The second-tier drivers to make the top five in the WRC

Jari Huttunen's fifth place last week wasn't the only time a second-tier driver has reached such heights

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Last weekend’s Rally Italy was of statistical significance for two reasons. Firstly, it was the first time since Rally GB in 2001 that there were no Fords in the top 10 of a World Rally Championship event. And it was also the first time since Italy in 2012 that a car from the secondary class of machinery finished in the top five on a gravel event.

Since World Rally Cars were introduced as rallying’s de facto top tier in 1997, there have only been a handful of drivers who have been able to break into the top five in cars normally only battling for class honors rather than overall success.

It’s been especially rare on gravel where strength of machinery tends to be aligned with speed as manufacturer teams at the top level invest in test programs to improve reliability and ruggedness on all surfaces, while most at the lower levels are privateer entrants with less power and sometimes two fewer driveshafts.

There have been drivers in the World Rally Car era who have campaigned significantly older cars with success despite technology moving forward, perhaps most notably when Petter Solberg took two podiums in a 2006 Citroën Xsara WRC on pace alone in 2009.

But those results aren’t quite as impressive as those who drove F2, S2000, R5 and now Rally2 cars to big results.

DirtFish presents the nine names to have scaled the top-five summit in a tier-two car during the World Rally Car era:

Jari Huttunen

Result: 5th, Rally Italy 2021

Car: Hyundai i20 R5

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The high rate of attrition in the WRC’s most recent round left just four World Rally Cars getting to the finish without retiring at any point, and unsurprisingly they filled the top four positions. With five stages left to go, the WRC2 class leaders Jari Huttunen and Mads Østberg suddenly found themselves fighting over fifth place.

And it genuinely raised the stakes in a victory battle that almost received as much attention as for the overall rally win due to Østberg’s recovery job from several issues with his Citroën C3 Rally2 and a one-minute penalty, plus a feverish Finnish audience that were seeing this battle as justification that Hyundai junior Huttunen should get a chance in a World Rally Car.

Ultimately Huttunen did triumph, by just 7.5 seconds, and did so too in an R5 car that while is now being operated under the factory Hyundai umbrella on WRC weekends, is still a two-year-old car not being developed by the brand as the i20’s Rally2 successor arriving soon. The new C3 meanwhile is a car pretty much designed and developed by Østberg.

Chris Atkinson

Result: 5th, Rally Australia 2004

Car: Subaru Impreza WRX STi

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Photo: McKlein Image Database

The Production World Rally Championship centered around Group N cars from the 1990s through to its end in 2012, and entry lists were usually filled by Subaru Imprezas and Mitsubishi Lancers. The rally legacy of the brands made the class popular with spectators, and they still had their own class over in the European Rally Championship until the end of last year when ERC2 was scrubbed from the series.

However local talent Chris Atkinson wasn’t a PWRC entrant for Rally Australia in 2004, meaning that although he was the top Group N car by 40.5 seconds over the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIII-driving Xevi Pons, it was Pons who essentially took class honors.

That didn’t matter though, as this result propelled Atkinson’s career global. His main focus in 2004 had been an Asia-Pacific Rally Championship campaign with Suzuki in an S1600 car, coming fifth overall and winning his class in four of the five rallies he contested.

But jumping in an Impreza WRX STi gained him far more attention, and three top-six stage times and then the end rally result on Rally Australia influenced the Subaru World Rally Team’s decision to sign the 25-year-old for the 2005 WRC season.

Harri Rovanperä

Result: 5th, Safari Rally 1998

Car: Seat Ibiza Kit Car Evo2

1998 Safari Rally copyright: McKlein

Photo: McKlein Image Database

It says a lot about Seat’s WRC history that its own World Rally Car, the Cordoba WRC, only on four occasions recorded a better finish than Rovanperä’s fifth place in the front-wheel-drive Ibiza Kit Car. However, it can’t be ignored that when it comes to scales of effort for secondary class programs, the factory Seat Sport push with its Ibiza was up there with the most focused from any brand.

The previous year had started off badly but gradually improved in terms of pace and reliability for Rovanperä and the first-generation Ibiza, and so there were high hopes for 1998 that further progress could be made with the Evo2 successor. Instead, it was a year plagued with engine problems that led to multiple retirements, and left the Safari as the only highlight of the car’s tenure.

