titles between 1995-97.
=7 Tommi Mäkinen
First win: Monte Carlo Rally 2002
No. of wins: 1
Car: Impreza S7 WRC, Impreza S8 WRC, Impreza S9 WRC
Just like Liatti, Tommi Mäkinen only won once for Subaru and also like Liatti, he claimed that success on the famous Monte Carlo Rally. It was a slightly more controversial affair in 2002 though, with Sébastien Loeb winning on the road but being docked two minutes for an illegal tire infringement on the Saturday evening.
No matter, that ’02 Monte win was the perfect start to Mäkinen’s Subaru alliance as he had jumped ship from the marque’s chief rival Mitsubishi, with whom he’d won four world championships and 23 world rallies.
It would prove to be a false down however as things soon spiraled. Technical problems, mistakes and a slight lack of raw pace hampered the Finn’s two seasons with Subaru and he spectacularly gave away what would have been, in hindsight, an easy victory in Argentina given both Peugeots of Marcus Grönholm and Richard Burns were later excluded.
Fittingly though, Mäkinen concluded his WRC career on the podium after edging out Colin McRae for third place on Rally GB 2003.
=5 Kenneth Eriksson
First win: Rally Sweden 1997
Last win: Rally New Zealand 1997
No. of wins: 2
Car: Impreza 555, Impreza S5 WRC
The quiet yet devastatingly quick Swede Kenneth Eriksson spent two years as a works Subaru driver, joining from Mitsubishi in ’96 to partner new world champion Colin McRae and Piero Liatti.
As well as scoring two wins in his second season with the team, Eriksson also delivered two back-to-back Asia-Pacific Rally Championship titles during his Subaru tenure with the Group A Impreza 555 and then the S5 World Rally Car.
Eriksson’s first WRC win for Subaru came in his homeland, and further extended Subaru’s impeccable start to the year as it came off the back of Liatti’s Monte win. Strangely though it had been McRae’s two support acts that had done the winning and not the Scot.
The second and final WRC win for Eriksson was on Rally New Zealand 1997 where he saw off the advances of Carlos Sainz and Juha Kankkunen’s Ford Escort WRCs. Speaking of whom…
=5 Juha Kankkunen
First win: Rally Argentina 1999
Last win: Rally Finland 1999
No. of wins: 2
Car: Impreza S5 WRC, Impreza S6 WRC
Akin to another Finnish legend and four-time World Rally Champion on this list in Mäkinen, Kankkunen took his final world championship victory in a Subaru Impreza.
Subaru wouldn’t be Kankkunen’s WRC swansong though as he made an ill-fated move to Hyundai afterwards.
Kankkunen joined Subaru in 1999 in an all-new line-up alongside Richard Burns, but things weren’t always smooth between the pair. Kankkunen’s first victory in Subaru colors for example was claimed at Burns’ expense: the Finn ignoring team orders to overhaul the Englishman on the final stage to win Rally Argentina. This created something of a frosty atmosphere.
Ironically Kankkunen’s second and final win in a Subaru, just a few rallies later in Finland, was also scored with his team-mate just a handful of seconds behind. But this time it was more straightforward as Kannkunen led for 17 of the rally’s 23 stages.
Kankkunen stayed on for another year in 2000 but struggled to match Burns. He was replaced by Petter Solberg for 2001.
4 Carlos Sainz
First win: Acropolis Rally 1994
Last win: Rally Spain 1995
No. of wins: 4
Car: Impreza 555
Carlos Sainz’s two-year spell with Subaru in 1994 and ’95 is best remembered for the ’95 world championship showdown which Sainz ultimately lost to his young hotshot of a team-mate: Colin McRae.
In fact, in what soon became the tale of Sainz’s career, he would also lose out on the ’94 title too after hitting a log that was left in the middle of a stage. A year later, he simply couldn’t match McRae in his local forests.
Sainz was incredibly consistent in an Impreza 555, claiming 10 podiums. But there were mechanical frustrations – and a motorbike injury – that restricted him from giving Subaru its first drivers’ title.
His first win came on the notoriously rough gravel tracks of the Acropolis in ’94 before three further wins in 1995. The first was a beautifully executed drive on the Monte Carlo Rally before his third and final win in Spain which was covered in controversy.
In order to protect a formation 1-2-3 finish which was vital for Subaru’s manufacturer’s title quest, David Richards had asked Sainz and McRae to hold station in first and second respectively on the final day, much to McRae’s annoyance. He didn’t listen and won on the road but eventually ceded defeat, checking into the final time control one minute late and dropping back behind Sainz.
