It’s often said that the best talents achieve success early in motorsport, and that those who turn out to be greats of the discipline tend not to take too long to make it to the top.
Success at a young age isn’t always proof that the driver is a future world champion in the making, but it does give an indication as to how good that driver can be.
We’ve collated the top 10 youngest drivers to secure a WRC podium finish since the start of the world championship in 1973. As you’ll notice, some of these drivers went on to achieve greatness, others failed to kick on from their early success and others are still very much on their ascent.
10. Pascal Gaban
Age: 23 years, 6 months and 29 days
Event: Rally Côte d’Ivoire 1988
Pascal Gaban only scored one WRC podium in his career but that shouldn’t minimize his skill behind the wheel. Nor should the fact that said podium, a second-place finish on the Ivory Coast in 1988, came on an event where there were only 38 starters – and just one of them was in the top 10 of the championship standings at the time.
Gaban was competing in the Group N class and entered the event in his Mazda 323 in an attempt to close in on points leader Jorge Recalde, which he did with a fine runner-up finish to winner Alain Ambrosino.
But he and co-driver Willy Lux were lucky to reach the finish at all, after spending an hour trying to revive his car after driving through almost three feet and 100 yards of flooded roads. Gaban stopped, dried and replaced his spark plugs before somehow managing to restart the 323 and carry on to the finish.
9. Colin McRae
Age: 23 years, 6 months and 12 days
Event: Rally Sweden 1992
How strange is it to see a McRae (particular of the Colin variety) so far down the order in a DirtFish Top 10?
For years, British rallying on the world stage had been in the doldrums. No world champion driver had ever come from Britain and only Roger Clark on the RAC in 1976 had ever won a WRC event. Enter Colin McRae, who had been tipped for stardom since his British championship days and was regarded as equal to, if not better than, his father Jimmy.
A flat-out or crash driver, McRae’s exploits were rewarded handsomely as only they can be on a rally such as Sweden in 1992. Motorsport Magazine journalist Gerry Phillips commented that McRae “took to driving on forest roads covered in ice and snow as though he had been born in Värmland…” and gave a performance “which belied his 23 years”.
Few doubted this podium would be anything other the first of many, and so it proved. Another 42 followed, including 25 wins and that elusive first British WRC title in 1995.
8. Mads Østberg
Age: 23 years, 4 months and 2 days
Event: Rally Sweden 2011
Unhelpful cynics will be quick to remind you that Østberg’s solitary WRC win came as a result of disqualification for Mikko Hirvonen in Portugal 2012, but make no mistake, his maiden triumph was a richly deserved achievement after the bittersweet feeling he experienced following his first career WRC podium a year before.
Østberg brilliantly took the fight to Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen from the off in Sweden 2011, having only driven his all-new Ford Fiesta RS WRC for around 60 miles prior. He led by 14 seconds at the end of the first day and, despite being overhauled by Hirvonen, only trailed by seven at the end of the day two.
The margin at the end of the rally? Just 6.5s in favor of Hirvonen, who led the standings. Sébastien Loeb being down in sixth might have been the talking point ordinarily, but Østberg was the name on everyone’s lips at the finish.
7. Dani Sordo
Age: 22 years, 10 months and 24 days
Event: Rally Spain 2006
As Junior World Rally Champion, Citroën protégé and asphalt specialist Dani Sordo arrived in the plum seat for his first season of WRC with Citroën – albeit under the Kronos Racing name following the temporary withdrawal of the works team at the end of 2005 – with high expectations.
Although he had to wait until 2013 to secure his first victory, Sordo was quickly up to speed in the Xsara WRC, clinching his first podium on the fourth rally of the year at home in Spain. He backed that up with second in Corsica next time out before adding two more – on Rally Italy and Rally Germany – before season’s end, finishing fifth in the championship.
He took another 29 podiums for Citroën and has 13 to-date for current employer Hyundai.
6. Alessandro Fiorio
Age: 22 years, 10 months and 11 days
Event: Monte Carlo Rally 1988
Rallycourse labeled the 1988 Monte Carlo Rally as being “no longer rallying’s jewel-in-the-crown”. Motor Sport was equally critical with its “Mediocrity” headline. The truth was that the WRC at the end of the ’80s was not in particularly strong health.
