Fan favorites in the World Rally Championship tend to share a common trait: they’re mavericks. They attract controversy and adoration in equal measure, blazing their own path and going their own way.
These individuals don’t care what you think about them: they are who they are, and you can’t stop them.
DirtFish has scoured the weird, wonderful and the colorful from WRC history to deliver our top 10 maverick characters to have graced the series. Join us in the comments to debate our choices once you’ve read through.
10 Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima
Anyone with the nickname “Monster” is bound to be a bit of a wildcard. Nobuhiro Tajima’s nickname is apt given his imposing physical frame, but it suits him in other ways. His aggressive driving style is one, but it’s another factor we’re interested in here – his mad creations.
Tajima is best known for his exploits on the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, throwing a succession of big-winged, fire-spitting Suzukis like the Escudo, Cultus and SX4 up the side of a Colorado mountain. But thanks to his long-running role at Suzuki Sport, he’s been in the orbit of the WRC for several decades too.
His results as a driver were modest, a seventh place at the 1988 Olympus Rally his best WRC finish. But it’s what came after as the driving force of Suzuki Sport that really broke the mold.
Suzuki threw its hat in the ring during the late 1990s boom in F2 Kit Cars with the oddest car to enter the formula: the Suzuki Baleno Wagon. A wagon! Rallying! With a factory team!
Though the Baleno didn’t catch on – its best result was an attrition-assisted second on its WRC 2-Liter debut at Rally New Zealand in 1997 – the Ignis Super 1600 did. The Ignis wasn’t a wagon in the traditional sense, but it was certainly boxy. Compared to the sleek Ford Puma, the Ignis looked like it had the aerodynamic coefficient of a double-decker bus. But it worked. Tajima’s team had cooked up a title-winner, scoring the Super 1600 crown 2004 with Per Gunnar Andersson.
Tajima then got a shot at being a proper WRC team principal in 2007 as Suzuki entered the big leagues with the SX4 WRC – a tiny people-carrier that had been fed steroids. Early engine problems were a setback and while the team found more speed in the last rallies of the season, it was too little too late. The program was canceled after only one full season of competition.
Perhaps the SX4 WRC wasn’t a strange enough car to succeed under Tajima’s watch…
9 Ari Vatanen
As a driver known for his maximum-attack style, some of you might be surprised to see Ari Vatanen so low on this list. But there’s good reason for it.
There’s no doubt that Ari was the sendiest of sendy drivers. The Ford Escort Mk2 in which he took his only world title in 1981 suited his style perfectly – fastest when pitched into corners sideways with the taps wide open.
It was more of the same once he’d switched to Opel. Few rally moments have achieved more fame than Vatanen at the Manx International in 1983, where the flying Finn clips a wall that sends his Manta careering sideways towards a cattle grid.
“Oh dear God…” comes the iconic line from Vatanen’s co-driver Terry Harryman. He was right to be scared. That Vatanen collected up the Manta and got it through without crashing continues to perplex us mere mortals to this day.
But the Group B era meant Vatanen’s maverick driving style was suddenly out of fashion. You had to be brave to set foot in one of the fire-spitting four-wheel-drive monsters but Vatanen was guilty of pushing the Peugeot 205 T16 too hard, too often.
After a dramatic roll down a Corsican hillside in ’85, Vatanen had promised to ease off a bit. Two rallies later in Argentina, he crashed at around 120mph, spending the next three months in hospital recovering.
His idea of a gentle easing back into motorsport after a crash that nearly killed him? Entering the Paris-Dakar. And winning the Paris-Dakar. Of course. What else?
But unlike some other entrants on this list, little of that bravado behind the wheel translated to his personality outside the cockpit.
While Peugeot team-mate and compatriot Timo Salonen was puffing away on cigarettes, Vatanen had something of a clean-cut image. He’s a devout Christian and, thanks to a long-running partnership with a Finnish dairy company, is more known for drinking milk than sipping on winners’ champagne.
That served him well when it came to his second career after rallying. Vatanen spent 10 years as a member of European Parliament, navigating the tricky corridors of power. There was no pushing beyond the limit that time around.
8 Evgeny Novikov
Malcolm Wilson’s always been one to take a chance on youth. Sometimes it’s worked – though often after said youth has left for another team – but at times it’s also backfired. For every Ott Tänak or Elfyn Evans, there’s an Evgeniy Novikov.
