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Rally drivers are often lauded as the world’s greatest, and most talented, of all motorsport drivers. Since the 1960s there’s been a constant stream of men capable of seemingly doing the impossible, and getting away with it! But who were the trail blazers, and what set them apart? Martin Holmes selected his ‘greatest rally drivers of the last 60 years’.

The Sixties

The 1960s were the times when rallying started to change and develop into the sport recognisable today. Until then, rallying was an activity for sportsmen who enjoyed touring different places. Competition was based on tests which gauged precise driving skills, and used handicaps which were intended to equalise opportunities. Much of the challenge before the advent of high speed stages became more important was to follow the route from place to place correctly. In this decade, a new form of professionalism emerged and the traditional sportsman found the sport invaded by full time drivers, often from Nordic countries. They were days when the focal point was on individual events which had developed their own characters, led by the famous Monte Carlo Rally. The main international challenge was the European Rally Championship, which was inaugurated in 1953 and which is still going strong, now in a secondary capacity.

Rauno Aaltonen, Safari Rally 1979. Photo: Martin Holmes

Figurehead of the new era was a Finn with remarkable analytic skills and lucid technical and sporting powers. RAUNO AALTONEN was born in 1938 and popularly known as "The Rally Professor", renowned for being the instigator of the left foot braking style of driving, which is still widely used by rally drivers 50 years on. Much of his successful career preceded the World Rally Championship, but he won major events from Finland down to Australia, most notably becoming the European Rally Champion in 1965. Frustratingly, he failed to win the one event he most dearly loved, the Safari Rally in Kenya. His most testing victory was on the 1964 Spa Sofia Liege, a four-day event held on public roads, in which competitors had only one halt of two hours at midway. Although highly successful behind the wheel of large cars like Mercedes 220 and Austin Healey 3000, he gained most of his popularity driving Mini Cooper S cars. He was a consummate motorsports-man.

Rauno Aaltonen was a star in the Mini Cooper S, seen here on the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally. Photo: Martin Holmes

Despite now being remembered as one of the Flying Finns of rallying, Aaltonen started his career in speed boats and later moved on to motorcycles, competing in road racing, speedway and motocross. Before he became the first Finnish European Rally Champion, he had been the first Finn to win a motorcycle grand prix race. When asked why he gained so many successes in Mini Cooper S cars, which at the time were far less competitive compared with the large Healey cars which the BMC team also ran, he explained the Mini was much better on secret route special stages. In those days there was no time to practice special stages, reconnaissance was spent checking the correct ways to go on non-competitive sections! = = = =

The Seventies

The most important factor in the ‘70s was the introduction of the World Rally Championship at the start of 1973. This was, at first, a series only for manufacturers and entailed the decision to restrict the eligibility of cars taking part in WRC events by the introduction of homologation, which in turn led to consequential “homologation special” cars such as the Lancia Stratos. The governing authorities had already been gaining experience in organising championships for manufacturers since 1968, before broadening their coverage beyond Europe into Africa (where the East African Safari Rally was gaining importance) and into North America. Major one-off non-championship events continued to tempt the manufacturers, including the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup. This marathon event provided the first important victory in the career of the 28-year old HANNU MIKKOLA.

A young Hannu Mikkola in 1979. Photo: Martin Holmes

The world championship took a knock when the world was engulfed in the fuel crisis at the end of 1973, which led to a reduced championship series, but in 1974 it all picked up again halfway through the decade. Mikkola's rally career spanned 31 years, starting with a Volvo PV544 in 1963, but his most successful period was during the 1970s and 1980s. He became the first overseas driver to win the East African Safari Rally in 1972. In 1979 he made a serious challenge at the World Rally Championship title, now catering also for drivers, ultimately finishing runner-up, only one point behind champion Bjorn Waldegard after a season in which both were at the wheel of both Ford and Mercedes cars. Mikkola was a regular and successful competitor at world championship level right from the second half of the ‘60s, and he was an exponent of the journeyman character of rally drivers of his age.

