Four crews enter the final round of the World Rally Championship with a shot at the title for the first time since 2003. The unpredictable nature of the all-new Monza Rally is sure to throw up a tense title decider, reminiscent of many similar final-round duels from years gone by.
To mark the occasion, DirtFish’s team of writers has collated – and ranked – 10 of the best WRC title deciders since the start of the drivers’ world championship in 1979.
There’s been controversy, last-stage heartbreak and drama galore. And with snow in the forecast for the 2020 season finale, what better way to warm up for the weekend than by taking a trip down memory lane?
Midway through the 2009 season, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Sébastien Loeb was on course to chalk up another comfortable title triumph in his dominant Citroën C4 WRC. Loeb had won five of the first six rallies and in Sardinia only finished two places behind closest rival, Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen, as the season reached its the halfway stage.
But Ford and Hirvonen had their purple patch in the second half of the year, winning the next four events, as Loeb crashed out heavily in Greece and toiled to a seventh place in Poland after a trip through the fields on the opening day. Loeb thought he had reversed the rub in Australia, but was stripped of the win due to an illegal anti-roll bar link on his C4.
A point separated the pair heading into the final weekend in Great Britain, and Loeb hit the ground running early on, topping the opening day as Hirvonen remained just over five seconds behind.
Loeb stretched his lead on the second test of day two, Crychan, before taking a 30-second advantage into the final leg. Hirvonen promised a full-out attack in the morning and nearly halved Loeb’s lead with four stages remaining. But a heavy landing from a jump caused the bonnet to fly open and the Finn agonisingly lost over a minute-and-a-half in one fell swoop. Loeb ultimately won the event from Hirvonen, overturning a one-point deficit and sneaking the title by a solitary point.
– Stephen Brunsdon
If Björn Waldegård could repeat his RAC Rally win of two years earlier, everything would be hunky-dory. The burly Swede would be happy and so would Boreham. The drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships would be sorted in favor of big Björn and the Blue Oval at Britain’s penultimate round.
That’s right. Penultimate. The first year of the drivers’ championship concluded on the Ivory Coast. Ford had committed a bigger effort than ever to the world championship in 1979 (in what would be its last year as a factory team before it returned with the RS200 in 1986), but not even that effort stretched to Africa a fortnight before Christmas.
A total of 10 punctures cost Waldegård any chance of a second RAC win in three years. He finished ninth. A blown head gasket on his previous outing, the 1000 Lakes, had left Hannu Mikkola needing a British to keep his hopes alive. He delivered just that result.
Back-to-back RAC wins meant there was just six points separating them with one round remaining. But no chance of persuading Ford to ships cars south.
Mikkola and Waldegård knocked on Mercedes’ door and, for the second time in the season, were granted permission by Ford to drive a brace of 450SLCs in Africa. The pair had used them on the Safari earlier in the year, with Mikkola leading for much of the Kenyan event, only to be let down by service co-ordination from the team. Mikkola was fourth with Waldegård sixth.
Back in Africa and Mikkola put the grunty V8 and three-speed automatic gearbox (I kid you not) to good use. Peugeot’s challenge faltered and four of the big Mercedes charged to the front. After close to 60 hours of competition, the Finn ‘edged’ his team-mate by 35 minutes to narrow the gap at the top of the table by five points.
One point remained. And remained in Waldegård’s favor.
– David Evans
By all accounts, Didier Auriol probably should have won the 1992 world title with Lancia, but instead it was Carlos Sainz who swept to his second success in just three years in his Toyota Celica Turbo 4WD.
The pair’s respective early season form couldn’t have been more different. While Auriol won in Monte Carlo, Corsica, Greece, Argentina, Finland and Australia to score a ludicrous six wins from seven starts, Sainz could only boast two victories in Kenya and New Zealand. Defending champion Juha Kankkunen’s record was even bleaker, with a string of seconds behind Auriol and Sainz topped up by just the solitary victory in Portugal.
From Sanremo onwards the tables turned, however, as Auriol suffered the ignominy of a first-stage retirement when a faulty wheel caused brake problems. In Sanremo, he could only muster 10th after powersteering failure sent him off the road earlier in the event.