As such, Lancia dominated not only the rally but the season as a whole, taking 10 wins out of 11. Alessandro Fiorio drove well in the Jolly Club Lancia ‘B’ team, albeit unspectacularly, to third place on the opening round on the Monte, before claiming another three seconds and a further third to finish third in the standings at the end of the season.
5. Jari-Matti Latvala
Age: 22 years, 7 months and 15 days
Event: Rally Ireland 2007
Before graduating to the works Ford team for 2008 following the retirement of talisman double world champion Marcus Grönholm, current Toyota Gazoo Racing boss Jari-Matti Latvala had plied his trade for two seasons with the semi-works Stobart team.
He’d had close calls with the podium before, most notably finishing fourth in 2007 on two occasions (in Argentina and then Corsica). But it was on the slick, fast roads of Rally Ireland at the end of the season – where Grönholm’s title charge famously came unstuck – that Latvala finally stood on the podium in third.
Two stage wins allowed the Finn to beat compatriot Mikko Hirvonen by nearly 30s to take the first of his 67 appearances on the rostrum. A few months later, he would claim his first WRC victory.
4. Markku Alén
Age: 22 years, 5 months and 21 days
Event: Rally Finland 1973
Bagging a podium on your WRC debut is something of a rare achievement, but for Markku Alén his third place on the 1000 Lakes in 1973 had not been a surprise. Having started his rallying career on the same event four years prior, finishing ninth, Alén had twice finished on the podium on the stand-out rally in 1971 and 1972.
So, by the time the inaugural season of the fully-fledged WRC swung into town, Alén gave the rapid Finnish roads another crack, retaining the same speed which took him to similar results before.
To prove his unquestionable speed, Alén then took a second place on the RAC that year before going on to record 54 more podiums, 19 wins but, agonizingly, not an officially recognized drivers’ World Championship title due to the contorversial conclusion of the 1986 season.
3. François Duval
Age: 22 years, 3 months and 12 days
Event: Rally Turkey 2003
Before his disastrous one-year spell with Citroën in 2005, François Duval was tipped as the next big thing in the WRC. A young Belgian with bags of potential and, more importantly, speed on tap.
An asphalt specialist primarily, Duval’s arrival on the WRC scene started somewhat inconspicuously in 2001, with a partial campaign consisting of six retirements, a disqualification and two finishes (with 18th his best result).
The following year was not much better, but in 2003 as part of a youthful Ford works team alongside Markko Märtin (following the departures of Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz to Citroën), Duval came into his own with a maiden podium, ironically achieved on the gravel of Turkey.
A further appearance on the rostrum followed on a more familiar surface in Corsica later in the year.
2. Evgeny Novikov
Age: 21 years, 6 months and 13 days
Event: Rally Portugal 2012
Known in his early career as a serial crasher who entertained more than he achieved, Evgeny Novikov came of age in 2012. Shirking the reputation of past years, the Russian became far more composed behind the wheel of an M-Sport run Ford Fiesta, putting in a measured performance on two of the most challenging rallies on the calendar, Monte Carlo and Sweden (finishing fifth each time).
A crash on Rally Mexico led some to question whether Novikov really had turned a corner, but that cliché was well and truly buried on the next event, in Portugal.
He finished third at the end of the rally but was elevated to second when on-the-road winner Mikko Hirvonen was disqualified for using an illegal clutch and an irregular turbinewheel in his Citroën.
Novikov didn’t have the level of consistency to challenge for regular podiums after that but did grab another second-place finish on Rally Italy towards the end of the season, proving his Portugal performance was no one-off.
1. Kalle Rovanperä
Age: 19 years, 4 months and 16 days
Event: Rally Sweden 2020
The youngest winner and youngest podium finisher in WRC history, it surely can’t be long before Kalle Rovanperä usurps Colin McRae as the youngest World Rally Champion too.
Rovanperä has long been earmarked as a champion in waiting, such was the talent of Harri’s son in WRC2 – and even before that, when hammering rally cars around frozen lakes as a child . So, when he took his maiden podium in Sweden 2020, just two rallies into his top-line career, the enormity of Rovanperä’s achievement at just over 19 years old was perhaps a little understated.
While acknowledged as highly impressive, talk quickly shifted to the first win (which would come over a year later in Estonia), but in bagging that podium on roads which demanded poise, speed and controled aggression, it was the first sign that the Toyota sensation was cut from a different cloth to the rest of his up-and-coming peers in rallying’s development ladder.