Hannu Mikkola at the wheel of a Fiat Abarth on the 1975 Monte Carlo Rally. Photo: Martin Holmes

In the first half of the ‘70s he drove for six different manufacturers. In between world championship rallies he pursued non-stop programmes of national level rallying round the world. These were halcyon times. By the start of the ‘80s Hannu had settled down as a regular driver for Audi, when the German company moved into the new age in rally sport. His final professional rally team was Mazda, at the start of the ‘90s. Notwithstanding starting his career well before the WRC, Mikkola was the first driver to compete in 100 WRC events. He won 18 WRC events and was world champion in 1983, and he was the first driver to win a WRC event in a four-wheel-drive car, but all this was later in life during the ‘80s. Arguably his greatest days were in the ‘70s when he won rallies in every conceivable format and in almost every type of car, but there was one area of domination which escaped him. He never won a major rally in a front-wheel-drive car.

Mikkola the maestro on the Lombard RAC Rally in an Escort RS1800 in 1979. Photo: Martin Holmes

Who said rallying wasn't popular in Europe? Hannu Mikkola performs at the 1979 Rally of Portugal. Photo: Martin Holmes

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The Eighties

The ‘80s were wild days of technological excess which led to uncontrolled development of four-wheel-drive and turbocharging. The decade started relatively sedately with success for cars of traditional design, before the middle of the decade when cars of more extreme, Group B specification ruled, and ended with Group A Italian cars being dominant. WALTER ROHRL’s roots were in Bavaria, working as a chauffeur in the local ecclesiastical office and early sporting activities as a skiing instructor. Friends lent him cars to drive on rallies. It is believed that he never competed in a car which was his own property!

Walter Rohrl was immensely talented and won two world titles. Photo: Martin Holmes

It was Ford Germany who first spotted his rallying talents and he entered to do national championship events in 1971 driving a Capri in which he was regularly successful. His results caught Opel's attention and after two years he drove for them internationally, becoming European Champion in 1974, and took his first WRC win at the Acropolis in 1975. From the modest programme at Opel, Rohrl moved to a full World Championship team when Fiat signed him in 1977, and with whom he became World Champion for the first time in 1980. However, his great days were to come in the ‘80s. Walter had an offer to lead a new project for the Mercedes rally team in 1981. With the approach of the new generation of cars in the sport, Rohrl could see the project would not be successful. He mentioned this to the Mercedes management, the project was stopped and the world champion was left without a job, for the moment. Other teams, specifically Fiat and Opel, noted his sudden availability and his career took off again in the first half of the decade. In this period of time he won the Monte Carlo Rally four times, each time in a car from a different manufacturer, and of a quite different technical format.

Walter Rohrl trying to tame the wicked Audi Quattro S1 on the 1985 RAC Rally. Photo: Martin Holmes

He won the world championship twice, becoming Germany’s only World Rally Champion, in an age when other German manufacturers supported the sport energetically. He gained his second World title in 1982 with Opel, but his career with them ended dramatically. When already crowned world champion, he was sacked on the eve of the final round. He refused to attend a pre-event promotional event for the team’s sponsor Rothmans. He did not smoke. He felt it would be hypercritical to attend. His car was driven instead on the event by fellow German Jochi Kleint. By this time Audi had blitzed themselves onto the WRC scene and in a new dream team line-up, Rohrl joined Hannu Mikkola and Stig Blomqvist in 1983, the trio finishing 1-2-3 in Monte Carlo, with Rohrl top of the podium.

Pikes Peak 1987, and Rohrl pushes the Group B Audi Quattro to its limits.

