The World Rally Championship has been thrilling the sporting world since 1973, and in that time more than a few heroes have been established and many records have been created and obliterated.
Any rally fan worth their salt will be more than aware of who the most successful driver in history is, and indeed who the defending champion is. But what about the WRC’s one-hit wonders?
DirtFish is here to guide you through 10 ‘flash in the pan’ moments where a driver, team, or event enjoyed a moment in the sun, never to be repeated. Focusing on one-time WRC rally winners would be a bit one-dimensional, so we’re thinking more broadly here.
This is, of course, a subjective debate – we were keen to include Sébastien Loeb’s sensational comeback victory in 2018 until being persuaded that would be demeaning his prior achievements – and we’d love to hear your thoughts on your favorite one-hit wonders. You can leave those in the comments section below.
We’ll start with the more obvious ones, shall we? Harri Rovanperä is perhaps one of the WRC’s most famous nearly-men and was cast into a supporting role to Marcus Grönholm at Peugeot – sharing the third works car with asphalt ace Gilles Panizzi – and then fading into career mediocrity with stints at Mitsubishi and finally Red Bull Škoda (which, coincidentally, was the same career path taken by Panizzi).
But Rovanperä would get his moment in the winter of 2001 when the aforementioned Grönholm – the reigning world champion – ran into engine trouble on Rally Sweden in his 206 WRC. Suddenly Peugeot’s hopes rested with Rovanperä, which was no bad thing given he was just 2.7 seconds behind Thomas Rådström’s Mitsubishi Carisma when Grönholm exited the competition.
Carlos Sainz jumped to the front for Ford at the end of the first leg, but halfway through day two Rovanperä was in the lead and wasn’t about to squander it. Tommi Mäkinen was the Peugeot man’s closest challenger by the final day but binned it into a snowbank on the final stage, gifting Rovanperä a near 30-second win over Rådström and Sainz. It meant he shared the championship lead with Sainz and Mäkinen.
Ultimately Subaru’s Richard Burns would go on to claim the title and Rovanperä would never see the top step of the podium again. But with the performance of Harri’s son Kalle in recent years, it’s unlikely to prove the only Rovanperä win in the WRC.
From one one-time rally winner to another, François Duval’s WRC career took a rather less structured approach than that of Harri Rovanperä.
Courted by M-Sport Ford and then put through a JWRC campaign in a Ford Puma S1600 in 2001 and ’02, Duval was called up to Ford’s factory team alongside Markko Märtin in 2003, at just 22 years old,
A podium on just his third start in Turkey was vindication of Malcolm Wilson’s faith, as was a repeat visit to the rostrum in Corsica. The following year in 2004 yielded another four podium finishes and Duval looked like a real star of the future.
A move to join Sébastien Loeb at Citroën for 2005 went so disastrously, it was hard to believe this was the same driver who’d shown so much potential at M-Sport. Such was Duval’s wretched, crash-strewn form, he was temporarily axed from the line-up after just six rounds and co-driver Stéphane Prévot left him for good.
Sven Smeets was brought in to partner Duval when he was reintroduced to the team, and strong asphalt form in Germany and Spain to take second behind Loeb was what the doctor had ordered. The season would end in fairy-tale fashion too as Duval took his first – and only – WRC victory in Australia after Loeb crashed, Solberg hit a kangaroo and Grönholm suffered a mechanical failure in his flawed Peugeot 307 WRC.
The result – claimed, ironically, ahead of Rovanperä – was too little too late though and Dani Sordo was snapped up to drive an Xsara WRC alongside Loeb in 2006. Flashes of brilliance from Duval returned as he attempted a WRC comeback as a privateer – particularly in Germany, where he scored podiums for Kronos and the Stobart M-Sport in ’06 and ’07 respectively – but his catastrophic 2005 season culled a blossoming career and will resign Duval’s place in history as one of the WRC’s great enigmas.
Bryan Bouffier’s name isn’t one unknown to the winners’ list, and indeed he can proudly call himself a triple Polish champion and a multiple Intercontinental Rally Challenge and European Rally Championship round winner.
