Rally Croatia has already gone down in World Rally Championship history on its very first inclusion on the calendar – and not just because of the antics happening on the road section before the final morning!
Above all else, it was the action on the stages that caught the attention. A thrilling final stage showdown between Toyota team-mates Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans was decided in Ogier’s favor; but only by a mere 0.6 seconds.
The result was the third-closest ever in WRC history (behind Rally Jordan 2011 – also won by Ogier – and Rally New Zealand 2007) and the fifth to be decided by under a second. Rally Argentina 2017 and Rally Italy 2018 were both won by Thierry Neuville with a 0.7s margin.
Ogier’s 51st WRC victory was also the closest ever one-two between team-mates in the world championship as well as the smallest ever winning margin on an asphalt rally.
This got DirtFish thinking: which other asphalt events have been decided by tight margins? We’ve compiled a list of asphalt rally finishes with a winning margin of under 10 seconds to answer the question.
To qualify under our criteria, each event has to be primarily – but not exclusively – sealed surface in nature, meaning iterations of Rally Spain that included one leg of gravel are valid. Likewise, Monte Carlo Rallies which remained dry have also been included.
11 Tour de Corse 1997
Winner: Colin McRae
Margin: 8.0s over Carlos Sainz
Colin McRae started as he meant to go on on the 1997 Tour de Corse, taking the lead after the first stage. But the lighter Formula 2 Peugeot Kit Cars of François Delecour and Gilles Panizzi soon got in his way, swarming the World Rally Cars on the leaderboard like a pair of bees.
Panizzi led Delecour after the opening day but Ford’s Carlos Sainz was looming large when the heavens opened on day two. Panizzi had bolted slick tires onto his 306 Maxi and it cost him dear, but Delecour had gone for wets to grab the lead. However, the four-wheel-drive of Sainz’s Escort WRC pulled him right into contention against the front-wheel-drive Peugeots.
McRae, who was almost hampered by the same herd of cows that led to Tommi Mäkinen’s terrifying exit, didn’t look to be in the fight but quietly began chipping away at the leaders with a run of three consecutive scratch times to lie just 19s adrift of joint rally leaders Delecour and Sainz at the end of the second leg.
Delecour moved ahead on SS13 of 18 only for Sainz to strike back and do the same a stage later, with McRae some 20s back. But a stage win for the Subaru driver on SS15 – a stage the Peugeots struggled on – lifted McRae up to second albeit still 18s behind Sainz’s Escort.
Two stages later and heading into a final stage showdown, McRae and Panizzi were level in second and had eroded Sainz’s lead to just seven seconds. But with the stage wet, Panizzi’s chances of a major upset were scuppered.
McRae turned in a typically gutsy drive on the final 23.1 miles to outpace Sainz by 15s, stealing the victory from the Spaniard’s grasp at the final hurdle. Sainz confessed afterwards he had “no chance” against McRae in that kind of form while the Scot remarked: “I couldn’t go any quicker, probably harder than I could drive.”
=8 Rally Spain 2012
Winner: Sébastien Loeb
Margin: 7.0s over Jari-Matti Latvala
Sébastien Loeb signed off his full-time WRC career in fitting fashion with victory on the final round of the 2012 season. But he was made to work for it, as Ford’s Jari-Matti Latvala was just 7s behind after four hours of competitive rallying.
On the event’s first day held on sodden, muddy gravel, the WRC field was decimated with Dani Sordo, Thierry Neuville and Petter Solberg all retiring early on. Privateer Mads Østberg held a commanding 27.2s lead over Loeb at the end of the gravel action, with Latvala a further 19.8s adrift.
Østberg’s shot at defending his rally lead as the rally transitioned onto asphalt never really got going as he slid off the road and down a bank on Saturday’s second stage. Loeb was elevated to the top spot because of Østberg’s troubles and gradually pulled away from a “disappointed” Latvala who admitted: “I can’t catch him.”
The difference between the pair was 27s before Sunday’s final six stages.
Latvala’s downbeat demeanor remained on Sunday as he continued to lose fractions of a second to the nine-time world champion, but he was also in a fight with Østberg to secure third in the championship.
