The final round title fights of the World Rally Car era

Including 2021, 11 of the 25 seasons since 1997 have gone down to the wire

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The 2021 Monza Rally is an event of huge historical significance. Not only will this year’s World Rally Champion be crowned, but it also marks the end of an important era.

Ever since 1997, the top-flight cars in the World Rally Championship have evolved and changed but have always been named World Rally Cars. But in 2022, with the advent of hybrid technology, the name will disappear with the class rebranded as Rally1.

Ahead of the 2021 title decider between Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans, it feels like a poignant time to reflect on the final-round WRC title deciders of the World Rally Car era.

In total, 11 of the 25 seasons between 1997-2021 have gone down to the wire – and some far more spectacularly than others. Here’s a reminder of how each of the previous 10 prior to 2021 shaped out and a rating of how exhilarating the season finale was.


Contenders: Tommi Mäkinen, Colin McRae
Event: Rally GB

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Tommi Mäkinen started 1997 as the reigning world champion but without a World Rally Car as Mitsubishi opted to stick with a Group A base for its Evo IV. Colin McRae meanwhile was armed with Subaru’s two-door Impreza WRC.

The two heavyweights of that era descended on Rally GB split by 10 points. Both Mäkinen and McRae had won four rallies each, but a bruising spate of four consecutive retirements from Greece to Indonesia put McRae on the back foot.

He could still win the ’97 title on his home event but the odds were firmly stacked against him. The best McRae could do was equal Mäkinen’s points haul of 62 points and win via a tiebreaker, but that required Mäkinen to fail to score any points in GB.

McRae was on a roll prior to the event. He had won both the Sanremo Rally and Rally Australia, and had won Rally GB for the last two years.

Ultimately both drivers executed their jobs. McRae won after his first big battle with Mäkinen’s team-mate Richard Burns – Burns hauling himself into play with a blistering run on Radnor in thick fog – while Mäkinen was a touch off-color but did enough to secure sixth place.

Mäkinen therefore edged McRae to win his second world title by just a single point.

Season finale rating: 4/10


Contenders: Tommi Mäkinen, Carlos Sainz
Event: Rally GB

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One year later, Mäkinen was once again in the frame for another title but this time was up against Toyota’s Carlos Sainz. What unfolded was one of the most famous WRC title deciders of all time.

Mäkinen and Sainz had taken it in turns to lead the championship throughout 1998, but as the pair descended on the UK for Rally GB it was Mäkinen that led the way – but only by two points. That meant that the title was realistically anybody’s.

However the scales soon tipped in favor of Sainz. Running as the first car on the road on an asphalt stage – part of what was often referred to as ‘Mickey Mouse Sunday’ – Mäkinen approached a tightening left-hander but lost the rear on some oil, left by a historic Hillman Imp that had passed through the stage beforehand.

Mäkinen’s Mitsubishi smacked against a bollard which destroyed the rear-right corner. He was therefore out, meaning Sainz only had to finish fourth to guarantee himself a third world title.

And that’s exactly where he lay on the leaderboard heading onto SS28 of 28: Margam. But then the unthinkable happened. The engine in Sainz’s Corolla WRC blew just a few hundred meters from the end and left him stranded. Co-driver Luis Moya’s helmet being hurled through the back window told you everything you needed to know.

Mäkinen – who was doing a television interview and preparing to fly home – got a call from his brother who broke the news. Mäkinen thought it was a wind-up at first, but sure enough he had beaten Sainz to the title by two points and duly returned to the service park to celebrate his success.

Season finale rating: 10/10


Contenders: Marcus Grönholm, Richard Burns
Event: Rally GB

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The year 2000 marked a new era for the WRC as well as the world as Mäkinen’s run as world champion was over. By the finale in the UK it was going to be either Marcus Grönholm or Richard Burns that stole the mantle from him.

The situation favored Grönholm. The Peugeot driver – on his first full season in the WRC – led Burns by nine points with just 10 available to score. That meant that Burns had to win and hope Grönholm would feature outside the top six positions.

But Burns winning was a strong likelihood. He had won his home event for the previous two years and his Subaru Impreza S6 WRC was an incredibly potent machine. Rallies though are not won on paper.

Burns suffered a fraught start – damaging his Subaru on the first day – to lie just fifth overnight with Grönholm up in second. Fifth soon became third however on the first stage of day two and Burns was closing right in on Grönholm’s 206 WRC too.

Colin McRae crashing out of SS12 did Burns a huge favor. He was by then just three seconds behind Grönholm and by the next stage was past him into the lead. He was doing all he could, but so was Grönholm, and finishing second behind Burns earned Grönholm the first of his two world titles by five points.

