The demands placed on a Formula 1 driver are very different to what’s expected of a frontline World Rally Championship pilot.
The objective is the same – be the quickest one out there on track or the stage – but the skills required to master each discipline certainly aren’t the same.
We’ve yet to see how a rally driver might adapt to Formula 1 – although Sébastien Loeb’s tests in Red Bull and Renault F1 machinery were certainly impressive – but we have seen how F1 drivers adapt to rallying; and some have done so more impressively than others.
Not least Heikki Kovalainen, who coincidentally drove alongside Loeb during his first F1 test. Stepping up his rallying program in 2022, Kovalainen won this year’s Japanese Rally Championship in a Škoda Fabia R5 and made his first WRC start on the recent Rally Japan.
It was quite some WRC debut, but is it the best a Formula 1 racer has ever made? You’ve come to the right place if you want to find out!
Here’s DirtFish’s ranking of the top five WRC debuts from F1 drivers:
5: Kimi Räikkönen
It’s rare for a Formula 1 driver to find the time for extracurricular activities, but that’s exactly what Kimi Räikkönen managed when he was a Ferrari driver in 2009.
Competing in four rallies with a Fiat Grande Punto S2000 (remember them?!), Räikkönen’s raw speed and talent behind the wheel was clear, but unfortunately so was his penchant for an accident.
And that perfectly summed up his very first WRC start on that year’s Rally Finland. Up to 15th overall and third in class, Räikkönen was making a good account of himself until he approached one deceptive crest on the Väärinmaja test.
Räikkönen was baited by how tight the crested corner was and drifted wide. His Punto was lured into the ditch and at such speed he rolled and retired from the rally.
Räikkönen would of course be paid off by Ferrari not to drive in 2010, and duly stepped up the WRC proper in a Citroën C4 WRC and then a DS3 WRC when the rules changed a year later. He peaked with fifth overall on Rally Turkey 2010.
4: Robert Kubica
Robert Kubica had done his fair share of rallying by the time he contested his first world championship event. The discipline had of course left his Formula 1 dream in tatters with a nasty accident on the 2011 Ronde di Andora, partially severing his right arm.
Incredibly, the following year he’d return to drive a rally car and won straight out of the box in an Impreza WRC. Serious stuff.
But we’re here to judge Kubica’s WRC debut rather than his whole rallying career, and that was a slightly mixed affair. By Rally Portugal 2013, Kubica had turned his career attention to rallying given his injuries made an F1 return difficult (but not impossible as he would prove in 2019), and was giving WRC2 a go in a DS3 RRC.
His pace was impressive – running second in WRC2 to Esapekka Lappi (and ahead of Elfyn Evans) – but with an insufficient number of undamaged tires, he had to retire before Friday’s superspecial.
Restarting on Saturday for what was just his second gravel rally ever, Kubica survived a hairy moment as he slid wide off the road and through a bush, only for gearbox gremlins to force him out for a second day.
He’d eventually finish sixth in class but went on to claim that year’s first WRC2 title – marking Kubica out as the only F1 driver to even win a world title in rallying.
3: Stéphane Sarrazin
With just one grand prix start, Stéphane Sarrazin might be a slightly tenuous inclusion on the list, but they all count! And he did spend several years as an F1 test and reserve driver too.
Sarrazin is a rare breed in motorsport as a driver who has succeeded in multiple disciplines including F1, endurance racing and of course the WRC.
He’d made fleeting appearance in a rally car before, but his rallying career really took off in 2004 when he won the French Tarmac title and took that same Subaru Impreza S9 WRC to three asphalt WRC events – Germany, Corsica and Spain.
On debut in Germany, Sarrazin was flawless. Although not on the ultimate pace, he wasn’t expected to be, and the only blemish to his ninth place finish was a 30-second penalty for a late check-in to a time control.
Sixth and then fourth on the next two rallies were enough to attract the attention of the works Subaru team who hired him for both 2005 and ’06. He’s made several WRC appearances since, including at last month’s Rally Spain where he crashed his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
2: Heikki Kovalainen
The man of the moment, Heikki Kovalainen made a big impression on the WRC on Rally Japan as he managed to use his local experience to muscle his Škoda into fourth in WRC2 – one second ahead of 2021 Junior WRC champion Sami Pajari – and 10th overall.
Kovalainen couldn’t have picked a better event to debut on. Although Japan was his first ever WRC event, he’d spent the entire season on familiar roads while most of the seasoned drivers had never been on Japanese turf before.
But Kovalainen put that to good use. Aside from a small mistake on the inside of the hairpin, Kovalainen stayed out of trouble and was always a fixture in the top five. He belied his lack of rallying pedigree to take a better tire choice in the rain than many of his rivals to secure fourth in class on the last stage.
The former Renault, McLaren and Lotus racer wants to do more rallies in Europe and is keen on giving the WRC another go. On the evidence of his debut, he certainly wouldn’t be a fish out of water.
1: Carlos Reutemann
There was no contest here as to who would top this list. Points on WRC debut from Kovalainen was impressive, but it can’t quite match a podium – and in the top class – can it?
The late Carlos Reutemann would only ever enter two WRC rallies throughout his career, but both of them were at home in Argentina and both times he finished third.
Arguably his second appearance was the more impressive as he pedaled a Group B Peugeot 205 T16 onto the podium on a weekend where Ari Vatanen had that horrifying crash that almost claimed his life.
But it’s his debut drive we are interested in here, and that was equally giant-killing given some of his rivals included rally legends Walter Röhrl, Hannu Mikkola, Markku Alén and Björn Waldegård.
Approached by Fiat for the Codasur Rally (which would then become Rally Argentina), then Williams F1 driver Reutemann accepted the opportunity to drive a 131 Abarth and surpassed any expectations by surviving the onslaught and taking third place.
Leo Kinnunen matched Reutemann’s feat in finishing on a WRC podium (and on debut) on Rally Finland 1973, but failed to make the list as his first motorsport steps were on the loose rather than circuit racing – making the feat marginally less impressive.