But it’s on the oldest and most famous event of them all, Rally Monte Carlo, where Frenchman Bouffier scored his highest of career highs. Victory in 2011, when it was a non-WRC round, was a huge achievement in a Peugeot 207 S2000 given the caliber of the competition: Thierry Neuville, Andreas Mikkelsen, and Petter Solberg were all on the entry list.
And it was on the same event three years later that Bouffier earned his spot on our WRC one-hit wonders list. Driving a privately-entered Ford Fiesta WRC, Bouffier was repeating his tricks of 2011 and led the rally over Kris Meeke by almost 40s after day one.
That was until the Ogier and Volkswagen Polo R WRC combination did what it did so often and steamrolled the competition for the rest of the rally, deposing Bouffier of the lead on Saturday’s third stage. But Bouffier held on to a superb second place come the end of the rally – over a minute down on Ogier but still 35.4s up on Meeke’s DS3 WRC.
It was a fine performance that earned him a couple of shots with Hyundai later in the year as it rotated its third driver. But neither of these went particularly well, nor did a call up to M-Sport to pilot a third points-scoring Fiesta WRC in 2018 in place of Teemu Suninen, meaning he would fail to eclipse the highs of that second place in Monte Carlo back in 2014.
Škoda World Rally Team
There are a couple of different reasons for including Škoda’s WRC effort in this compilation, but it’s not Armin Schwarz – who himself could qualify for this list with a sole WRC win for Toyota in 1991 – grabbing Škoda’s solitary WRC podium on the 2001 Safari Rally that’s of real interest.
Rather, it’s the exploits of a certain Colin McRae four years later in 2005 that has earned the Czech carmaker its spot on DirtFish’s list. Had it not been for a clutch change that went wrong, rallying history could have been very different.
In stark contrast to its effort in rallying’s second tier, first with the Fabia S2000 and then Fabia R5 and Rally2 evo, Škoda’s presence in the premier class wasn’t exactly a success. Its first challenger, the Octavia WRC, was rather too cumbersome and heavy for the world of rallying and was outclassed by the majority of the field in the early 2000’s – one of the WRC’s most competitive eras.
By the time the Fabia arrived halfway through 2003, Škoda’s stall was set out: it wasn’t destined to be a frontrunner. Or was it? A deal was struck to sign the ousted McRae for two rallies in 2005, and he proved that, actually, the Fabia WRC was a reasonably competitive prospect.
A strong showing on Rally GB provided hope, but Rally Australia was where it really impressed. On the final day, McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist were lying third before that infamous clutch change went wrong and McRae went over the 30-minute maximum lateness to check out from service. Had McRae gone on to finish the rally on the podium, could a Škoda and McRae alliance in 2006 have been on the cards?
This tale of heartbreak earned its place as a one-hit-wonder given the one-off pace McRae extracted from the Fabia. With all due respect to Škoda’s regular drivers like Schwarz, Jani Paasonen, Janne Tuohino and Alexandre Bengué, a Fabia WRC had never been ragged so hard which proved driver selection was a factor in Škoda’s slump.
This is one to keep locked away in your brain for a future pub quiz, because Bulgaria isn’t exactly the first location most will offer when asked to name a host country of the World Rally Championship.
But in 2010, Rally Bulgaria was round seven of the championship and was an asphalt round, which means, naturally, it was won by Sébastien Loeb’s Citroën C4 WRC with Dani Sordo’s sister car second. Petter Solberg in third and Sébastien Ogier fourth made it a Citroën whitewash.
Bulgaria’s inclusion on the calendar was controversial, however. As is the protocol, the rally was staged as an FIA candidate event the year before but that rally ended in an accident that claimed the life of co-driver Flavio Guglielmini and seriously injured driver Brian Lavio.
With a grey cloud like that hanging over it, it’s perhaps no surprise that the country’s love affair with the WRC would prove to be a short one and not all that a romantic one. Rally Bulgaria returned to its usual place in the European Rally Championship the following year and hasn’t been seen or even linked to the WRC since.