As it happened, Latvala would almost manage to both seal the championship position and win the rally. A choice of soft compound tires backfired on Loeb who lost 10.7s on the penultimate stage and leaked a touch more time on the final test.
But Lavtala couldn’t prevent Loeb from extending his run of consecutive Spanish victories having not been beaten on the event for eight years since Markko Märtin triumphed in 2004. He did take third in the standings though as Østberg failed to score the third place on the rally that he needed to deny Latvala, losing out to Mikko Hirvonen by 9.6s.
=8 Rally Spain 1997
Winner: Tommi Mäkinen
Margin: 7.0s over Piero Liatti
Piero Liatti was starting his first WRC rally since his breakthrough victory and the confidence that gave him showed in the Subaru pilot’s driving. He, his team-mate McRae and reigning World Rally Champion Mäkinen all squabbled for position early on but they were upstaged by the F2 Peugeots of Delecour and Panizzi, just like they proved to be on the following round in Corsica (see above).
The two Frenchmen tied on the opening stage before Panizzi edged his 306 Maxi ahead; much to the distaste of the WRC teams. Delecour went off on the third stage but Panizzi stood firm, holding a 17s lead over McRae’s Impreza WRC until he punctured and fell back to ninth.
Team-mates McRae and Liatti were embroiled in a thrilling scrap at the head of the field on the second day, the gap never ballooning more than three seconds in McRae’s favor. Mäkinen stayed in touch however, lurking just one second back from McRae and three from Liatti who overhauled McRae on SS10 of 18.
McRae was then ejected from the fight when his Subaru collected a front-right puncture but the scrap was no less intense; Liatti and Mäkinen sharing the overnight lead, 2m30s ahead of the recovering Panizzi.
Both drivers promised a flat-out approach but it was Mäkinen who had the edge, keeping Liatti at arm’s length to record a 7s victory; his first ever on asphalt.
=8 Rally Spain 1996
Winner: Colin McRae
Margin: 7.0s over Piero Liatti
The third different edition of Rally Spain to be decided by just seven seconds was again at the expense of Subaru’s Liatti. But Liatti could at least be satisfied in his efforts on the ninth and final round of the 1996 WRC season as he helped Subaru to a second consecutive manufacturers’ crown.
Liatti led the rally early on, at one point sharing that honor with Ford’s Bruno Thiry with Toyota-driving privateer Freddy Loix and outgoing champion McRae all in the mix and covered by less than 10s.
As the rally ran its course, the two Impreza 555s began to stretch their legs with Liatti leading but the #1 car of McRae was applying heavy pressure. Three seconds split the pair with five stages still to run on the final day.
Liatti and McRae matched each other on the opener before McRae stole a second from his team-mate on the day’s second stage. Another second was pinched on SS16 of 18 before McRae moved past Liatti and into a five-second lead on the penultimate test. Stopping the clocks two seconds faster on the final stage, McRae grabbed the win but Liatti’s pain would, in time, be eased with the achievement of his maiden WRC victory on the very next event at the start of 1997.
McRae’s success was the last win of Group A being the WRC’s premier class, on a weekend where both Subaru and Ford chose to launch their World Rally Cars for the following season.
7 Rally France 2011
Winner: Sébastien Ogier
Margin: 6.3s over Dani Sordo
Sébastien Ogier scored a vital win, his first at home and fifth of the 2011 season, on the WRC’s second-ever trip to the Alsace region of France. But he was chased hard to the finish by the man he replaced at Citroën, Dani Sordo.
There was war within Citroën’s walls following the spectacular falling out on Rally Germany earlier in the year. Both Sébastien Loeb and Ogier had failed to score a decent result in Australia, meaning fireworks were expected as the title fight intensified in France.
The squabble was set up perfectly after two stages, Loeb leading Ogier by 0.1s, but the fight never materialised as the engine on Loeb’s DS3 WRC expired on SS3.
It was therefore left to Mini’s Sordo and Citroën privateer Petter Solberg to give chase. But they managed more than that; the pair lead Ogier at close of play on Friday. Sordo admitted: “To lead Citroën home is nice.”