Crucially, Sainz won. It meant the champion-elect Auriol actually trailed Sainz on the scoreboard ahead of the RAC, three points adrift with Kankkunen sandwiched in between them, two down on Sainz.
Sainz led the rally throughout the first two days but was being pressured hard by Auriol. That was until a trip to Kielder forest, when a spark plug disintegrated in the engine bay of Auriol’s Delta Integrale and ruled him out of the event, eight stages from home.
Kankkunen, then second, proceeded to hurtle into a rock on the final leg in Scotland, which relegated him to third behind Subaru’s Ari Vatanen, but in reality Sainz’s rally lead, and his world title, were already secure. Sainz controlled it from the front and deserved all the plaudits upon his return to the rally’s base in Chester.
– Luke Barry
When Guy Fréquelin departed Argentina bound for Brazil in the middle of the 1981 season, book-keepers must have been considering shutting the book on the Frenchman. His rival Ari Vatanen had crashed and now trailed him by 31 points.
Ford driver Vatanen fought back though and consecutive wins in Brazil and Finland played him right back into the frame as the season moved towards its finale. Vatanen missed his opportunity to lead the championship for the first time when Fréquelin’s Talbot Sunbeam Lotus retired from Sanremo with engine failure. The Rothmans car finished seventh after going off the road again.
The penultimate round in the Ivory Coast wasn’t kind to either driver, with championship leader Fréquelin finishing fifth while another crash left the David Sutton mechanics needing to perform another miracle to keep Vatanen on the road. Eventually, the RS1800 reached the finish, but a full 22 hours behind Timo Salonen’s winning Datsun.
The two points Vatanen picked up in Africa meant he headed to the final round – the RAC Rally – eight points behind Fréquelin’s Sunbeam.
Experience counts for so much on the RAC and Vatanen’s six starts in Britain left him in a strong position. While Fréquelin made his debut on the event 12 months earlier, he’d finished third – a better result than his rival had managed in half a dozen visits.
Both drivers made a cautious start to Sunday’s spectator stages, but as the rally moved north through Kielder and into the Scottish Borders, Vatanen moved rapidly up the order to sit second. Fréquelin was running seventh when he suffered a puncture on Dalby, dropping him to 10th.
If Vatanen could keep it on the road, he would be champion. If.
But this time Fréquelin blinked first, going off the road and suffering fuel pump problems in Pantperthog. Vatanen delivered. Even better with the event finishing in Clocaenog, just around the corner from his co-driver David Richards’ home.
That the Escort had finished 11 minutes behind Mikkola’s Audi Quattro mattered, in season-long terms, not a bit.
The 1994 season was an epic year of WRC action. With seven different winners from 10 rounds, it was always going to come down to the wire with a barnstormer of a finale on the RAC.
François Delecour opened the season with victory on the Monte Carlo Rally, but soon after he suffered an infamous crash in a friend’s Ferrari F40 road car that left him out for most of the season and removed one of the title favorites.
That left Ford’s hopes in tatters, with Didier Auriol of Toyota and Subaru’s Carlos Sainz set to fight for honors.
Auriol won the Tour de Corse, Argentinian and Sanremo rallies, which made up for his crash on the Monte and retirement on the Acropolis, having smashed the sump on a rock. Sainz was in the top four for every rally he finished but with only one win – on the Acropolis – he trailed Auriol by 11 points entering the final round: a daunting, old-school RAC Rally.
With the momentum on his side after the Sanremo win, Auriol was bullish, but on the third of the 29 stages, he clipped a rock and broke his suspension (pictured above) on the roads around Chatsworth House. He was 167th quickest, dropping to 88th place!
Sainz also hit trouble on the first day with a radiator issue, but he was able to conclude the day second overall. Auriol wasn’t done helping Sainz though. He rolled the next morning in Hamsterley and then choked to a standstill following a watersplash. Again, he managed to keep going.
Sainz held second again following the second leg – which also included stages in the Scottish borders – and concluded the third day of the event (the first of two days in Wales) well ahead of the recovering Auriol in ninth and on course to take the title.
