We all have a love affair with World Rally Championship cars, don’t we? Whether it’s the iconic and nimble Mini Cooper which upset the applecart on the Monte Carlo Rally, the gloriously innovative Audi Quattro or the array of silky smooth Subarus, there’s just something about the raw mechanics and flamboyance of a rally car in anger.
Alas, none of the above feature in this list, which looks at the most successful WRC cars of all time. We’re dealing with stats here, event wins per entry, and involving specific versions of cars only too. For example, the Subaru Impreza WRC has numerous victories in the world championship but none of the specific vairants make this list.
That means that while iconic in their own right, some of the most famous bits of machinery the WRC has thrown up over the years miss the cut. But hey, there’s still a great deal of nostalgia as we delve into the most prolific cars from the last few decades of the sport.
=10. Toyota Celica Turbo 4WD (ST185)
Event wins: 16
First victory: Safari Rally 1992 (Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya)
Last victory: Sanremo Rally 1994 (Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli)
If we played a game of word association with the Toyota Celica of this era, “illegal turbo restrictor” might come up, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this was one of the early 1990s’ most successful cars in the WRC.
It achieved 16 wins in ST185 form and three drivers’ championship titles in a row, for Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen and Didier Auriol respectively.
The ST185 took its first win on the brutal Safari Rally in the hands of Sainz and Luis Moya during their second title-winning campaign in 1992, a rally the car won the following year with Kankkunen and in 1994 with local expert Ian Duncan at the helm.
Proof that the ST185 was a quality car is that it won not just the rough events, but the high-speed rallies such as Sweden, Finland and New Zealand, while victories on asphalt (Tour de Corse, Catalunya and Sanremo) showcased the car’s all-round capabilities.
=8. Lancia Stratos HF
Event wins: 17
First victory: Rally Sanremo 1974 (Sandro Munari/Mario Mannucci)
Last victory: Tour de Corse 1981 (Bernard Darniche/Alain Mahé)
When the World Rally Championship title was reserved purely for manufacturers, Lancia was the make to beat. Three consecutive crowns between 1974 and 1976 and 11 victories, the first of which came via Sandro Munari and Mauro Mannucci on home soil on the Sanremo, cemented the dominance of the HF during this period in its iconic Alitalia livery.
And that’s sort of the allure of the Lancia Stratos, over and above the success it delivered, it was as slick and elegant a rally car as you were likely to ever find, and it is little wonder the car is still revered to this day. And with drivers like Munari, Björn Waldegård, Markku Alén and Bernard Darniche at the wheel, you were always guaranteed spectacular scenes on the stages. A real slick, elegant Italian car which proved that you don’t always have to shirk beauty to build an efficient, winning rally car.
=8. Ford Escort RS 1800 Mk2
Event wins: 17
First victory: RAC Rally 1975 (Timo Mäkinen/Henry Liddon)
Last victory: 1000 Lakes 1981 (Ari Vatanen/David Richards)
Tied for eighth in this list is the quite frankly legendary Escort RS 1800 Mk2. An icon of its time and one which carried on the success of its predecessor, the Mk1.
Timo Mäkinen is credited with the historic first WRC victory for the Mk2, on the 1975 RAC Rally, ahead of Roger Clark in a similar Mk2. Tony Fawkes highlighted the capabilities of the Mk2 by finishing third, but the Escort torch had now been firmly handed over.
Waldegård took the first ever world drivers’ crown with the Escort too by just a solitary point in the final event over Hannu Mikkola, and although Waldegård did some events in a Mercedes Ford did pick up the manufacturers’ crown that year, with wins in Portugal, Acropolis, New Zealand, Québec and the RAC.
Proof of its cult following and testament to the success it achieved during its WRC lifespan, the Ford Escort RS 1800 Mk2 is still rallied today in various historic championships across the world. And the price to get your hands on one of them has matched its popularity as well…
7. Fiat 131 Abarth
Event wins: 18
First victory: 1000 Lakes 1976 (Markku Alén/Ikka Kivimäki)
Last victory: Rally Portugal 1981 (Markku Alén/Ikka Kivimäki)
With Ford taking its first manufacturers’ crown in 1979, it unseated the previous incumbent Fiat from its perch as the top brand in the WRC. The Italian marque had vaulted to the top of the category with its fast, nimble albeit a bit boxy, 131 Abarth.