Novikov stormed into the WRC as a precocious teenager, making his debut in the Group N class at only 17 years old. A little over a year later, he was in Citroën’s junior team alongside Sébastien Ogier.
There was clearly talent, and lots of it. He’d bagged his first top-five finish by his fourth rally in a WRC-spec car. But there were accidents, and lots of them. Some weren’t his fault, like Poland in his debut season when a late pacenote sent him nose-first into a bank and broke his suspension. But quite a few incidents were avoidable.
Rally Finland 2009 will live in the memory as Novikov’s career-defining moment. Coming over a crest on Leutsu, his Citroën C4 leapt over the jump and went nearly vertical, pointing towards the sky before the rear touched the ground to bring Novikov and co-driver Dale Moscatt back down to planet earth. A few miles later, Novikov crashed into a tree.
Moscatt didn’t come back for the next rally.
After a year out of the limelight, he returned with M-Sport for what ended up being a three-year stint. Stéphane Prévot was briefly in the co-driver’s seat but in the long run, 1994 world champion Didier Auriol’s former navigator Denis Giraudet was brought in to tame the wild Russian.
It was a sensible plan but it didn’t work, as Novikov continued his over-exuberance. After a roll on Rally Australia in 2011, a shaken Giraudet exclaimed, after some expletives: “One day you will have to listen a little bit.”
Novikov blamed the pacenotes for his crash. After another Finland crash in 2012, Giraudet didn’t come back for the next rally.
While the potential was always there – Novikov scored two second-place finishes in 2012 – he effectively retired from professional rallying after not being retained at M-Sport beyond 2013. His maximum-attack driving was certainly entertaining to watch, but in the end it left him a WRC talent unfulfilled.
7 Kimi Räikkönen
It’s extremely rare, but not unheard of, for Formula 1 drivers to take to rallying like a duck to water. The late Carlos Reutemann did it brilliantly, scoring two third places on his home WRC round in 1980 and 1985 despite spending most of his career on circuits. And two-time F1 champion Jim Clark won three stages on the RAC Rally in 1966 in a cameo drive with the iconic Ford Cortina Lotus.
Räikkönen’s switch was more permanent in nature, shrugging off his golden handshake from Ferrari’s F1 team by plotting a WRC assault. He linked up with Citroën’s junior squad, effectively replacing Novikov alongside Sébastien Ogier. His move to the top level of rallying came after only four events at the wheel of an Abarth Grande Punto S2000 the year before, making his WRC debut the biggest of stepping stones.
Kimi was known for his maverick attitude in F1. Not much changed in the WRC. In F1, he’d stepped up to the top level with little experience, his debut coming only a year after he’d graduated from karts to single-seaters. He proved everyone wrong then. Could he do the same here?
Relying on God-given talent had served him well during the first big leap in 2001. It didn’t quite work as well in rallying. In Kaj Lindström (now Toyota’s sporting director), Räikkönen had a top co-driver who’d been alongside Tommi Mäkinen during his Subaru days. But, like Novikov, he didn’t listen, at one point telling Lindström that he could drive as fast on sight as he could with pacenotes.
But rallying doesn’t work like that. And it showed.
His only stage win in the WRC came on a superspecial around the city of Trier on the 2010 edition of Rally Germany, and his only career top-five finish had come earlier in the season in Turkey. His raw talent had given him a solid baseline, but during his two years there was no breakthrough that turned him into a potential rally winner.
In his season with the Citroën DS3 WRC, his satellite Ice1 team was required by regulations to compete in two non-European rounds nominated by the team. But they didn’t show up in Australia. Kimi couldn’t be bothered going – not a surprise for a driver who famously hates the long-distance traveling that his job requires. It got Ice1 disqualified from the teams’ championship – though Räikkönen was still allowed to compete on further events.
It’s easy to imagine that he couldn’t have cared less about his team being disqualified. After all, he’d already started dabbling in other forms of motorsport like NASCAR by that point. In the end, a lucrative offer from Genii to make an F1 comeback with Lotus meant his WRC career was a short-lived one.
6 Timo Salonen
You need to be just a little bit crazy to drive a Group B car to its absolute limit. But Timo Salonen was just a little a bit different to his contemporaries – show a photo of him to a non-rally fan and they’d never have thought he’d be a world champion in one of the toughest motorsport series ever. His almost cartoonishly large glasses that became his trademark didn’t exactly scream ‘speed demon’. But he was one.