Sordo had one second in hand over Solberg and 2.8s on Ogier but lost the lead to Solberg on Saturday’s second test. Only 1.1s split the front three before Ogier made his move on the following test as Solberg punctured.
Refusing to surrender, Sordo nicked the lead back from Ogier, only to immediately lose it again and never win it back. Sordo kept the pressure on Ogier throughout but just couldn’t quite get past, scoring the best result of Mini’s brief WRC comeback.
Solberg finished third on the road but was later excluded after stewards found his car to be underweight.
6 Rally Spain 2000
Winner: Colin McRae
Margin: 5.9s over Richard Burns
Off the back of a hard-fought victory in Portugal on the debut of the new 2000-spec Subaru Impreza WRC, Richard Burns started Rally Spain 2000 as the world championship leader for the first time in his career.
And he and Robert Reid would prove to be the crew to beat in the day one rain, at one stage opening a lead as large as 23.9s as he selected wet-compound Pirellis with closest rivals McRae and Nicky Grist on dry Michelins.
But drying stages allowed McRae to reel Burns back in, battling against a wretched run of form with just one finish in his last 12 rallies. The rumor mill was swirling that McRae might be looking for employment elsewhere.
McRae’s Rally Spain performance was therefore just what the doctor had ordered. The Scot took the lead on Saturday’s first test as Burns suffered an intermittent gearbox problem, but McRae squandered time on the following stage with an overshoot and stall at a square junction. Burns was 7.4s quicker and now just 3.3s behind.
And so began an epic tussle for supremacy. McRae took the time he’d lost back – plus an extra 0.1s – on SS9 but was beaten on SS10 and SS11 to hold an overnight advantage of 4.3s.
That advantage was lost on the way to the final day’s first stage as a clutch bearing problem forced McRae into some last-minute repairs before the test; and he had been penalized 10s for leaving service one minute late.
But an inspired run through that opening test from McRae prevented Burns from assuming the lead and from there McRae remained in front, incredibly matching Burns for time on the very last stage to beat his rival by 5.9s.
It proved to be the closest ever of the four one-two finishes between the great British rivals.
5 Rally Germany 2003
Winner: Sébastien Loeb
Margin: 3.6s over Marcus Grönholm
As the 2003 WRC season intensified, Citroën’s Loeb started Rally Germany as favorite given his victory the year before and the asphalt form he had shown in Monte Carlo. But it was the Peugeot of championship leader Burns that led the early phases before his team-mate and reigning WRC Champion Marcus Grönholm made his move when Burns spun in the rain.
However Loeb, chasing his third WRC win, pounced towards the end of the second day and headed into Sunday 5.5s up on Grönholm who was bidding for his maiden asphalt WRC triumph.
The Peugeot driver choked on Sunday’s opener though, misjudging his braking into a switchback hay bale chicane and briefly riding the curb. He lost 7.4s to Loeb, largely because of the incident, and had to dig deep to overturn a 12.9s deficit with just five stages remaining.
Grönholm had damaged the steering on his 206 WRC, resulting in him losing another 2.4s to Loeb on the next test. But the emergence of wet weather boosted the Finn’s confidence and he began to close the gap.
However in spite of a very strong final stage, Grönholm was unable to steal the win from Loeb, who was informed by his team halfway through the stage that he needed to speed up to win the rally. Loeb eventually prospered by a narrow 3.6s in what was a forerunner for plenty of epic duels in years to come.
4 Rally Spain 2015
Winner: Andreas Mikkelsen
Margin: 3.1s over Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen team-mates Andreas Mikkelsen and Latvala began the powerstage of Rally Spain in 2015 glued together in second and third overall. Their other team-mate, Ogier, was some 50.9s up the road and seemingly out of sight.
But the battle for second? That was well and truly on. Mikkelsen had wrestled the position from Latvala on the third-to-last test but only had a 1.4s advantage over the Finn heading onto the powerstage. Both drivers gave it their all, but Mikkelsen found an extra 1.7s to edge his colleague by 3.1s at the end.
Then came Ogier, on a push to deny Mikkelsen from grabbing all three powerstage points. However the risks he took proved to be excessive as his Polo R WRC was suffering from severe understeer and heavily hit an Armco barrier, wrecking the front and causing him to retire on the spot.
