There’s been no shortage of young blood in the World Rally Championship in recent years and the changing of the guard is just around the corner.
Seven-time champion Sébastien Ogier is due to hang up his helmet at the end of the year, at the age of 37, and those in line to take his place at the top have an average age that’s 10 years younger.
But if there’s one thing that the start of the 2021 season has proven, it’s that despite being the oldest WRC driver in the top tier, Ogier has still got what it takes to continue winning rallies, as he demonstrated so well by winning three WRC rounds from five this year so far.
He’s not the only one to have delivered the goods as an elder statesman of the discipline either. In fact, compared to the following top 10, Ogier has youth on his side in that ranking.
We’ve collated the 10 oldest WRC drivers in history to win a championship event over the years.
10 Kenneth Eriksson
Age: 41 years, 2 months and 23 days
Event: Rally New Zealand, 1997
Although the 1997 campaign was arguably Eriksson’s worst in the blue of Subaru – he contested just one rally for the team in 1998 – he did secure the sixth and final win of his long career in New Zealand in ’97.
Eriksson’s route to victory was inspired given that he had to make do without fourth gear on the opening two stages. Unlike Malcolm Wilson’s Ford team, which had run with the sequential gearbox for the first time that weekend, Subaru still had the conventional box which allowed Eriksson to limit the damage.
He profited from a broken timing belt for team-mate and early leader Colin McRae on the first day to move into second and then took the fight to Ford’s Carlos Sainz, eventually coming out on top by just 13 seconds by the end of the rally after a sterling drive.
9 Carlos Sainz
Age: 42 years, 3 months and 6 days
Event: Rally Argentina, 2004
The 2004 edition of Rally Argentina is probably best known for the monumental high-speed crash that forced Markko Märtin and his late co-driver Michael Park out of the event on SS5 (Villa Giardino – La Falda), but it was also the scene of Sainz’s final WRC win of his career. A victory that earns El Matador a place in our top 10.
Sainz had traded the lead with Marcus Grönholm on day two but trailed the Finn by over 16 seconds before the Peugeot clobbered a stone and broke its suspension and subsequently the engine.
This handed Sainz a largely comfortable victory ahead of an off-form Sébastien Loeb, who had struggled with handling issues in the second Citroën for much of the opening day before copping a two-minute time penalty for a late check-in.
8 Ingvar Carlsson
Age: 42 years, 3 months and 16 days
Event: Rally New Zealand, 1989
Beating Sainz by 10 days in this list is the most undramatic of all the Swedes to ever grace the WRC stages, Ingvar Carlsson. Such was the apparent reservedness of Carlsson that legendary rallying journalist David Williams reckoned in the 1989 edition of Rallycourse that “even Stig Blomqvist appears loquacious by comparison”.
While Carlsson perhaps lacked the conversational skills of some of his peers, his speed and talent on the special stages most certainly was not lacking. That year’s Rally New Zealand was a measured, unspectacular drive, but one which proved that experience counted for a lot on these kinds of rallies.
A handling issue on the opening day was possibly the only thing that could have prevented Carlsson from taking a routine victory, and even that didn’t seem to perturb the Swede, as he cruised to victory by over two-and-a-half minutes from the similar Mazda 323 4WD of local driver Rod Millen. Future Ford WRC and M-Sport team boss Malcolm Wilson was third in his Vauxhall Astra GTE.
7 Didier Auriol
Age: 42 years, 7 months and 7 days
Event: Rally Spain, 2001
By all accounts, the 2001 WRC season was something of a missed opportunity for not only Didier Auriol, but the whole Peugeot team. A late surge in the second half of the year rescued what had looked like a bit of a disaster early doors for the reigning champion.
Until Rally Spain, 1994 champ Auriol had finished just once out of the first three rounds, with eighth in Portugal his best result. Come the Spanish asphalt event, few would have predicted an Auriol win and for the bulk of the rally, that assertion looked to be holding up.
It was a controversial affair, with Citroën – the veritable asphalt specialists – again the favorites. But Guy Fréquelin’s team was in hot water after Jesús Puras was found to have illegally recced one of the stages pre-event.
Puras retired with a broken fuel pump, while the other Xsara WRC of Philippe Bugalski was only eighth after a clutch issue and then a two-minute time penalty. Auriol, although only leading the final four stages on Sunday morning, was the popular ‘moral’ winner, but it was his last WRC triumph.
6 Kenjiro Shinozuka
Age: 43 years, 11 months and 14 days
Event: Ivory Coast Rally, 1992
A WRC win is still a WRC win whichever way you look at it, but it’s safe to say that African specialist Shinozuka’s two victories in the world championship – both on the Ivory Coast Rally – were not up against the established top-tier.
As was the norm back then, not every round of the world championship counted for the manufacturers’ title, rendering some events as a non-priority for the likes of Lancia, Toyota and Ford. Ivory Coast was one of those events, inconveniently placed between Sanremo and Catalunya.
Needless to say, it was missing the big names of Sainz, Kankkunen, Auriol, Biasion, Alén, Delecour, Aghini, McRae, Fiorio, Recalde, Vatanen, Liatti…you get the picture.