Salonen got the call from Jean Todt to join Peugeot in 1985, where he calmly demolished the entire field with five wins on his way to the title. But he would probably be unemployable by today’s standards thanks to his trademark vice: cigarettes.
He smoked two packs a day, even puffing away at the end of stages and driving one-handed on test runs so he could take a quick drag. And a thorough fitness regime wasn’t exactly high on his priority list.
“If there’s time, the weather is good and we’re feeling enthusiastic, then we both try to go and have a jog,” Salonen’s co-driver Seppo Harjane told Finnish TV back in the day. Current flying Finn Kalle Rovanperä’s workout plan likely consists of something more substantial than going for a run if it tickles his fancy.
But Salonen’s talent more than made up for a lack of effort in the health and wellbeing department. After sticking with Datsun through thick-and-thin for six years, his world title with Peugeot followed. After being dropped by the French squad at the end of 1986, he turned to Japan once more by joining the plucky Mazda factory team.
It was the mark of a man who didn’t really respect norms that he would accept the challenge of taking the boxy little 323 4WD and turning it into a rally winner. He pulled it off, topping the podium at Rally Sweden in ’87.
Salonen openly confesses to not really following the WRC now that he’s retired – he got a bit bored of “those two French guys” winning everything – but his maverick style has mellowed with age. He’s given up the cigarettes. And his glasses look a bit more stylish now.
5 Petter Solberg
Petter Solberg’s nickname is “Mr Hollywood”. He’s a showman through-and-through – but with all the substance in the world to back up his style.
It was rather fitting that Solberg’s debut with a factory team came about via something out of a caper film: Colin McRae rugby-tackled Ford team-mate Thomas Rådström in a prank gone wrong, leading Malcolm Wilson to dispatch Solberg to Kenya overnight to take up the second seat. He finished fifth, and captured everyone’s attention.
Solberg had already ruffled some feathers in the service park in those early days, taking the unusual step of switching teams mid-season in 2000 as his five-year Ford contract was torn up, defecting to Subaru. Having lost McRae to Ford in 1999, Subaru had hit back by stealing his natural successor in Solberg. It was apt that Solberg’s final appearance during his first Ford stint ended with a high-speed roll into some trees on Rally Finland – evoking memories of McRae doing the same thing with a Subaru Legacy in 1992.
Solberg’s foot-to-the-floor style won him fans aplenty but it would be nearly four years before his first WRC event win came at Rally GB in late 2002. With that monkey off his back, the biggest prize in rallying followed a year later, triggering wild celebrations from Solberg at the Margam Park finish line.
Nothing better exemplifies Solberg’s trademark effusiveness than Phil Mills stoically absorbing his world champion status with a measured smile and modest fist pump as Solberg explodes with unbridled joy in the driver’s seat.
With plenty of experience under his belt, Solberg’s wild-child reputation as a driver had faded away. But 2009 showed everyone that Solberg was no ordinary driver. Subaru had withdrawn from rallying and Solberg had been left without a drive. Citroën and Ford’s seats were already spoken for, so he took matters into his own hands and formed his own team with a three-year-old Citroën Xsara.
He rocked up to Rally Norway for his debut as an owner-driver and won the rally-opening superspecial. Solberg wasn’t going to let the WRC go on without him.
One year later and now with a newer C4 WRC underneath him, Solberg finished on the podium nine times and finished third in the title race – and was only two points away from ending up second and beating both works Fords in the championship standings.
“Up yours, to the people that have doubted [me],” was an iconic riposte from Solberg during his privateer years. Up them, indeed.
There was more typically flamboyant driving from Solberg after his switch back to his rallycross roots, flinging his privately-run DS3 around to two world titles. And throughout, his trademark celebration of standing on the roof of his moving car remained – though he did infamously fall off once during a demo run in Italy, his Impreza nudging itself into a barrier as it ran away from him.
Mr Hollywood really did deliver entertainment.
4 François Delecour
Few drivers ever wore their heart on their sleeve quite as proudly as François Delecour. There had been WRC appearances in support categories in the late ’80s for Delecour and a class win on the Monte in 1990 – but the world got to know Delecour and his personality on his proper top-flight debut a year later at the same event.
For 1991 Delecour had moved to Ford, driving the new Sierra Cosworth 4×4. An epic battle with Carlos Sainz ensued on the final day, and when Delecour took nearly half a minute out of everyone on the penultimate stage, the win looked to be his.