The rally was no giant-killing effort but more a controlled drive, with Rovanperä simply keeping it on the road as attrition as the African heat knocked out several of the faster cars and then the suspension gave in over the rough Kenyan gravel for many of the others. Often Rovanperä wasn’t even at the top on stage times in his class, but a careful approach was by far the most efficient and it left him with a victory margin of over 14 minutes.

Sébastien Ogier

Result: 5th, Rally Italy 2012

Car: Škoda Fabia S2000

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Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

When it comes to genuinely outpacing World Rally Cars on traditional rally stages (no superspecials here), then the only driver to have shown it’s regularly possible is seven-time world champion Ogier.

After departing a friction-filled Citroën at the end of 2011, Ogier signed a three-year deal with Volkswagen despite the brand not yet having a World Rally Car. And so a factory WRC effort took place in 2012 in one of VW’s sister brand’s Škoda’s popular S2000 cars.

The first run through Tergu – Osilo in Sardinia earned Ogier his only overall stage win of the year by a whopping seven seconds, and he was on the pace on many of the other Sardinian stages. He ended Friday in fourth place overall, a position he retained through Saturday morning. After dropping back to fifth, he then outpaced Atkinson’s Mini John Cooper Works WRC to secure the position.

He would then of course go on to win seven of the next eight available world titles.

Robert Kubica

Result: 5th, Rally Germany 2013

Car: Citroën DS3 RRC

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Photo: McKlein Image Database

One year after Ogier’s efforts, former Formula 1 driver Robert Kubica became WRC2 Champion in an old World Rally Car converted into a specification to make it eligible for secondary class competition. This campaign was arguably even more impressive than Ogier’s, which put him 10th overall in the WRC points, as this was the first full season of rallying in Kubica’s motorsport career.

He had done a few events in two-wheel-drive machinery alongside F1 in 2010, then had a few cracks at small-scale events in World Rally Cars in 2012 as he recovered from life-changing injuries sustained in a 2011 rally crash. That built up his confidence enough to attack ERC and WRC2 in 2013, where he far exceeded expectations.

Three top-eight times on Friday of Rally Germany had him on target for a solid eighth place overall and WRC2 victory over Elfyn Evans, but at the end of Saturday that suddenly became fifth as Jari-Matti Latvala and Østberg both stopped. The recovering crews didn’t have long to regain positions with only two stages on Sunday, and Kubica held off Evans for what ended up being a career-best fifth despite stepping up to the WRC in 2014.

Gilles Panizzi

Result: 3rd, Rally Spain 1997 / Tour de Corse ’97 & 1998 / Rally Sanremo ’98

Car: Peugeot 306 Maxi

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Photo: McKlein Image Database

Gilles Panizzi and Peugeot are entwined in their WRC histories, and Panizzi drove the manufacturer’s machinery at every level of rallying it had built cars for.

The 306 Maxi was a front-wheel-drive beast that came into its own on asphalt rallies, and so it’s no surprise that the occasions where Panizzi could fight the big boys in the WRC were all on the black stuff.

The first time it happened though was a shock. Panizzi started Rally Spain in 1997 by matching team-mate François Delecour for the fastest time on what was their first competitive stage of the WRC season after warming up with a French Rally Championship event. Then Panizzi was fastest on SS2, and SS3, and did the same on SS4 and led the rally by 17 seconds going into the final stage of the day – much to the ire of the leading WRC crews.

That final stage all went wrong though, dropping Panizzi to ninth place and over two minutes off the lead. The comeback drive was incredible, winning two stages on Saturday, dropping another 21s to the rally lead but actually rising up to third place. That was where he kept it on Sunday to take a remarkable first podium in just his fourth WRC event. A month later he repeated the trick in Corsica with five more stage wins.

By 1998 the Peugeot’s competitivity on asphalt wasn’t quite as tantalizing, but he made the top five again in Corsica and Sanremo and added another eight stage wins to his career tally across the year.

François Delecour

Result: 2nd, Tour de Corse 1998 / 4th, Tour de Corse 1997

Car: Peugeot 306 Maxi

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Photo: McKlein Image Database

Already an established star of rallying, having come second in the world championship for Ford back in 1993, Delecour’s career took him to the French Rally Championship and the ERC driving Kit Cars after Ford’s wavering WRC commitment as a manufacturer team led to him leaving the manufacturer in 1996.