Season finale rating: 3/10


Contenders: Colin McRae, Tommi Mäkinen, Richard Burns, Carlos Sainz
Event: Rally GB

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Possibly the most iconic title decider in WRC history. After a topsy-turvy season, McRae, Mäkinen, Burns and Sainz all headed to Rally GB with a shot at the world championship.

Sainz was very much the outsider but still in mathematical contention, while Mäkinen was equally in a strong points position but not as fancied as McRae and Burns who hadn’t been beaten on home soil in the WRC since 1993.

The expected two-horse race was soon all but official when Mäkinen’s Mitsubishi was found parked up on the first forest stage, missing a wheel. McRae grabbed an early lead, 0.2s up on Grönholm with Burns 7.3s back in fourth.

But SS4 Rhondda would change everything. McRae was on a push but was greedy with a cut on the inside of a fast right-hander. His Focus WRC found a rock and was hurled into the air, somersaulting down the road and into retirement.

Burns went off into an escape road at the very next corner upon passing the destroyed McRae, knowing what he had to do. Fourth place would be enough for Burns to seal the title, and so his mission became one of conservation.

There were some scares – like when his Subaru refused to start in parc fermé – but Burns kept his head and executed the task to perfection, placing third. Sainz failed to finish after colliding and injuring a spectator, prompting Ford to withdraw both Sainz and its remaining entry Mark Higgins.

2001 was a classic but misses out on the perfect 10/10 score only because the contest – which was so keenly hyped – was sizzled out after just a handful of stages.

Season finale rating: 9/10


Contenders: Sébastien Loeb, Carlos Sainz, Petter Solberg, Richard Burns
Event: Rally GB

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Yet another four-way decider on Rally GB, but 2003 was essentially a two-way contest from the get-go. Citroën drivers Loeb and Sainz shared the championship lead on 63 points with Subaru’s Solberg just one point behind and Peugeot’s Burns also in the mix – five points adrift despite not winning a rally all season.

However Burns was ruled out on the week of the rally, blacking out at the wheel of his car as he drove from London to Cardiff. Sainz did take the start, but his Xsara WRC left the road on SS3 meaning a brand-new World Rally Champion would be crowned.

Even after that third test when Sainz crashed, Loeb and Solberg were miles clear of the rest. Solberg had a theoretical advantage having won Rally GB the year before and he only had one thing to focus on, whereas Loeb also had to keep Citroën’s manufacturers’ push in mind with his drive.

But even without that lingering thought in Loeb’s mind, it’s unlikely he would’ve been able to match Solberg. The Norwegian was inspired, absolutely dominating the second day to move into a 41.2s lead with just one leg to go.

He was in cruise control on the final morning but emphatically won the final stage at Margam Park by 11.1s to seal his sole WRC title – and history would prove Solberg was the only driver to defeat Loeb over the course of a full season.

Of course he didn’t know that at the time, but his wild and passionate celebrations were befitting of such an achievement.

Season finale rating: 8/10


Contenders: Sébastien Loeb, Marcus Grönholm
Event: Rally GB


Although Loeb won nine world titles on the bounce, no driver made him work harder for any of those successes than Grönholm. 2007 was perhaps the year where the Ford driver should’ve got the better of Loeb, but a crash on Rally Ireland was costly as Loeb won and was elevated into a four-point championship lead ahead of Rally GB.

The finale was an intense way for Grönholm to bring the curtain down on his WRC career as he had decided 2007 would be his last year as a full-time driver. Tantalisingly, he was squaring off against Loeb in a bid to join him on three world championship titles.

Unfortunately it wouldn’t happen for the big Finn. Grönholm did his bit as he defeated Loeb by over a minute in Wales, but Loeb equally did his job and consolidated third place – knowing that with Grönholm second behind team-mate Mikko Hirvonen, he could finish as low as sixth even if the two Fords swapped positions.

The contest went right down to the wire on the final stage but it was a slightly flat ending to what had been a massively intriguing 16-round season.

Season finale rating: 5/10


Contenders: Sébastien Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen
Event: Rally GB


Halfway through the 2009 season, the championship looked like a Loeb walkover. Victory on all five of the first rounds – even with Mikko Hirvonen second on most of them – certainly didn’t harm Loeb’s bid.

But a puncture in Sardinia (plus a two-minute penalty for Loeb as he set off while Daniel Elena’s seatbelts weren’t securely fastened) followed by a crash on the Acropolis and a mistake in Poland opened up the door for Hirvonen.

The Ford driver duly won the Acropolis, Poland and Finland and inherited a Rally Australia victory as Loeb was excluded with a technical infringement. Hirvonen dropped four points on Rally Spain but headed to the finale in Wales one point ahead of Loeb. It was effectively a winner takes all battle.