3 Richard Burns
First win: Acropolis Rally 1999
Last win: Rally New Zealand 2001
No. of wins: 8
Car: Legacy RS, Impreza 555, Impreza S5 WRC, Impreza S6 WRC, Imrpeza S7 WRC
All but two of Burns’ WRC wins were claimed with the brand he is most synonymous with and that ultimately led him to the 2001 world title. Subaru was Burns’ home, and he and the Impreza were arguably the out-and-out quickest package in the WRC at the turn of the 21st century.
Burns joined Subaru from Mitsubishi in 1999 and added another eight victories to his tally over a three-year period before moving to Peugeot in 2002. But it wasn’t the first time he drove for the Prodrive-run team, as Burns broke into the world championship with Subaru in the early ’90s.
Arguably the first of Burns’s Subaru victories should’ve come in Argentina (see above), but he wouldn’t wait much longer to tick it off the list with a win on the very next round in Greece. Two further wins in Australia and Great Britain rounded out 1999 in impeccable style.
Burns was a genuine title contender in 2000 and made great use of the innovative Impreza S6 WRC, the first major evolution to the car since the Impreza WRC’s inception in ’97. Burns won two of the car’s first three events in Portugal and Argentina, as well as Rally GB at the end of the year, but it wasn’t enough to overhaul Grönholm.
It was a different story in 2001 though.
Despite only taking one win, in New Zealand, Burns was a model of consistency and came out on top of an epic four-way finale to seal the world crown. Two ultimately winless seasons at Peugeot followed before a second return to Subaru was on the cards in 2004.
Tragically, a brain tumor not only put paid to that reunion but also cost Burns his life in November 2005 – four years to the day since he was crowned World Rally Champion.
2 Petter Solberg
First win: Rally GB 2002
Last win: Rally GB 2005
No. of wins: 13
Car: Impreza S6 WRC, Impreza S7 WRC, Impreza S8 WRC, Impreza S9 WRC, Impreza S10 WRC, Impreza S11 WRC, Impreza S12 WRC, Impreza S12B WRC, Impreza S14 WRC
The second most successful driver in Subaru’s WRC history is the man who carried the team’s hopes for much of the 2000s. Petter Solberg joined Subaru halfway through 2000 and left when it departed the WRC in 2008, winning 13 rallies and the 2003 title.
The first of those 13 wins was to be the first of four consecutive wins in Wales on Rally GB 2002 – a result that netted him a strong and perhaps surprising second place in that year’s championship. Solberg would go one better the following year of course, becoming the only man to defeat Sébastien Loeb over a full season.
There were some standout victories along the way. Cyprus 2003 was crushing as he won by more than four minutes, the ’03 Tour de Course is the stuff of legend after his pre-event shakedown crash while, naturally, Rally GB of the same year is fondly remembered as he won the rally to seal his title.
The 2004 season might not have yielded a second world championship crown, but Solberg still scored five victories throughout the year – the most he ever managed. That included his incredible triple successes in a row in Japan, Wales and Italy which came just after his terrifying Rally Germany crash.
Solberg won thrice in 2005 but wouldn’t add to that tally throughout the rest of his career that lasted until 2012, struggling with the later generations of Impreza which weren’t as competitive as the comparative machinery from Citroën or Ford.
1 Colin McRae
First win: Rally New Zealand 1993
Last win: Acropolis Rally 1998
No. of wins: 16
Car: Legacy RS, Impreza 555, Impreza S5 WRC
It couldn’t be anyone else that topped this list, could it? If there was one man who made Subaru the famous rallying brand that it is, it was Mr McRae.
He grew with the team, flirting with victory before finally nailing it after an intense fight with François Delecour and Didier Auriol in New Zealand in 1993 and then winning the world title just two years later in swash-buckling fashion.
While no second title would come, McRae won 16 rallies with Subaru between 1992-98, including three Rally New Zealands, three Rally GBs and success on the Acropolis twice.
McRae’s most successful ride was the Impreza WRC, as he won eight rallies in two years with the car in 1997-98, and the Impreza 555 comes a close second as it carried McRae to seven victories.
Ultimately though it was the way in which McRae drove Subaru’s cars that still makes him, to many, the most revered rally driver in history. He grabbed them by the scruff of the neck and threw them into corners at the most impossible of angles.
More often than not, that meant he was winning with them. His 16 victories make up an incredible 34% of Subaru’s WRC wins.
Although McRae’s Subaru career ended on a whimper and he would ultimately be successful on his next move with Ford, it was with Subaru his efforts will always be remembered.