Even before the start of the 2021 season, all the talk centered around when – not if – Kalle Rovanperä would record his first career World Rally Championship victory. Now that moment has arrived courtesy of his maiden triumph in Estonia, and in doing so he became the first driver of the new decade to take his first win.
The 2010s was a hotbed for first-time WRC success, with a total of 10 drivers secured their maiden WRC win. Elfyn Evans the last to do so, in 2017 and DirtFish reflects on all of those winners from the 2010s.
First win: Rally Portugal 2010
Before Sébastien Ogier achieved his seven world titles and 53 WRC wins, he had been the ‘nearly’ man, especially on the big stage. A weird thought, isn’t it?
When he and co-driver Julien Ingrassia claimed their maiden victory on Rally Portugal 11 years ago, it was as much a relief that they’d done it as it was a joyous occasion. After all, Ogier had come so close to taking his first win three weeks prior in New Zealand before throwing it all away just a few corners from the finish.
Come Portugal, there would be no mistake however, as he not only claimed his maiden win by beating Sébastien Loeb in a straight fight, but also sealed his subsequent graduation from the Citroën Junior Team to the full factory drive for three rounds.
Hitting the front on stage four of 18 and overhauling early leader Dani Sordo, Ogier held the lead until the end. Not even a late charge from Loeb on the final day, following a difficult first day, could prevent Ogier from claiming a deserved seven-second victory. His first of many.
First win: Rally Portugal 2012
As David Evans wrote at the time, it was a “bonkers” rally from start to finish. But then again, by this point in the season (round four), the whole 2012 season seemed a bit bonkers as the FIA scrambled to find a replacement for its promoter, with which it had cut ties on the eve of the Monte Carlo Rally season-opener in January.
Perhaps it was just a sign of the times that Rally Portugal produced one of the most bizarre events of the 2010s.
Heavy rain and thick fog dogged the rally, but it was a botched pacenote on Thursday evening’s opening stage that sent Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena rolling out of the event with a damaged rollcage. Ford’s Jari-Matti Latvala – who had suffered a miserable start to the season – retired for the third time in four rallies when he hit a rock while leading while his team-mate Petter Solberg went off the road.
That gave Mikko Hirvonen the lead and the Finn duly came through the final day untroubled en route to what had been his 15th career victory. But post-event scrutineering found that his Citroën had been using an illegal clutch and its turbinewheel in the turbo had shown irregularities.
Hirvonen was chucked out, handing Mads Østberg an unlikely win, with Russian Evgeniy Novikov runner-up ahead of Solberg’s Fiesta.
First win: Rally Germany 2013
It took forever and a day for Dani Sordo to finally get the monkey off his back and win his first WRC rally and, when it did happen, no-one in the service park or wider rallying community begrudged the Spaniard in the slightest. Some even no doubt shed a tear.
Sordo’s route to victory came as a result of a determined Saturday drive and chaos for the all-conquering Volkswagen team, which lost both Sébastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala to incidents. Ogier clipped a grassy bank after hitting a wet patch and broke his suspension, while Latvala crashed after co-driver Mikko Anttila was late with a pacenote – caused by using his right hand to hold his damaged door shut after an earlier brush with a hinkelstein.
Thierry Neuville also encountered trouble with a flattened exhaust after hitting a log pile, but the Belgian was able to continue, although he conceded the lead to Sordo. Neuville kept the pressure on Sordo but his challenge faded in a final stage shoot-out as he faltered with a mistake, ending up over 50s in arrears.
First win: Rally Germany 2014
A year after Dani Sordo’s first win, Rally Germany produced another victory breakthrough, and it was only fair that the driver Sordo narrowly beat in 2013, Thierry Neuville, would be the one to do it.
Having joined Sordo at Hyundai, Neuville was in bullish mood heading to his de facto home rally – with the Belgian border a mere 50 miles from the event’s headquarters in Trier – despite a crash on shakedown that dented his confidence.
Both Volkswagens crashed out again, with Sébastien Ogier repeating his day-one mishap of 2013 by missing his braking point and slipping over a two-meter wall and onto a service road below the stage. He and Julien Ingrassia then went out for good on day two following another hard impact; enough to damage the Armco barrier and cancel the eighth stage of 18.
Jari-Matti Latvala, whose 37-second lead over Citroën’s Kris Meeke at the end of day one had ballooned to nearly a minute by the final day, also found trouble on the treacherous German roads, losing control of his VW at high speed and sliding down a vineyard and into retirement.
Meeke inherited the lead but took a wheel off his car after hitting a wall. Neuville, who started the final day a minute off the lead, picked up the pieces.
First win: Rally Argentina 2015
With the exception of just a few on this list, most maiden WRC wins of the 2010s came after some gut-wrenching near misses, and Kris Meeke was certainly no stranger to his fair share of close calls.
By his own admission, Meeke had been left “devastated” after throwing away a near-certain first win in Germany the previous year (see above) but by the time Argentina 2015 came around, the Citroën driver took his opportunity with aplomb.
Britain had waited 13 years for a WRC winner, and it was fitting that it was Meeke – the late Colin McRae’s protégé – who dutifully picked up the baton. He did it while keeping a cool head and driving within himself, while the Volkswagens hit rare mechanical trouble and Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville had a shocker. Jari-Matti Latvala’s Polo suffered fuel injector issues while power-steering did for Sébastien Ogier and Andreas Mikkelsen. Neuville crashed out of fourth place on the final stage.