Rohrl’s final WRC win was the Sanremo Rally in 1985 with the final Group B version of the Audi Quattro. The team continued into 1986 before withdrawing after the accidents early in the year. Rohrl did little rallying after that time, but was engaged in endurance sports car racing and in retirement became a much valued promotional ambassador for Audi and Porsche. ======

The Nineties

The ‘90s was significant for two factors. Firstly, this was the time of rationalisation in the sport, headed by the new FIA President Max Mosley, who saw a worrying pattern of unjustifiable extravagance in the sport. He saw unconscionable waste and an unacceptable lack of ecological concern. Secondly, there was an emergence of a new level of commitment by Japanese manufacturers. In Europe, there was a growing movement for a return to special cars in rally sport, resisted by the Japanese fascination with the concept of standard car sport, but gradually a new theme emerged in rallying. In the second half of the decade the World Rally Cars arrived, and so did TOMMI MAKINEN, but curiously the two were quite independent. Makinen’s team Mitsubishi did not approve of the World Rally Car concept, preferring the existing Group A rules in which cars were far more recognisable for the production car heritage, and resisting the temptation to engage in World Rally Car design for as long as they could. Makinen won the Group N Finnish Rally Championship driving a Lancia Delta HF 4WD in 1988. His first world rally win came on the 1994 1000 Lakes Rally in a Ford Escort RS Cosworth. Makinen proved a late developer by the standards of championship rallying, only gaining his first full-time manufacturer seat in 1995, at the age of 30, in a Group A Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, alongside former Group A rally champion, Swede Kenneth Eriksson. Five WRC wins in 1996 set him on his path to four successive world titles that went on to 1999. Makinen remained with Mitsubishi until the end of the 2001 season.

Makinen's first big win was on the 1000 Lakes Rally in 1994. Photo: Maurice Selden

A move to the Subaru World Rally Team for 2002, as replacement for Richard Burns, yielded one more final career victory, on the 2002 Monte Carlo Rally. He retired from the sport at the end of the 2003 season with third place on that year's Rally Great Britain, to concentrate on his own car preparation business in Finland, which ultimately led to the invitation by Toyota to head up their own new WRC project. Tommi was famous for his apparently dour mannerisms and his fierce determination, which in early days became personal issues in cases of adversity. In his early days at Mitsubishi, it was difficult for him to understand the overriding need for decisions based on issues wider than simply immediate success, but he went on to become Mitsubishi’s most successful World Rally Championship rally driver. Later, in the 2010s, Makinen became Team Principal of Toyota Gazoo Racing in 2017, leading them to win the Manufacturers’ title in 2018 and the Drivers’ title in 2019.

Tommi Makinen does his stuff on the Safari Rally, in front of author and photographer Martin Holmes.

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The new Millennium

After seven years of title winning performances from various Japanese manufacturers, the 2000s saw the focus swing around to the French, who except for two titles for Ford in the middle of the decade, won every world manufacturers’ title. Peugeot had been champions for a couple of years in the Group B era, but the new millennium heralded the return of the French with three successive titles (2000-2002) followed by two triple titles for Citroen between 2003-2005, and then 2008-2010. After a disastrously mismanaged world championship campaign in 1986, this was a new Citroen approach which was eminently well directed, but had one very strange characteristic. It was for all intents and purposes a one man show.

The greatest ever? Many believe that Sebastien Loeb is just that.

Meet their driver, SEBASTIEN LOEB. At the wheel of Citroen cars, Loeb went on to be the sport’s most successful competitor before he retired from full-time competition in 2013, after winning nine consecutive Drivers’ titles and scoring 78 wins. Citroen was not the only reason for Loeb’s success, though stability of excellence of the team, tyres and car were huge factors in his results, but he was remarkably talented in maintaining the performance of his tyres through special stages to a far great degree than his rivals. Loeb was born in Haguenau, Alsace, and trained to be an electrician. He was a talented gymnast before turning his attention to motorsport in 1995. He succeeded in national formulae before being sponsored by the French federation to drive a World Rally Car on two WRC events in 2000.