Maybe calling this a one-hit ‘wonder’ is a stretch…
Pedants amongst you will now immediately be screaming that Philippe Bugalski is a two-time WRC winner, and we aren’t here to argue with you; because he is. But he qualifies for our one-hit wonders list because of the manner in which he claimed those two victories.
French drivers have often enjoyed their home round and the neighboring contest in Spain, and plenty have won both rallies. But how many of them have done so in a ‘second-tier’ car? Not Loeb. Not Ogier. Not Auriol, Delecour, or Panizzi. Just Bugalski.
Back in 1999, the WRC’s support category was Formula 2 and the cars were, put simply, savage. In some cases upwards of 300 brake horsepower was being channeled solely through the front wheels and engines revved up to 10,000rpm, making the Kit Cars – which were also featherweight – extremely popular with spectators.
This lack of weight meant the cars were fiercely competitive on sealed-surface rounds; much to the annoyance of the leading contenders in World Rally Cars at the time who felt they were having championship points unfairly ripped from their grasp as they couldn’t compete for the rally-winning 10.
Take nothing away from the late Bugalski though. He threaded his Citroën Xsara Kit Car to two impeccable victories on the bounce; first in Spain over Toyota’s Didier Auriol and then in his native France over team-mate Jesús Puras with Carlos Sainz the best placed of the rest in third in a Corolla WRC.
We’ve seen Super 2000 and R5 cars claim outright stage wins on occasion since then, but they’ve never managed to take a rally-long fight to the top cars that eventually bore fruit. That makes Bugalski’s pair of WRC successes truly unique and something that looks incredibly unlikely to be repeated.
Colin McRae, Chris Atkinson, Esapekka Lappi, Pontus Tidemand and Alister McRae are all WRC drivers who have conquered Rally China, but only one man has done so and had the honor of topping up their world championship points haul in the process.
For the second entry in a row, we’re traveling back to 1999 and Didier Auriol’s final WRC win on the inaugural – and so far only – Rally China.
Two years after the rally’s creation – the first two iterations won by Colin McRae for Subaru in the Asia Pacific series – the world championship headed to China for the very first time and produced an entertaining event.
Now in a Ford, McRae was a favorite given his prior experience of the terrain but was out on the opening stage with broken suspension. Tommi Mäkinen, Richard Burns and Auriol became the leading three, duking it out for position as Burns led after the first six stages.
Auriol hit the front on SS14 of 22 and despite Burns’ best efforts, he couldn’t live with the 1994 World Rally Champion who set the pace on five of the rally’s last six stages to guarantee a much-needed victory – his first in over a year.
But despite the slippery, treacherous stages in China proving a hit, the rally was replaced with Cyprus Rally in 2000 and wouldn’t return. Plans were in place for the nation – that has an ever-growing car market – to return to the WRC in 2016 but severe weather damage to the rally roads brought that to a premature end.
It feels harsh and somewhat bizarre to label Esapekka Lappi as a one-hit-wonder given the promise he showed throughout his early career and then his pace when he burst onto the WRC scene.
On just his second outing in Toyota’s Yaris WRC, the Finn was winning stages (on Rally Italy) and two rallies later had conquered the world in his backyard after a titanic scrap with team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala that was ultimately decided when Latvala’s Yaris gave way.
That 2017 Rally Finland victory should’ve been the springboard for Lappi to achieve much, much more but it never materialized. A solid if unspectacular season followed in 2018, his first full-time campaign, before a move to Citroën to escape a team Lappi felt was quickly becoming Ott Tänak’s failed to pay dividends.
Citroën quit the WRC ahead of the 2020 season and Lappi found refuge in M-Sport. But he’d never stand on the podium in Ford colors, his quest for silverware further hindered by COVID-19 which hit the privateer outfit hard and meant no pre-season testing for Lappi and team-mate Teemu Suninen.
He exited M-Sport at the end of 2020 and it initially seemed as if Lappi wouldn’t compete in 2021. However, he’ll drive on the Arctic Rally Finland later this month in a Volkswagen Polo R5.