However, the last day would prove vital. Seemingly trying to pre-empt any attempt to have Subaru’s Colin McRae concede the lead to Sainz, ‘fans’ were alleged to have placed logs on the Pantperthog stage in a bid to catch Sainz out. Sainz almost went off in avoidance at high speed but did lose his concentration and the rear end on the next stage as he slid off down a bank into the trees in Dyfi – perhaps still shaken by the actions of the spectators.
Sainz dropped way down the order to 14th – ironically after spectators had helped him escape – and with Auriol taking sixth in an attrition-filled rally, it was enough for him to secure a first and only title.
McRae won the rally, teeing up his 1995 title assault.
– Jack Benyon
Before 2020, the last time four drivers headed to the final round of the WRC with a shot at title glory was in 2003 which, retrospectively, was a real changing of the guard season in world rallying. Tommi Mäkinen called time on his career at the end of the year while Colin McRae was to be ousted by Citroën too.
It was a then 29-year-old Sébastien Loeb, in his first full season, and his veteran Citroën team-mate Carlos Sainz who shared the championship lead after 13 of 14 rounds, just one point ahead of Subaru’s Petter Solberg and five up on Richard Burns’ Peugeot.
However, the battle would soon become a three-way one as on the way to Rally GB, Burns blacked out at the wheel of his road car on what, tragically, was the start of his battle with a brain tumor.
Sainz was soon out of contention too, the Spaniard going off the road on the third stage after being distracted by smoke from the wiring for the onboard camera. That left it up to Loeb and Solberg to dispute the crown. After the first of three days, Solberg led by eight seconds over Loeb with next-best Mäkinen already 1m24.2s further back.
On Saturday, Solberg was simply sublime. He aced it to win all eight of the day’s stages and pull out a 41.2s-advantage over Loeb, who had both his personal title aspirations and that of his employer to think about too with Citroën on the brink of its maiden manufacturers’ crown.
Solberg leaked time on Sunday’s first couple of stages but it was irrelevant. He blasted through the final stage, Margam Park, 11.1s faster than anybody else to claim his first, and only, WRC crown. Phil Mills’ pacenote book had never been flung further in its life.
The season with two champions. Finishing the Olympus Rally at the end of a long and, at times, tragic 1986 season, Markku Alén stepped out of his Lancia Delta S4 and declined the opportunity to talk politics.
Four words. One message.
“I am world champion.”
And he was right. For the next 11 days.
Peugeot fully expected FISA to overturn the Sanremo stewards’ decision regarding the use of side skirts on the 205s, but Juha Kankkunen was keen to win the thing on the stages.
The Olympus was, truth be told, a slightly underwhelming event and probably not one in keeping with what had been one of the most dramatic years in the history of the championship. Neither Lancia nor Peugeot had intended to visit America, but when the factory 205 T16 E2s were excluded from the Sanremo Rally in the autumn, a trip to Washington was very much on the cards.
Peugeot fully expected FISA to overturn the Sanremo stewards’ decision regarding the use of side skirts on the 205s, but Juha Kankkunen was keen to win the thing on the stages.
Second place on the penultimate round in Britain (Kankkunen was third) moved Alén into a single-point lead going to the Olympus Rally. It would be winner-takes-all in the woods around the Pacific north-west.
And Alén drove beautifully, powering his S4 through stages that combined the nature of his home 1000 Lakes, the RAC and New Zealand. Neither powersteering failure nor a puncture could slow the Finn’s Martini-liveried machine and he led for all-but a handful of day-one stages.
Kankkunen’s event went south when the Peugeot team forgot to change a battery on the car and then incurred penalties getting the job finished. Try as he might, he couldn’t close the gap.
Later in December, Alén landed into Helsinki airport after testing in Rovaniemi, to be told he’d lost the title. Furious, he left FISA in no doubt what he thought of their decision, and declined the invitation to the prize-giving in Paris. Kankkunen was at the Gala, but without the right gear. A last-minute shopping trip landed a black tie for the champion and co-driver Juha Piironen.
Never before had a British driver won the WRC title until Colin McRae came out on top in the RAC in 1995. With the controversial team orders debacle of Spain – where Subaru team-mate Sainz took the win – still in the mind of most onlookers, the need to get out onto the stages and let the driving do the talking had not been higher than on that chilly Sunday morning in Tatton Park.