After taking its maiden victory on the 1000 Lakes in the hands of Markku Alén in 1976, the 131 Abarth came into its own the following year in the WRC, winning Portugal (Alén), South Pacific New Zealand (Fulvio Bacchelli), Québec (Timo Salonen), Sanremo (Jean-Claude Andruet) and Corsica (Bernard Darniche) and proving its quality on an array of surfaces.
Over the next three seasons, the Fiat was still a regular winner, with Alén joined in the team by the legendary Walter Röhrl and racking up another 11 wins between them between 1978 and 1981: Alén winning the 1978 FIA World Cup for Drivers and Röhrl the 1980 WRC title. But the car was on its way down and soon to be overtaken by the emergence of Audi and the four-wheel-drive systems which would revolutionize rallying. Fiat bowed out rather meekly at the end of 1983, having finished last in the standings.
6. Toyota Yaris WRC*
Event wins: 23
First victory: Rally Sweden 2017 (Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila)
Last victory: Rally Estonia 2021 (Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen)
The only car on this list still actively competing in the WRC today, and what a car it is as well. Built for the last major regulations change in 2017, the Yaris didn’t waste any time in bagging its first victory, courtesy of Jari-Matti Latvala on just its second outing, in Sweden.
Much had been expected of the Yaris in its first season, but few predicted a success this quickly. A full season title tilt proved more complicated though as it’s only other victory of 2017 came not through Latvala but via the sensational Esapekka Lappi, who surprised everyone by winning his fourth-ever event in a World Rally Car on his and the team’s home rally in Finland.
For 2018, Ott Tänak arrived at the team and, after a bit of a slow start, began to show the Yaris’s dominance with victories in Argentina, Finland, Germany, Turkey and Australia, with only reliability woes preventing a first world title. Tänak eventually bagged the title in 2019 with another six wins.
Since Tänak left for Hyundai, the Yaris has remained the car to beat, with Sébastien Ogier, Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanperä all winning rallies. The Yaris WRC will, like the rest of the current crop of WRC cars, bow out at the end of the year as one of the most successful and recognizable machines in the sport’s history.
*still competing today
5. Peugeot 206 WRC
Event wins: 24
First victory: Rally Sweden 2000 (Marcus Grönholm/Timo Rautiainen)
Last victory: Rally Catalunya 2003 (Gilles Panizzi/Hervé Panizzi)
The names Grönholm, Panizzi and Rovanperä (of the Harri variety) are perhaps inextricably linked to the success of the 206 throughout the car’s relatively short WRC lifespan.
Debuting in 1999 and taking its first victory in Sweden the following year thanks to Grönholm, the car was as sleek as it was fast and, with the reliability in check, was almost unbeatable on its day. Two WRC titles are clearly not representative of how good this car was, with Grönholm desperately unlucky with mechanical woes in 2001 and 2003.
The Finn’s team-mates played an equally important role in placing the 206 on this top 10 list. Like most team bosses, Corrado Provera didn’t just enjoy winning, he needed it to appease the PSA Group’s top brass. Which is why the likes of asphalt specialist Panizzi and gravel/snow expert Rovanperä were drafted in to do their stuff.
Panizzi on asphalt was, quite frankly, sensational. No other driver could chuck a car around corners in his era like Gilles and it paid off as the Frenchman was virtually invincible on the sealed surface.
4. Citroën DS3 WRC
Event wins: 26
First victory: Rally México 2011 (Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena)
Last victory: Rally Finland 2016 (Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle)
After the rip-roaring success of the Xsara and the C4, the DS3 was a radically different type of car altogether. Indeed, the pre-season musings ahead of the 2011 campaign were that Citroën would have its work cut out to replicate anything like the sort of dominance it achieved during the two previous iterations of the factory-run cars.
The brand-new 1.6-litre hot hatch DS3 was still the car to beat though, and with Loeb and Ogier at the wheel, it was even harder for the opposition. Sixteen wins for Loeb, five for Ogier, three for Kris Meeke, and one apiece for Dani Sordo and Mikko Hirvonen over a six-year period and another two titles for Loeb again showcased how binary the WRC was at the time. You either had a Citroën, or you didn’t.
