40 years since the FIA introduced a fully sanctioned world championship for motorsport's most exciting discipline, the WRC has delivered drama and excitement by the truckload. To mark the occasion, we've selected my five top car and driver combinations since the WRC began. They're not necessarily the five most successful combinations because this is a very subjective list; for one reason or another, these five pairings resonate more loudly with your correspondent than any other. We encourage you to share your own top fives.
Sebastien Loeb retired from professional rallying with nine world titles, 78 WRC wins and 900 fastest stage times to his name. He not only dominated the sport for almost a decade, he also changed it for good.
For 2003, its third season in the WRC, Citroen pulled together a dream-team driver line-up. In Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae, the French squad had two of rallying's most successful competitors on its books. In a third car was a young Loeb, already a rally winner but set, surely, to be hung out to dry by the two grand masters.
As the story goes, only the inexperienced one was humble enough to heed the advice of Citroen's engineers and adopt the style of driving that they had favoured. By keeping his Xsara WRC as neat and tidy as possible through corners, Loeb found pace within the car that his illustrious team-mates couldn't. He won three rallies that year - Sainz and McRae won one between them - and finished second in the championship by a single point to Petter Solberg. It was Loeb's first full season in the WRC.
Still in partnership with the Xsara, Loeb went on to win the title for three years in a row. He won 10 of 16 rallies in 2005. He finished first or second on every event he contested the following year and won the title despite missing the final four rounds due to injury. He won every stage of the Tour de Corse in 2005.
Loeb may have won more rallies and titles with the later C4 WRC, but his partnership with the Xsara WRC is more significant because it sired a new style of driving for the sport, one that Loeb mastered to become, surely, the greatest of all time.
McRae's trademark driving style may have been out-dated by 2003, but for the late Group A and early World Rally Car era it was more effective than any other.
Although the Scot clinched his sole title at the wheel of a Group A spec Impreza in 1995, it's hard not be drawn to the Impreza WRC of '97-'98. That may be because that car - with its three-door shell and wide arches - looked so spectacular, or it may be because those two years were McRae's most successful in terms of rally wins; eight times he and Nicky Grist clambered out of their Impreza WRC and onto the top step of the podium.
Were he still with us today McRae himself may not look back so fondly on the 1997 season. A run of four consecutive retirements due to mechanical failures in the latter part of the season almost certainly cost him a second world title. An outside bet to snatch the crown, McRae approached the final three rallies of the year as only he could. He won them all. A second, a third and a sixth were enough to see the title go Tommi Makinen's way, however, by single point.
The Impreza WRC's early teething problems cost McRae that championship, but when the car was running well it danced in Colin's quick hands. Take a moment to watch the on-board footage of McRae in the '97 Impreza WRC, paying particular attention to just how committed he was on the Tour de Corse. He won that rally. The sequence that follows, from Rally Indonesia, is classic chuck-it-in McRae. It looks like car and driver in perfect harmony.
Yes, another Frenchman in a Xsara, but for nostalgic reasons this combination is every bit as worthy of inclusion. Front-wheel drive may be the least spectacular of all three layouts, but there's something about a well-pedalled front driver car with a high-revving, naturally aspirated engine, a tightly-stacked sequential gearbox and a locking differential that appeals. Perhaps it's because extracting total performance from such a car is all about precision and momentum. It screams commitment.
The F2-spec kit cars of the late 90s could, with around 300hp, match the full fat WRC machines for outright power, but they were way down on torque and lacked four-wheel drive traction. In certain circumstances, though, such as on twisting, dry tarmac, these cars were capable of giant-killing feats in the right hands. Those hands, of course, belonged to Philippe Bugalski, who won Rallye Catalunya and the Tour de Corse in 1999, beating the full line-up of works World Rally Cars quite convincingly.
It helps, of course, that with their wide arches, big tarmac wheels and road-scraping ride heights F2 cars like the Xsara looked the nuts. More significantly, though, is that Citroen was new to rallying at the time and already it had sealed surfaces licked. That tarmac expertise was carried over to its early WRC cars, enabling a young Sebastien Loeb to find his feet in rallying's top flight.
The Lancia Delta S4 defines both the glory and the tragedy of Group B rallying. It arrived late in 1985 towards the end of the era and was, as a result, the ultimate expression of those go-forth-and-innovate regulations.
The S4 was as close to a racing car for the forests as we'll ever see; a spaceframe chassis, double wishbone suspension all round with a mid-engined layout and carbon fibre bodywork. It was turbocharged and supercharged to develop a reputed 560hp and with four-wheel drive and less than 900kg to shift it could hit 60mph in two seconds. On gravel.
Lancia wrung out every single drop of potential from the regulations to create the S4 and according to team boss Cesare Fiorio, Henri Toivonen was the only driver who could tame it. The Finn won on the car's debut at the RAC Rally, the final round of the 1985 season. Contrary to Fiorio's claim, though, Toivonen reckoned he could barely control the S4. "I may have won the RAC Rally with Lancia, but I just did not know how to drive it," he said. "It seemed to have a mind of its own."
Nonetheless, he won the opening round of the following season, Rallye Monte Carlo, by more than four minutes. The S4 was, at that time, the definitive Group B rally car, but it would later come to define the tragedy of the era, too, when Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto perished on the Tour de Corse when their car plunged down a mountainside. Despite his own protestations, Toivonen will always be remembered as the only man who came close to taming Group B's most fearsome machine.
Ari Vatanen in an Escort RS1800 is rallying as the universe intended it. It is the sport distilled; an incomparably talented driver, a simple rear-wheel drive car and a Cosworth BDG engine. To my mind this list would have been incomplete without an Escort and Vatanen was the man who made the car his own.
A few years ago, he was reacquainted with his Rothmans RS1800 at Castle Combe's Rallyday. Having punted it around the makeshift rally stage for a few minutes he emerged, brow moistened, and said, "I must have been a really good driver because that car is difficult to drive!"
Vatanen, alongside co-driver David Richards, won three rounds of the 1981 world championship to secure the title and indelibly align himself with the greatest in the history of the sport. The RS1800 may have been difficult to drive, but back in his day the Finn was more than a match for it.
This clip, from 1982 British Rally Championship, shows just what a handful the RS1800 could be at times. By then, the car was several years old and therefore refined to a point of brilliance. As Vatanen himself puts it, "That must have been the ultimate Escort. It was just before the Escort as a competitive car became obsolete."
Audi's revolutionary Quattro was in its second year in 1982 and it proved to be the class of the World Rally Championship that year. Four-wheel drive quickly became the default configuration in rallying - save for a few exceptions - and the Escort was soon old-hat. Vatanen went on to win many rallies in the Group B era, but for his sheer ability at the wheel of an RS1800, he'll always be an Escort man.
Photos: LAT Photo