Alas, an off on the very last stage damaged his suspension and caused two punctures, demoting him to third. Despondent at losing the win, he broke down in tears at the finish. You didn’t have to work hard to read Delecour – he’d make sure you knew how he was feeling.
Delecour is clearly not a man worried about fostering a clean-cut image. Later that year for a profile on French television, he took a road-going Sierra Sapphire out into the streets of his hometown Cassel, a typically quiet village in northern France, and proceeded to hoon it sideways while dodging traffic. On camera. All while the region’s MP looked on in admiration. Rules don’t matter when you’ve got skills like François, it seems.
He had his greatest successes with Ford – narrowly missing out on the 1993 world title to Juha Kankkunen and scoring all four of his WRC wins with it – but his time with Peugeot was equally significant.
He spent five years as team-mate to compatriot Gilles Panizzi at Peugeot, tossing the iconic 306 Maxi around in the French championship before making a WRC return proper with the 206 WRC. But rather than the driving doing the talking, it was internal bickering at Sanremo 2000 that stole the headlines. Panizzi was accused of illegal recce and Delecour was aghast, ranting away in full view of the paddock until team members finally calmed him down.
Panizzi remained with the team for several years. Delecour was out by the end of the season. It got stranger – he agreed to a group interview on French TV alongside team boss Corrado Provera and Peugeot’s replacement for him, Didier Auriol.
It’s as bizarre – and tense – as it sounds. Poor Auriol sat awkwardly as Provera and Delecour somehow narrowly avoided murdering each other.
But that’s also what made Delecour so admirable. He has always been unashamedly authentic. And at 59 years of age, he still hasn’t retired. He’s left no stone unturned since his career as a works driver ended – becoming Romanian national champion, racing a Porsche 997 in the WRC for the hell of it, and he still competes in the French championship with an Alpine A110 RGT to this day. And we’ll always have that epic afternoon on the Monte in 2011.
Just don’t put vegetables on his windscreen, or you’ll get another classic Delecour diatribe. Yes, this happened. We hope someone does it again.
3 Gigi Galli
It’s impossible not to love Gigi Galli. While he never won a round of the world championship and scored only two podium finishes, Galli was a fan favorite throughout his WRC career for good reason. He was the ultimate showman.
While Sébastien Loeb perfected the art of going fast by being neat and tidy, Galli went the old-school route. He’d have been perfect for the late 1970s, when being fast meant kicking the rear of an Escort Mk2 out as far as you dared.
Alas, he was a WRC regular in the 2000s. So while there weren’t stacks of trophies on offer, he won fans over with his flamboyant driving style.
There’s a short 30-second clip that’s done the rounds on the internet for years now – a red Mitsubishi Lancer Evo doing a Scandinavian flick on its way towards a hairpin, the car entering the corner backwards while narrowly missing a telegraph pole before booting the throttle to zip out of the exit in a straight line.
It was Galli at the wheel of that Lancer on the 2000 Rally Monte Carlo – and if you had to sum him up with one quick snapshot, it would be that clip.
There were occasionally some Delecour-style moments when his passion for rallying went a little too far – he once punched co-driver Guido d’Amore in the head (in fairness, while both were in their helmets) out of frustration. But the magic of Galli was it felt like a bobble-hat-wearing fan had suddenly made it to the big leagues.
He drove with an attitude of having fun first and worrying about the result second – not that he didn’t want to win. He just wanted to win while staying true to rallying’s roots – none of this neat-and-tidy nonsense Loeb was championing.
That approach had its downsides, of course. Spain 2005 featured an unusual incident, where Galli had slid wide at the flying finish and dropped his Lancer down a culvert, leaving him stuck. His reaction after walking down to time control?
“Why is my name not on the leaderboard? I set the fastest time!”
Unfortunately for Galli, his big break as a works Mitsubishi driver had come when the team was already quite far along in its terminal decline. Instead, his WRC career’s purple patch came after the marque had pulled out, Galli scoring a popular podium in Argentina with a Bozian Racing-run 307 WRC in 2006 and then getting another trophy at Rally Sweden two years later with M-Sport’s second-string squad.
Galli’s WRC career was effectively ended by a devastating 100mph shunt on Rally Germany 2008, which broke his left femur and put him out of action for four months. It was an undeserved end to one of the most entertaining WRC careers ever seen.