Meeke’s victory of 18s over team-mate Mads Østberg was largely comfortable, while Elfyn Evans took a well-earned maiden podium finish for M-Sport.
First win: Rally Spain 2015
For the bulk of the 2015 campaign, Andreas Mikkelsen well and truly played second, or even third, fiddle to his more experienced Volkswagen team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and world champion Sébastien Ogier. Indeed, Ogier probably should have tasted victory in Spain had it not been for an uncharacteristic last-stage crash that forced him out.
A medium-speed left-hander didn’t pose any obvious problem for Ogier, but he arrived too fast, dipped his front-left wheel in the crown of the road which unsettled the rear of the car, and sent his Volkswagen Polo into the Armco barrier on the outside of the corner.
It brought a shuddering halt to Ogier’s rally, which up until that point had been perfect. Seven stage wins and on course for his eighth outright win of the season – which he’d eventually get at the final round in the UK – Ogier was unbeatable. In fact, the only driver who could beat him turned out to be himself.
Mikkelsen had shaded Latvala in the battle for what looked to be second place on that final stage, though it quickly became first as a result of Ogier’s misjudgement.
First win: Rally Argentina 2016
Hayden Paddon had already made his impact on the WRC establishment in Sweden that year, finishing a close runner-up to Sébastien Ogier on the high-speed winter event, but it was in Argentina – perhaps the toughest and roughest rally of the year – where the Kiwi cemented his place in the record books.
The fact that Paddon beat Ogier by an incredible 11s on the final stage sent shockwaves around the service park. He’d out-Ogier’d Ogier.
One of the reasons Paddon came out on top on this final stage, and more importantly kept his cool, was down to his work with a man called Gilbert Enoka – the famous leadership manager and mind coach with the all-conquering New Zealand All Blacks rugby team that he helped secure back-to-back world cup titles in 2011 and 2015. Enoka earned his reputation by coining a management policy called the “no d***heads allowed policy”, but it’s his efforts in building team culture and increasing productivity under the most intense pressure that has made Enoka the most sought-after of mental coaches.
Paddon’s composure under the enormous pressure exuded from Ogier on that final El Condor test was immaculate and showed that when both the driver and car were in the right place, the dominance of Volkswagen could be challenged… and beaten.
First win: Rally Italy 2017
Former Ford factory driver Markko Märtin had told M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson that his protégé needed two things to mature as a WRC driver and, eventually, into a rally winner. Those were time and opportunity.
Ott Tänak had come a long way from swimming his way out of his stricken – and increasingly flooded – Ford Fiesta two years earlier, and with his breakthrough triumph in Italy, the Estonian had become one of the hottest properties in the championship. So much so, that by year’s end, he was bound for Toyota.
Sardinia was a topsy-turvy rally, demonstrated by the lead changing five times on as many stages. Thierry Neuville won the opening superspecial on Thursday, before Kris Meeke took over. Then Toyota’s Juho Hänninen hit the front on the first stage of Friday before ceding the position to Meeke by stage four. Hayden Paddon assumed the advantage on stage five and held onto the lead for the next seven stages before crashing out.
Tänak inherited the lead and built a margin upwards of 25 seconds over Jari-Matti Latvala. A late surge from the Toyota driver on the final stage brought the deficit down to 12 seconds, but he couldn’t deny M-Sport’s latest sensation the win.
First win: Rally Finland 2017
The old adage that ‘to win in Finland, hire a Finn’ was somewhat thrown out of the window in the 2010s as Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier proved that coming from outside of the Nordic region wasn’t necessarily as big a disadvantage as it used to be. Kris Meeke equally disproved that theory as well, in 2016.
In 2017, the Finns were seeking revenge, and they got it; but not in the form many had expected. Instead of the experienced Latvala taking the spoils for the fourth time, it was the young upstart on just his fourth WRC start, Esapekka Lappi, who took the win.
Latvala had been the favorite to come out on top, however, and it was only his mechanical woes on the second day that prevented a likely triumph. The poise and pace from an unmoved Lappi, who’d arrived at the service park later that day in utter shock that he was indeed leading his home rally at his first attempt in a WRC car, was remarkable nonetheless.
He came through to win from Evans by 36s, with Juho Hänninen third, while Teemu Suninen reflected Finland’s new age of drivers by recording three stage wins en route to a sensational fourth place.
First win: Rally GB 2017
The final first-time winner of the 2010s was another to record their triumph on home soil, and this was one that had been in the works all season long. Evans had come within spitting distance of his first win in Argentina earlier in the year, only to be pipped at the post by Thierry Neuville on the final stage, denied by a mere 0.7s.
The penultimate round of the 2017 season decided the title in favor of Sébastien Ogier once more, his fifth on the bounce, but Evans’ triumph was of equal importance: a Welsh win in Wales, and the first British winner of Rally GB since the late Richard Burns did so 16 years prior.
Evans utterly dominated the event and used his knowledge of the roads, the DMACK tires and the unique Rally GB conditions to comfortably control things all weekend. But if history was any parameter to temper enthusiasm, Evans only allowed himself to celebrate once he’d crossed the final stop line in Brenig.
Ever the understated, Evans entered the final day of the rally in remarkably calm mood.
“I wasn’t sure what was going on with myself during the day,” he said. “I’d talked myself into believing this was just another rally, that I was actually believing it and I wasn’t actually that bothered!”