Citroen star Loeb on the 2003 Monte Carlo Rally. Photo: Maurice Selden

This led to him winning the WRC Super 1600 Driver’s Cup in 2001 when he also finished second in a factory Xsara WRC at Rallye Sanremo. He then became a permanent Citroen WRC driver. He won six rallies in 2004. In 2005 he became the only driver to win 10 WRC rallies. Then, despite the Citroen cars being privately run in 2006 and missing three rallies after falling from his mountain bike and breaking his shoulder, he was again World Champion! His successes were well noted. His native region around Strasbourg honoured him by persuading the FIA that the French round of the WRC should be run in their area of the country, rather than in Corsica, from 2010-2014. In 2014 Loeb made a full-time switch to circuit racing, joining Citroen’s World Touring Car team and driving a C-Elysee model to third in the WTCC. In 2018 made an unexpected part time return to the series with Citroen, winning in Spain. But with his old nemesis (Sebastien Ogier) set to return to Citroen in 2019, Loeb found himself a new home at Hyundai.

Sebastiens Loeb and Ogier discuss tactics in 2011. Photo: Martin Holmes

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The 2010s

From 2011 to 2013 the Manufacturers’ series really became a series for teams, with the number of involved ranging from 11 teams in 2011 to eight in 2013. The French continued their dominance of the series through the first years of this decade, with Citroen and Loeb taking both the Manufacturers’ and the Drivers’ titles two further times (2011 and 2012). The Volkswagen team joined the World Championship in 2013 and SEBASTIEN OGIER was their team leader during its four victorious years participating in the series. The team took the Manufacturers’ title from 2013-2016, and Ogier secured 31 of the team’s 43 victories.

Sebastien Ogier has won six WRC titles to date.

Hyundai joined the series in 2015 and gradually developed into winners and title challengers. 2017 saw the launch of the new specification World Rally Cars with aerodynamics back, and looking more like the former Group B era. There was new blood as well with the much vaunted return of Toyota, with Tommi Makinen at the helm. For the first time in since the late ‘90s three Manufacturers took the title in consecutive years: Ford in 2017 (for the first time since 2007), Toyota in 2018 (for the first time since 1999) and Hyundai in 2019. Sebastien Ogier was born in Gap, the town becoming the base for the Monte Carlo Rally in 2014. Ogier started rallying with a Peugeot 206 in 2006 and in 2007 he won the French national Volant series. With support from the national FFSA federation, Ogier moved into the World championship in 2008, contesting the Junior WRC in a Citroen C2 S1600 and immediately made his mark, scoring a point in the overall Drivers’ series on his debut event in Mexico. After he secured the Junior title he was given his first WRC drive in a C4 at Wales Rally GB.

In 2012, Sebastien Oger drove a Super 2000 Skoda Fabia in the WRC.

In 2009 and 2010 Ogier was in Citroen’s Junior WRC team. He scored his first victory at Portugal Rally in 2010 and his second came in Japan that year, where he had been registered for the Citroen Total team for the second time. In 2011, however, there were tensions between Citroens’ drivers. Mr Loeb was threatened by the young contender, and they each took five wins a piece. At Rallye Deutschland, however, team order preference was scuppered and by the end of the season Ogier was on his way to another team. It might have seemed a back-ward step for Ogier to change from driving WRCars to a Skoda Fabia S2000 for 2012, but alongside this he was involved in development of the VW Polo R WRC.

Countrymen, but not the best of friends, Loeb and Ogier have won 15 titles between them.

Ogier moved to M-Sport and scored the Drivers’ title two further times (2017 and 2018). His dominance waned with challengers in Thierry Neuville (Hyundai) and Ott Tanak (Toyota). The 2010s had culminated in the first Asian manufacturer winning the Manufacturers’ series, the first non-French driver taking the Drivers’ title in 19 years, in the hands of the Estonian Ott Tanak. The circumstances in which the decade drew to a close (cancellation of the final round due to the forest fires in Australia) meant the sport’s return in 2020 was eagerly anticipated, but that would be another story and I could only hope to be around to tell it!
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