Loeb and Hirvonen were closely matched across the first day with Loeb marginally ahead until Hirvonen lost crucial ground on day two, ending it 30.2s behind his rival.

But the tables turned on the final day as Hirvonen got his deficit down to 18.2s with just two stages to go, only for the hood on his Focus RS WRC to flip up as he negotiated a Port Talbot jump. With his vision severely obscured, Hirvonen had to stop and rip the hood off, losing a minute and releasing the pressure from Loeb who claimed a sixth world title.

Season finale rating: 7/10


Contenders: Sébastien Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen
Event: Rally GB


The 2011 WRC season is best remembered for the explosive fall-out between Citroën team-mates Loeb and Sébastien Ogier, but it was Hirvonen that took the title challenge down to the wire with Loeb.

Despite a Ford podium lockout in Sweden, Citroën had dominated the season with 10 victories from the first 12 rounds evenly shared between Loeb and Ogier. But victory on Rally Australia, ably assisted by Jari-Matti Latvala, moved Hirvonen into play as Ogier’s challenge collapsed and Loeb also crashed.

Hirvonen was eight points adrift heading to Wales so it was very much advantage Loeb, but the Ford driver could win the rally and the powerstage to seal the deal for himself.

However that never materialised. The fight between the two title protagonists was epic throughout the early phases of Rally GB; Hirvonen leading Loeb by just 0.4s after six stages. But the first pass of Dyfnant would kill the contest dead.

Hirvonen was in full attack mode and paid the price. He ran wide in the sodden and foggy conditions and spun his Fiesta WRC, collecting some logs with the rear. This did damage to the radiator of the car and despite his best efforts, once the car died on the road section Hirvonen couldn’t choke it back to life.

It was a bitter blow for Hirvonen who would never get that close to a world title again. Loeb had looked well placed to win the rally – even though he didn’t need to as Hirvonen wouldn’t restart – but a bizarre road traffic collision on the final day put him out. Latvala took his one and only victory of 2011.

Season finale rating: 6/10


Contenders: Sébastien Ogier, Thierry Neuville, Ott Tänak
Event: Rally Australia


Billed ‘the decider down under’, Ogier, Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak all headed to Rally Australia in with a shot of the title. Three drivers at the top of their game driving for three different teams.

Both Ogier and Neuville had led the standings throughout the year and it was Ogier who topped the pile prior to the decider – but only by a slender three points over Neuville. Tänak was more of an outside bet despite his epic mid-season promise, lurking 23 points behind.

Ogier had the disadvantage of running first on the road which restricted him to seventh after the first day but Neuville fared worse, picking up a puncture and falling to 10th. Tänak was fifth, losing time of his own when his Toyota lost front aero through a water crossing.

Neuville became an increasingly unlikely title bet as the rally wore on, struggling to make an impact on the second day as first car on the road. He ended the leg eighth with Ogier sixth in his M-Sport Ford. But the day belonged to Tänak who soared to the top of the leaderboard, 20s clear of team-mate Latvala.

Ogier was still doing enough to secure the title, but the need for calculators soon went out the window on the final day. Tänak retired on the third-to-last stage after an accident damaged his transmission while Neuville smacked a back and subsequently a tree, forcing him out too.

Citroën-bound Ogier therefore had two stages as a bit of a glory run and duly won his final stage in an M-Sport car as he finished fifth overall. Latvala meanwhile claimed what would prove to be the 18th and final win of his WRC career.

Season finale rating: 8/10


Contenders: Sébastien Ogier, Elfyn Evans, Thierry Neuville, Ott Tänak
Event: Monza Rally


Although statistically this one was a four-way title fight, realistically it was a two-way contest between Ogier and Elfyn Evans. Neuville was 24 points adrift and Tänak was 28 points back, while Ogier trailed leader Evans by 14 points.

In a COVID-19-shortened seven-round season, Evans earned a break on Rally Turkey as he won while Ogier retired and erstwhile leader Neuville punctured. He therefore started Monza in a comfortable – but not unassailable – position.

After the circuit stages Ogier was in third with Evans fourth, provisionally doing enough to secure the title. Ogier moved into the rally lead as the event moved out of the Monza circuit but Evans was third, keeping him in a position to be champion subject to the powerstage.

But SS11 Gerosa would change all that. Coming across a particularly icy corner with a steep drop, Evans squirreled as his Toyota lost grip, gave it a boot-full to try to carry the Yaris around the corner but to no avail. He had slid off the road and into retirement.

Ogier clung on to win the rally and a seventh world championship title. This year, he will head to the exact same arena against the exact same driver but this time will enjoy a points advantage instead of a points deficit.

Season finale rating: 6/10