“Less than a minute covers the top seven, it’s still anyone’s rally.”
When was the last time you heard those words uttered at the end of a day’s rallying? Not this year for sure, nor at any point in the last five years or even the last decade.
Granted, the World Rally Championship’s current composition has rendered such a scenario nigh on impossible, but there must be a competitive variable as well. Regardless, that remark was made mid-way through the 2003 edition of the Acropolis, a season I consider to be the greatest of all time.
Yes, I will admit, the trappings of subjectivity are impossible to avoid as 2003 was the year my boyhood hero, Petter Solberg, clinched the title. But personal proclivities aside, I defy you to find me anyone who doesn’t hold ’03 in exceptionally high regard.
The numbers alone are enough to warrant that claim: six different winners from four different manufacturers; up to seven different title protagonists – four of whom had a shot at the crown going into the final event. And that fight morphed into a head-to-head duel, ultimately settled by just a single point.
But it wasn’t just a question of numbers, the 2003 season’s catalogue of memorable moments was vast. Citroën swept the podium in its first event as a full-time works manufacturer, Sébastien Loeb leading his illustrious team-mates Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz home, reigning champ Marcus Grönholm undid the effects of a smashed suspension unit to claim victory in Argentina, Markko Märtin weathered an upturned hood to take a hard-fought debut win in Greece and that’s before we get to the fairytale finish that was Corsica.
After wrecking his Impreza on shakedown, Solberg very nearly ruled himself out of the title race, his mechanics had to work through the night to get his battered car into the competition. An early gearbox problem further hindered the Norwegian’s chances, but as the heavens opened on day two, Solberg was completely unflappable and, through a potent blend of spectacular pace, perfect tire choices and occasional opportunism, climbed a total of seven places to claim his first (and only) Tarmac win. The celebratory scenes upon his return to service were a sight to make any heart sing.
That said, 2003’s most intriguing dimension was, in my eyes at least, the generational clash to which it played host. On the one hand, you had the up-and-coming cubs: Solberg, Loeb, Märtin – each a promising youngster, imbued with immense speed and clear championship potential. On the other, you had the established titans: Richard Burns and Carlos Sainz. Two former greats who may not have had the edge with regards to outright pace but made up for it in bounds with their unwavering consistency.
While the aforementioned trio won eight of the year’s 14 rounds between them, Sainz claimed a solitary win all year. And even then, his victory at the inaugural Rally Turkey wasn’t a result of outright speed as much as it was a case of sitting back and waiting for the others to fall.
Burns on the other hand came within a round of achieving what no-one in the history of the WRC has ever managed: becoming world champion without taking a single rally win. Early signs of an ultimately terminal illness stripped the Englishman of his edge in the closing rounds before forcing his withdrawal from the season finale in Wales.
A finale that was quick to morph into a two-horse race, as a misheard pacenote denied Sainz the chance to fight for a third world title. That left Loeb and Solberg to fight it out for top honors. Granted, Loeb was under strict instructions to secure the manufacturers’ crown for Citroën, but given Solberg’s imperious form, it’s tough to imagine anyone beating him on the loose.
Supplementing the main event was one final duel between two of the sport’s greatest talents: McRae and Tommi Mäkinen. Despite enduring lackluster campaigns, the two world champions were in exceptional form on this, the final rally of their full-time careers.
Little separated the pair all weekend – that was until the very last stage when a puncture forced McRae to settle for fourth. Mäkinen made a milk run to glory and ended his illustrious career with one final visit to the podium.
Up at the front, Solberg’s 32.5-second advantage was not one he was going to relinquish. A blistering run through Margam Park saw him finish the championship in style, taking the stage, the rally and the title. A worthy champion in what might just be the greatest season of all time.