Sainz grabbed the early advantage before McRae inherited the lead of the rally when Tommi Mäkinen retired with transmission woes. Then, disaster struck for McRae as the Scotsman suffered a puncture and lost over a minute to Sainz, who he had to beat to win the title.
Cue a comeback of epic proportions. McRae won four of the next five stages to carve into Sainz’s lead, trimming it down to less than 40s before the end of the day. Another 10s was taken out of his Spanish team-mate on the opening test of day three (Dyfnant) and by the final stage of the day, McRae was in front by 17s. A remarkable turnaround.
McRae kept the foot down on the last day, extending his winning advantage to 35s over Sainz and thus completing one of the best comebacks in WRC title deciding history.
When it comes to vintage WRC seasons, it’s hard to top 2001. By the conclusion of the Rally GB season finale, the top six were covered by 11 points. That naturally meant the season finale was an absolute cracker.
Hopes for a repeat of the 1995 home heroics were high: McRae, by now in his third season at Ford, arrived with a one-point lead over Mäkinen. Burns, a GB winner for the previous three years, was only two points behind McRae, while McRae’s 1995 adversary Sainz was mathematically in the race but needed everyone else to hit problems to take the title.
Mäkinen, despite his points haul, was on the back foot. Mitsubishi had been the last manufacturer to make the switch from Group A to WRC car regs, and they’d done so mid-season; it was not going well. He hit a hole in a cut on St Gwynno, the first proper stage of the rally, smashing the suspension to end his time with Mitsubishi parked on the side of the road.
St Gwynno also ended Sainz’s hopes straight away. A front-right puncture in those days shouldn’t have been the end of it, as his Ford Focus WRC’s Pirellis had run-flat mousse. But the mousse failed to inflate and with Sainz still pushing flat out, the disintegrating tyre damaged the brakes, leaving him far down the order.
McRae was getting the job done early on, leading the rally ahead of the Peugeot pairing of Marcus Grönholm and Didier Auriol, who were more concerned about ensuring their team won the manufacturers’ title than what the Brits were up to. Rhondda changed all that.
A flying McRae got a bit too greedy, cutting a fifth-gear corner against the advice of co-driver Nicky Grist. The Focus was into a barrel roll. His rally was over on the spot.
Now Burns needed to finish in the top four to win the title. Spooked by the sight of McRae’s battered Ford, he backed the Subaru into a pile of logs at the next junction. Fortunately for the Englishman, neither that nor a final-day scare when the car was reluctant to fire out of parc fermé could stop Burns and Robert Reid securing a second title for Britain in six years with a third place finish.
– Alasdair Lindsay
Perhaps the most dramatic WRC title decider of all-time, this was a season finale to end all season finales – with as many twists and turns as you could expect in a topsy-turvy year. In the end, it was a third-straight Tommi Mäkinen title but neither the Finn, nor the hapless Carlos Sainz, could have imagined how this epic title showdown would play out on the RAC.
To explain what happened on Rally GB, you need to go back to the start of the season as Mäkinen’s eventual title run got off on the wrong foot after a hefty crash on the second day of the season opener in Monte Carlo. Back-to-back retirements in Kenya and Portugal paved the way for Toyota’s Sainz to build his own case for a third title.
And that’s the way it looked like going on the RAC, as Mäkinen ripped the right-rear wheel off his Mitsubishi after sliding into a concrete block on oil left by a historic Hillman Imp’s earlier run through the Millbrook stage. The result for Mäkinen was catastrophic, even though he was able to get through the stage. There was no way the defending champion could continue, having been pulled over by the police on the road section back to service.
That left Sainz with a Mitsubishi-sized open goal right in front of him in order to secure the title. Mäkinen’s team-mate Richard Burns took his second career victory, clinching the manufacturers’ title in the process. But further behind, drama of the highest order was unfolding as Sainz’s engine expired within 500 meters of the finish.
Engine failure was a cruel way to end the season and the frustration for co-driver Luis Moya was plain to see, smashing the rear windscreen of the Corolla as emotions took over. Mäkinen, who had been interrupted mid-interview with Finnish broadcaster YLE, could hardly believe what he had just been told: he was world champion in the most unexpected circumstances.