Shinozuka was Mitsubishi Ralliart’s endurance go-to man and duly recorded another win, beating the Opel Kadett GSI 16V of Bruno Thiry. The Opel Team Belgium entry finished last in the manufacturers’ standings at the end of the year. But hey, a WRC win is a WRC win, while Shinozuka would go on to record his most significant win of his career five years later on the Dakar Rally.
5 Joginder Singh
Age: 44 years, 2 months and 10 days
Event: Safari Rally, 1976
“The Flying Sikh” was always a threat on his home event, the Safari Rally. Already twice a winner before 1976, the Kenyan scored another victory to cement his place in the Safari’s folklore. It was a Mitsubishi clean sweep of the podium, and Singh used his local knowledge and expertise on these kinds of rallies to sacrifice flat-out attack for a more conservative, savvy path to victory.
Singh knew that the softly, softly, catchee monkey approach was far more effective than pure speed alone. Indeed, Singh lost a cumulative two hours after various woes, but that was nothing compared to the factory Lancia Stratoses of Sandro Munari (engine) and Björn Waldegård (starter), who each fell by the wayside.
The Lancer of Singh, although remarkably reliable from a mechanical side, encountered tragedy after a spectator ran out in front of the car and was killed instantly when Singh hit him. It was far from a celebratory arrival for Singh by the finish.
4 Pentti Airikkala
Age: 44 years, 2 months and 19 days
Event: RAC Rally, 1989
As lengthy and successful a rallying career that Airikkala had, it’s almost an injustice that he was limited to just 38 WRC appearances. His showing on the 1989 RAC was, however, proof if any was needed that the Finn was at his best on the fast, slippery and unpredictable roads of the UK.
As a reward for his part in giving Mitsubishi the Group N title for manufacturers in the British championship, Airikkala partnered 1981 world champion Ari Vatanen in the Gallant that had taken victory on the similar Finnish roads in the hands of Mikael Ericsson in the summer.
With Lancia and Miki Biasion already crowned comfortable champions for the second consecutive year, and Toyota still battling mechanical unreliability that had dogged it all year, Mitsubishi Ralliart came to the fore with Airikkala.
Vatanen was quickly out of contention after rolling in the Lake District, but Airikkala was not to be denied a first – and only – WRC victory on ground he knew especially well.
3 Sébastien Loeb
Age: 44 years, 8 months and 2 days
Event: Rally Spain, 2018
Having won nine titles with the dominant Citroën team between 2004 and 2012, Loeb and Daniel Elena really had nothing left to prove in the world championship. But the allure of the WRC is such that not even the most successful partnership in history could just drop it after they stood down from full-time participation in 2012.
A partial campaign in 2018 had yielded much promise but not much in the way of success, but Catalunya was proof that Loeb could still cut the mustard at the top level.
An astute tire choice on the final day of the event allowed Loeb to lead Toyota’s Jari-Matti Latvala by seven seconds with three stages left, before a puncture put paid to Latvala’s hopes. Loeb then had to fend off a late charge from old Citroën nemesis Sébastien Ogier on the final two tests, eventually coming home 2.9 seconds clear for his 79th and last WRC victory.
2 Hannu Mikkola
Age: 44 years, 10 months and 27 days
Event: Safari Rally, 1987
Second in our list is the late great Mikkola. The Finn always did like winning by huge margins, but his 18th and final WRC win by 17 minutes wasn’t his most convincing.
It wasn’t even his second-most convincing, but it was classic Mikkola on a grueling Safari Rally that admittedly, wasn’t quite the car-breaking and soul-destroying monster it had been in the ’70s. However, it was still a mammoth test.
Mikkola inherited the lead after early contenders Björn Waldegård and Stig Blomqvist hit mechanical trouble and an array of punctures. Mikkola didn’t suffer that sort of fate but did have to stop with a dislodged turbo pipe, and then a broken alternator on his Quattro.
Retirement looked likely but his Audi team managed to fly in a spare alternator, and Mikkola duly claimed an easy win from team-mate Walter Röhrl.
1 Björn Waldegård
Age: 46 years, 5 months and 4 days
Event: Safari Rally, 1990
Topping the list of oldest WRC winners is the first drivers’ world champion, Björn Waldegård, whose record, at 46 years-old, will probably never be beaten, such is the physical demands of the modern-day WRC.
A driver of immense experience, Waldegård was able to make the most of his prowess on the African event – and the capricious Kenyan elements – to come out on top. Heavy rain affected the rally from the off and produced a mix of dust on the dry sections – of which there were few – and mud on the wet roads, making life incredibly difficult.
Waldegård led after day one, despite his Toyota team having to fly an extra turbocharger intercooler pump to Nairobi from Cologne after early mechanical drama for the Swede. Waldegård had led by nearly an hour but a slow service stop reduced that advantage to 39 minutes and a broken driveshaft brought it down to a mere six minutes. But he held on firm to secure the win as just seven cars finished the rally.