Other drivers of this generation to consider as one-hit wonders include Mads Østberg who inherited Rally Portugal victory in 2012 when Mikko Hirvonen was excluded; and Hayden Paddon who scorched to Rally Argentina success in 2016. Despite showing strong form thereafter and perhaps not getting the luck he deserved, that proved to be the only time Paddon graced the top step of the WRC podium.
Subaru Impreza S14 WRC
It’s somewhat sad to consider Subaru hasn’t achieved the ultimate success in rallying since 2003, and nor has it won a rally since 2005, with Petter Solberg onboard on both occasions.
Those were achieved with the S9 and S11 WRC models of Prodrive’s WRC charger respectively – or to put it in clearer English, the Mk3 model of the Impreza. When Subaru switched to the Mk4 – or in rallying terms, S12 WRC – the success wasn’t forthcoming.
Of course, this was hampered by Citroën’s all-conquering Xsara WRC and then C4 WRC and the impressive performance of Ford’s latest Focus WRC, but put simply the Subaru wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t quite as fast as its rivals, but more pertinently, it wasn’t as reliable.
It relegated Solberg and team-mate Chris Atkinson to the odd podium finish but nothing more. The 2008 season was a case in point for Solberg, who had scored just two points finishes in six rallies before the Acropolis in Greece. There, the new S14 WRC was launched – based on the latest iteration of the Impreza road car.
Something clicked. Immediately on debut, Solberg finished second on one of the toughest rallies of the season, and it looked as if a corner had been turned. The opposite was true of Atkinson though, who had started 2008 in the old S12B with a strong run of four podiums.
A third place on Rally Finland aside, he didn’t gel with the new car in the same manner that Solberg did and while the 2003 World Rally Champion had picked up his own form, he ultimately wouldn’t finish higher than fourth again.
Subaru’s momentary purple patch was stunted by the global financial crash which led to it quitting the WRC at the end of the season. The S14 WRC had improved things momentarily, but not ultimately, making this yet another one-hit-wonder.
Sunday October 7 2017. The final day of that year’s Rally GB wasn’t just a momentous day in the history of M-Sport. When first Ott Tänak sealed the squad its first manufacturers’ title in a decade and then Sébastien Ogier crossed the line to seal the first drivers’ title for the team and first for Ford since 1981, there was rightfully reason to celebrate.
The cherry on top of the M-Sport cake was victory for Elfyn Evans – his first in the WRC – to complete a historic hat-trick. But the win was far more than just M-Sport, it was also for DMACK. Having competed in various world championship rallies throughout the 2010s, Evans’ 10.6-second victory over Jari-Matti Latvala that day was the first and ultimately only WRC victory for any driver on DMACK rubber.
Headed by ex-Pirelli man Dick Cormack, DMACK’s first strong WRC result came courtesy of Tänak who, in a one-off drive, finished sixth in a DMACK-shod Ford Fiesta WRC. As the tire developed, it was Finn Jari Ketomaa that put them to work on the world stage in 2012 before both Martin Prokop and Evgeny Novikov bolted the rubber on for Rally Spain, the 2012 finale.
Focus then switched to WRC2 and the Fiesta R5 with Ketomaa, Eyvind Brynildsen, and later Tänak in 2014. After being kicked from M-Sport’s works line-up for a second time at the end of 2015, Tänak fronted the DMACK World Rally Team and came of age, coming perilously close to victory in Poland only for a puncture to destroy his dreams.
Evans then took over that entry in 2017 and took podiums in Argentina – another DMACK came close to winning – and Finland to compliment the Rally GB success. That proved to be it for DMACK in the WRC, with Evans’ fifth place in Australia bringing the curtain down on the company’s involvement.
Although it clearly wasn’t able to match Michelin on a consistent basis, DMACK did have its moment in the sun and was a prominent player in the WRC, supporting the Junior WRC between 2014-16 which was rebranded the Drive DMACK Fiesta Trophy.