Mikkelsen was speaking to the media at the end of the stage when he was suddenly told that Ogier had crashed. He turned to co-driver Ola Fløene in amazement: the pair had just won their first ever WRC rally.
3 Rally Spain 2018
Winner: Sébastien Loeb
Margin: 2.9s over Sébastien Ogier
Three years later, the final stage of Rally Spain again proved to be a thriller but this time the nail-biting finish was anticipated ahead of the powerstage. The fact it was old foes Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier doing battle made it that extra bit tense.
Ahead of the rally’s final day, the top four was covered by just 9.8s with Latvala leading for Toyota ahead of Ogier’s M-Sport Ford, Loeb’s Citroën and Ogier’s team-mate Elfyn Evans. Loeb, on one of three comeback events that year, had been in the mix but never at the front.
That all changed on Sunday, when a touch of the old magic returned. An inspired tire choice – selecting hard compound Michelins instead of softs despite overnight rain – allowed him to establish a 7.1s advantage over Latvala at final service. But could he hold on for the final two stages without the advantage of better rubber?
Latvala punctured on the penultimate stage and Ogier, in a close title fight with Neuville and Ott Tänak, beat Loeb by 7.2s to trail him by just 3.6s overall. It looked for all the world like Loeb’s fairytale would be dashed but the nine-time champion clung on – losing just 0.7s to his compatriot on the powerstage – to take his first WRC victory in five years and the 79th of his illustrious career.
2 Monte Carlo Rally 2019
Winner: Sébastien Ogier
Margin: 2.2s over Thierry Neuville
One of the hardest fought victories of Ogier’s career and one that forced him to dig as deep as he’s ever had to. Starting the season in the third different car in four years, Ogier had moved to Citroën and was up against a hungry Hyundai driver in Neuville and an in-form Tänak at Toyota.
Tänak was the early leader but an inadequate Friday tire choice and then a puncture ruined his bid for victory. Neuville took up the charge and led the rally until he fluffed his lines and overshot a junction – something he would sorely regret later on.
Ogier was gifted a 14s advantage but Neuville quickly began to whittle it down, the pair never split by more than six seconds throughout Saturday. Ogier led into Sunday but his C3 WRC developed a mysterious throttle problem which handed Neuville the initiative.
The Belgian started the powerstage an ominous 0.4s behind his rival but incredibly Ogier, despite his problems, bested the Hyundai by 1.8s to win the rally by a slender 2.2s overall.
Neuville would get his revenge the following year though, edging Ogier and Evans in another close finish.
1 Rally Croatia 2021
Winner: Sébastien Ogier
Margin: 0.6s over Elfyn Evans
Nobody knew what to expect as the WRC visited Croatia for the very first time, but it was defending champion Ogier that eventually stole all the headlines.
His weekend started precariously, flirting with disaster on the first stage as he drifted wide on the same corner that had claimed team-mate Kalle Rovanperä. Only a road-side rock that bounced him back onto the stage saved Ogier from the same fate.
It did cause the first of three punctures across the weekend though, but the second was perhaps the most crucial. It occurred on SS13 of 20 and cost Ogier 10.1s to stage winner Neuville but Evans was unable to capitalize, admitting he wasn’t “brave enough” as he took only take 0.1s out of Ogier’s lead.
Ogier then had his dramatic Sunday where he crashed into a civilian on the way to the first stage of the day. With a bodged fix on Julien Ingrassia’s door, Evans took advantage and constructed a 3.9s lead ahead of the powerstage decider. It all looked good for Evans to take his first WRC win on asphalt…
…Until he made a mistake on the penultimate corner of the rally, ran wide and lost momentum on the flat-out straight that concluded the test. An imperious Ogier had been taking swipes out of his deficit through the splits anyway, but Evans’s error at the final moments was the nail in the coffin for him.
Ogier grabbed 4.5s from his team-mate to win by just 0.6s, inflicting a second final-stage defeat by under a second upon Evans (Neuville beat him by 0.7s in Argentina 2017). Neuville was also close in Croatia, just 8.1s shy of Ogier’s rally-winning time.