In joining Peugeot immediately after, it meant his WRC appearances were few and far between in a 306 Maxi not built for the tough gravel rallies that proliferated the calendar. On his championship return in 1997, on Rally Spain, he finished sixth on the road but was excluded and so he had a point to prove when he turned up to Corsica a month later.

He started the rally by immediately going third fastest, moving up to second on SS2 and ending Friday with a stage win to sit five seconds off rally leader Panizzi. He took the lead off him at the start of Saturday, and pretty much held it through to Sunday. Delecour was overwhelmed by the World Rally Car drivers and team-mate Panizzi though on the final day, and dropped back by 55s to finish fourth.

After juggling several series with the car in ‘97, Peugeot moved Delecour’s focus to car development and the WRC’s asphalt rallies for 1998. He finished 10th in Monaco, eighth in Spain and then picked up his first podium for three years in Corsica.

While not on the pace on any individual stage, being consistent with his time losses meant Delecour actually ended the first day in second place. On day two he dropped to fourth, but trouble for Carlos Sainz and a final stage that suited Delecour to a tee meant he snatched second place back at the very end.

Jesús Puras

Result: 2nd, Tour de Corse 1999

Car: Citroën Xsara Kit Car

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Photo: McKlein Image Database

When it comes to hit-and-miss WRC careers, Jesús Puras is up there with 22 of his 37 starts ending in retirement and only two podiums across 11 years. One of those was the 2001 Tour de Corse, where he claimed the Citroën Xsara WRC’s first win, and the other was at the same rally two years prior in the Kit Car equivalent.

Going into the 1999 edition, Puras had retired from eight of his previous nine WRC starts but only had been from a crash of his own doing and four stage wins on the previous rally, as well as three Spanish championship titles in four years, meant his pace on asphalt was well proven.

He was already in the podium positions by the end of Friday in Corsica after winning the day’s final stage, and then outpaced Peugeot WRC driver Delecour to move into second on Saturday. From there he kept it cool to comfortably finish runner-up behind the final name on this list…

Philippe Bugalski

Result: 1st, Rally Spain 1999 / Tour de Corse ’99 / 5th, Rally Spain 1998

Car: Citroën Xsara Kit Car

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Photo: McKlein Image Database

There’s probably not many rally fans who debate who might be the best ever driver in secondary class machinery, but between today’s WRC stars who have stepped back down into Rally2, the various European champions who have won lots but not had success on the global stage and the Kit Car heyday of the 1990s, the standout name is probably Philippe Bugalski.

In 1999, the 36-year-old Frenchman came seventh overall in the WRC despite entering little over a quarter of the season and not even driving a World Rally Car.

After many years of trying, Bugalski finally became champion of France in 1998, following a switch to Citroën after 13 years of mostly driving Renaults as one of its factory drivers. He had a shot at three WRC rallies that year too in the Xsara Kit Car, and claimed his first world championship stage win on the way to fifth on Rally Spain.

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Renault's new Kit Car series

Earlier this year, Renault Sport revealed plans to encourage old Kit Cars out onto the stages with a new retro series in Bugalski's name

Next up was the Tour de Corse, where a final day suspension failure took him out of eighth place, and he was running in sixth on the final morning of Rally Sanremo before crashing out. On the side that year he did three ERC rounds and won all three.

Bugalski made it two from two in the ERC in 1999, then more remarkably made it two from four in the WRC. On the snow of Monte Carlo his Xsara didn’t have the pace to compete before a driveshaft failure took him out, but the next time he appeared for Rally Spain everything went his way.

Bugalski shadowed leader and team-mate Puras day one, but when an electrical issue inflicted his team-mate the next morning he was promoted into a lead that he would grow to over half a minute. There were six factory World Cars behind before the next F2 car, 5m48.7s back.

That stunned the rally world, and made Bugalski one of rallying’s top asphalt specialists overnight as he then did it all over again on the Tour de Corse. Nine stage wins and victory by over 30s again, despite dropping 29.7s in one stage, not only earned a second unlikely WRC win but left him fifth in the standings almost halfway into the season.

As an asphalt-only program to fit around his attack at a second French title, it meant Bugalksi only did one more WRC rally that year. On Rally Sanremo his Kit Car rarely had an answer to the World Rally Cars though, and he crashed out of ninth place on the final stage.

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