WRC: Going Through Stages
After a long hiatus, the FIA World Rally Championship is fully back in action now and as the WRC gets into the thick of its 48th season of competition, we take a (sideways) look back at the sport’s glorious evolution. In the midst of often blizzard-like conditions the World Rally Championship powered away from the finish line 47 years ago in Monte-Carlo – and ever since it has continued to defy the laws of probability and physics.
Born from an amalgamation of events that had previously been part of the European Rally Championship or the International Championship for Manufacturers, the first FIA World Rally Championship was held in 1973, starting with a well-established classic, Rallye Monte-Carlo. Organised as a concentration run followed by special stages in the mountains around the Principality, entrants streamed into France from across Europe. The rally took place in the month of January and at the Burzet stage in the Ardeche, an icy wind whipped up enormous snow drifts. The first 65 crews made it through, but the following 140 were stuck and thus excluded. A titanic final night battle between Jean-Claude Andruet and team-mate Ove Andersson – won by the Frenchman by just 16 seconds – set the template for 47 seasons of excitement. Technically demanding, technologically punishing and physically gruelling, this was motorsport on the grandest scale.
For many, the 1970s represent a golden age of WRC competition. While Alpine Renault dominated the first season, the following years of the manufacturers’ championship (drivers would be left out until 1979) would see other icons come to the fore.
Attached in poster form to thousands of bedroom walls, the Lancia Stratos was the rally car as sci-fi rocket sled. Specifically conceived as a rally car, the wedge-shaped wonder was unveiled at the 1971 Turin Motor Show but with 500 road-going cars needing to be built to satisfy Group 4 regulations it wasn’t until 1974 that the Ferrari V6 powered monster made its debut on the world’s stages.
The Stratos was successful right out of the box, winning the championship in 1974 and then defending that twice in succession. And in the hands of drivers such as Sandro Munari and Markko Alén, it fired the imagination of millions.
This was the era of true sideways rallying and legendary talents such as Ari Vatanen, Hannu Mikkola and Roger Clark, as well as Alén. Equally iconic machines such as the Fiat 131 and the Ford Escort RS brought the artistry and otherworldly spectacle of rallying to a new audience of suddenly fanatical fans. It might have felt like an apogee had been reached but as the ’80s dawned further heights would be revealed, thanks to the astounding Group B machines. If the ’70s were about artistry, the ’80s were all about brute force. With few restrictions on power, materials or risk, Group B gave birth to some of the sport’s most awesome machinery. With Audi’s all-conquering Quattro setting the pace, the ’80s were defined by epic contests between Audi’s Quattro and Lancia’s 037, and then by the tiny titan that was Peugeot’s mighty 205 T16 and the fearsome Lancia Delta S4.
But while the era of Walter Röhrl, Michèle Mouton (still the only woman to win a WRC event), Stig Blomqvist, Timo Salonen, Juha Kankkunen and Miki Biasion was the WRC at its most unguardedly ferocious and fascinating, it was also a period which would require motorsport to improve its safety record, and eventually the thrilling but dangerous Group B cars were banned in 1987.
The ’90s put rally in the spotlight globally. This decade signalled the rise of a new group of legends both on wheels and behind the wheel – and rallying was now truly in the spotlight. TV coverage of the sport was now global and with that exposure came increased demands for more intense, quickfire competition. Whilst legendary rallies such as the Safari disappeared for a bit from the schedule, high pace was a befitting replacement for extreme endurance. And as new levels of technical prowess and professionalism gripped the sport, so too did a new wave of manufacturers and drivers. Tommi Mäkinen, Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae, Richard Burns all burst onto the scene. And though the likes of Lancia, with its iconic Delta Integrale, were still in the mix, this was the time of Toyota’s Celica GT-4 and of Subaru’s mighty Impreza and the Mitsubishi’s Lancer cars.
And as the new century dawned, so did a new era of dominance. A former gymnast, in 1995, 21-year-old Sébastien Loeb swapped mats for motors and took up a career in rallying. After winning the Junior World Rally Championship in 2001 he was signed by the Citroën factory team for the 2002 season. At Round 10 in Germany he and co-driver Daniel Elena took their maiden WRC win. The world of rallying would never be the same. Marcus Grönholm took the 2002 title and Petter Solberg the next, but for the decade that followed Loeb dominated the sport, taking nine world titles, all of them with Citroën. In the end it was only the rise of another French Sébastien, this time named Ogier, that halted Loeb’s run. And while Loeb’s attention shifted to other forms of motorsport, Ogier went on a spree of his own, racking up four titles with Volkswagen, before taking a remarkable double win with privateer outfit M-Sport in 2018 and 2019. And ahead of the resumption in Estonia he was on course for a seventh as he carried a lead of eight points over Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans.
Which brings us to a final look to the future. In 2022 the FIA World Rally Championship will undergo its most radical evolution in all of its five decades of competition. The sport’s traditional power plants will become hybrid engines.
After an agreement was reached to mate the electrical motors to the base engines currently used and in light of other technical changes being made, 2019 champion Ott Tanäk reckons the future is bright. “There will be some extra weight from the battery and the hybrid parts, but the new safety cell and the changes to the body will save weight,” he told WRC.com. “If the cars are more playful then that can be fun as well. The most important thing is that the cars will be fast.”
So, while the specification will change, the DNA and the defining demand of the WRC will remain the same. And that can be embodied in the two-word mantra of one of its earliest stars, Markku Alén: maximum attack.
Images Courtesy Jaanus Ree / Red Bull Content Pool / Motorsport Images