The brand slipped down the pecking order somewhat after Loeb’s retirement at the end of 2012 and, like everyone else during the 2013-2016 period, struggled to hold a torch against the dominant Volkswagen Polos. This meant success was largely limited, but in the right hands, it was still as quick as the German manufacturer, with Sordo claiming his first-ever WRC win on Rally Germany, and Meeke picking up three of his five WRC triumphs in the DS3.
3. Citroën Xsara WRC
Event wins: 32
First victory: Tour de Corse 2001 (Jesús Puras/Marc Martí)
Last victory: Cyprus Rally 2006 (Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena)
It was clear when the Xsara F2 Kit Car burst onto the scene in the late 1990s, that PSA Group meant business. And by the end of 2003, having come agonizingly close to picking up both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ world titles, it was only a matter of time before the Citroën/Loeb combination would achieve greatness.
Having taken a pair of overall wins in the F2 car in 1999, Citroën came into the WRC proper in 2001, with Jesús Puras winning the Tour de Corse. Loeb then “won” the Monte Carlo Rally in January the following year, only to be penalized for a tire irregularity which handed Tommi Mäkinen his final victory – and only for Subaru. Loeb broke the hoodoo in Germany later that year before going on to claim four wins en route to second in the 2003 standings behind champion Petter Solberg.
The next year was dominant, and Loeb became as much of a threat on gravel as he was on his beloved asphalt, romping to the title with seven victories.
Another title followed in 2005, but Citroën pulled its factory support from the WRC at the end of the season. No worries, Loeb ended up taking his third title in a row in 2006 driving the privateer Kronos Racing Xsara – and having spent the second half of the season incapacitated with a broken shoulder. In total, 32 WRC wins were chalked up, with Loeb taking 28 of them.
Only Puras, Carlos Sainz (Turkey 2003 and Argentina 2004) and François Duval (Australia 2005) got a look in.
2. Citroën C4 WRC
Event wins: 36
First victory: Monte Carlo Rally 2007 (Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena)
Last victory: Rally GB 2010 (Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena)
The middle child of the factory Citroëns was actually the most successful, both in terms of outright rally wins and title triumphs. In fact, the driver who claimed 34 out of the car’s 36 WRC victories, Sébastien Loeb said he was “sad” after its final appearance – aptly, a terrific squabble for victory on Rally GB with Petter Solberg which, you guessed it, the Frenchman won.
The stats for Loeb in the C4 make for somewhat eye-watering reading. As well as 34 wins, Loeb finished on the podium 46 times out of 56 events, setting 403 fastest stage times. His personal favorite was the chassis #20 C4 with which he won five rallies in five starts, including the final one in Wales in 2010.
Other than Loeb, only Sébastien Ogier managed to win in the C4, twice: his maiden win in Portugal followed by Japan that year.
1. Volkswagen Polo R WRC
Event wins: 43
First victory: Rally Sweden 2013 (Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia)
Last victory: Rally Australia 2016 (Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jæger)
Following a half-hearted – and frankly abysmal – flirtation with the WRC in 1990 with the ill-fated Golf Rallye G60 which produced just one podium finish for Erwin Weber in New Zealand before being canned for 1991, Volkswagen returned to the fold for 2013.
Announced in May 2011, the subsequent two years of preparation, testing and development, the Polo R was perhaps the most elaborate, detailed and professionally made car any rally team has ever produced.
Designed to the new World Rally Car technical regulations – 1.6-litre turbocharged cars – the Polo would be driven by none other than Sébastien Ogier – who had fallen out with the Citroën big wigs during that tumultuous 2011 season – Jari-Matti Latvala and the up-and-coming Andreas Mikkelsen.
Led by François-Xavier Demaison, Willy Rampf and Jost Capito, success was almost inevitable. But the extent of this success could not have been foreseen. The Polo R became the most dominant car (per events entered) in the history of the WRC, with Ogier claiming 31 wins in this four-year period. Latvala scored nine wins while Mikkelsen claimed three. A mammoth 43 WRC wins in four years is an incredible record and one which will take some beating.