2 Gilles Panizzi
Peugeot’s most loyal servant was probably the best asphalt driver on the planet in his pomp. He was also one of the most controversial. Which Panizzi you were going to get was sometimes hard to tell. Genius or madness were equally likely.
There were moments that made the fans love him. Nothing endeared him more to the public than his stunt on the Viladrau stage of Rally Spain in 2002.
Nearly a minute up on Richard Burns in second, Panizzi rocked up to the jam-packed spectator zone below an overpass and completed a full donut before being on his way to wrap up victory. It remains one of the most-watched moments in WRC history.
Panizzi also spearheaded Peugeot’s assault at home and abroad with the 306 Maxi – probably the most revered car of the Kit Car era. His presence on WRC rounds with Peugeot’s front-wheel-drive pocket rocket in the late ’90s annoyed the regulars no end – very nearly pipping McRae to victory in Corsica ’97.
But Panizzi really entered the consciousness of rally fans everywhere when Peugeot took the step up to four-wheel drive with the 206 WRC. His run-in with team-mate Delecour at Sanremo over accusations he had illegally recced the stages was brushed aside by Panizzi with some flippant responses in front of the cameras – “I [will] sleep well” was his summary of the situation – but this skirmish was nothing compared to his antics earlier that year.
Panizzi’s first trip to the Safari Rally was not a productive one. He’d been struggling well outside the top 10 but on the first stage of the second day, he was catching Roberto Sanchez’s Group N Subaru Impreza mid-stage.
With manufacturer teams still spending the big bucks back then, factory drivers were used to having spotters in helicopters to guide them. Sanchez, being a privateer driver in the production class, did not have such a luxury. Panizzi, stuck behind the Impreza, suffered multiple punctures and lost several minutes. Red mist had truly descended and once Gilles and brother Herve reached the stage stop control, they leaped out to grab Sanchez from his car. A $50,000 fine was doled out in response.
Questionable comments persisted, including calling the HANS device a “giant s***” and suggesting it should be thrown into the bottom of the Monaco harbor, such was Panizzi’s displeasure at being forced by regulations to wear one from 2005 onwards.
In the end his time at the front of the WRC pack also ended with arguments, as he left Peugeot following a falling-out with team principal Corrado Provera. This time, though, Panizzi had been right to argue.
1 Colin McRae
It had to be, didn’t it?
No-one embodies the spirit of a maverick rally driver better than Colin McRae. It’s the reason he’s the most famous rally driver ever – and by a long way. McRae made being a rally driver one of the coolest jobs in the world.
We could be here all day trying to condense McRae’s style into a short, simple review. Frankly, the man himself did it best with his trademark line: “If in doubt, flat out.”
Flat out was McRae’s one and only speed. And the world loved him for it. Even the Finns, who had more than enough home heroes of their own with Kankkunen, Mikkola, Vatanen, et al.
McRae broke the mold and captured hearts with a drive of sheer madness through the Finnish forests in 1992. Before the rally had begun he’d already crashed, a big shunt in pre-event testing keeping the Subaru mechanics very busy right up to the ceremonial start.
He rolled on day one, the car flipping seven times before coming to rest among some tree stumps – and he kept going. Later in the rally, he rolled into some trees at high speed. And kept going, again. By the end of the rally, the Legacy was mostly duct tape with an engine and wheels attached. McRae finished eighth – but it was the most exciting eighth place in WRC history.
Then there was the complete disregard for team orders. His blatant defiance of Subaru boss David Richards on the 1995 Rally Spain only served to fuel further adoration from rally fans – except the Spaniards, of course.
Richards wanted McRae and Carlos Sainz to back off and bank the points needed to clinch the manufacturers’ title. There was just one problem – Sainz was first, McRae was second, and both were competing for the drivers’ title.
They were told to hold station. Only Sainz obeyed.
McRae blew by Sainz on the final day to win the rally. A furious Richards was having none of it and threatened to withdraw McRae’s Impreza from the Rally GB season finale. McRae relented and took a late check-in penalty to hand the win to Sainz.
He won the title anyway, of course. Having his win taken from him by intra-team politics was only going to fire him up further.
This article could frankly go on forever, recounting story after story of McRae pushing the limits just a little too far. So let’s just stick to one: how he won the 1995 world title. Sit back and enjoy.