So you want to be a rally driver? It helps if the sport is in your blood – you need a natural love of driving. In addition, you need to be enormously focused and determined. Oh, and, to get up the ladder, you need a pretty solid financial backing too.
There are a handful of drivers that managed to push the boundaries and achieve success and worldwide fame. This article is about them. These are the famous road warriors who drove through the history of rally full throttle, and left deep marks in the dirt that will last for an eternity.
Here are the top Rally drivers of all time:
In lists of top rally drivers, no name graces the top more often than Citroen ace Sebastien Loeb. The French former gymnast shifted direction to rallying in 1995, when he was only 21 years old, and won the 2001 Junior World Rally Championship.
A year later he started his successful cooperation with the Citroën Total World Rally Team, and during that same year, he managed to be crowned as a real world champion on Rallye Deutschland in Germany.
Hitting his stride, he went on to win the world championship a record eight times in a row.
What makes Loeb especially impressive is his chameleonic ability to switch track altogether. Loeb is a three-time winner at the international motorsport event, Race of Champions, and has even dabbled in Formula 1.
In addition, Loeb has also placed second at Le Mans, reportedly after training by running virtual practice laps in the Sony PlayStation 2 video game Gran Turismo 4, aboard a private jet. What is the 24 Hours of Le Mans you ask? Only the Grand Prix of endurance.
In 2009, Loeb was made Knight of the Legion d’Honneur: the French equivalent of royalty.
Loeb will remain an important part of the history of rally simply because he managed to win nine consecutive world championship titles. That fact alone makes him the most important rally driver, not just of the 21st century, but of all times.
On top of that, as of now, Loeb managed to gather an unbelievable 909 World Rally Championship stage wins.
Colin McRae was a Scottish rally driver who became the 1991 and 1992 British Rally Champion.
Like so many rally drivers, Colin McRae had the sport in his blood. He was the son of five-time British Rally Champion Jimmy McRae and brother of rally driver Alister McRae.
His magnificent victories started as early as 1991 when he won the national title for the first time. He did it again the following year.
In 1993, McRae started his successful partnership with Subaru, that eventually led him to win his first world champion title in 1995. McRae was the first Briton and the youngest to win the World Rally Championship Drivers’ title. McRae retains that record today.
The WRC website raves about the way he won Greece’s Acropolis Rally: “an incredible five times from 11 starts.” The rally, which, the WRC says, is seen as the toughest outing outside Kenya “highlighted his strength as a thinking driver as well as a speed merchant.”
The wild man of rallying, McRae died in 2007 in a chopper crash. He was posthumously inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame.
He is remembered today for his electrifying driving and stubborn persistence. This artist of rallying will be sorely missed.
Sandro Munari was born in 1940 in a small town of Cavarzere in Italy. He began rallying when he was 25 years old. Within 2 years he had already won his first Italian Rally Championship, and he didn’t stop there.
He did it again with his Lancia Stratos in 1969, and in 1972 he won his first Monte Carlo Rally, this time in Lancia Fulvia.
After a few years of great results, he went for the European Rally Championship title. It was 1973, and Europe was at his knees.
Lancia partnered with Munari, and together they became a winning combination. With the Stratos HF model, Sandro Munari continued his successful career throughout the ‘70s.
The tragic destiny of Henri Toivonen is well known among rally fans. He quickly rose to fame, following in his father’s footsteps, the European champion Pauli Toivonen.
One of his most memorable successes was in 1980 when he left the Britons in awe. He won the World Rally Championship in his Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, when he was just 24 years old.
However, most people, unfortunately, remember him more by his tragic demise than his numerous titles. The tragedy happened on 2 May 1986 on Tour de Corse rally in Corsica.
His Lancia Delta S4 exploded and both Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto died. That day is marked as one of the saddest days in rally history.
Timo was most famous for his amazing hat-tricks of wins. Jaguar Type D was his vehicle of choice when he dominated the local races and championships.
During the ‘60s he mostly drove Minis. In 1965 he won both the Monte Carlo Rally and Coupe des Alpes in his Mini Cooper S.
1975 was his best year. He won the RAC a third time in a row. The ‘70s were also the years when he partnered with Ford. He proudly drove the Escort, while switching to Peugeot on several occasions.
In 1994, Timo finished his career in a Rover Mini Cooper.
Walter is one of Germany’s most famous rally drivers. Over the years he won victories for many famous car brands including BMW, Lancia, Fiat, Opel, Audi.
A former ski instructor he quickly rose to fame and was seen as one of the most fearless drivers of the ‘80s.
Röhrl became a world champion in 1980 with his Fiat 131. He won the title again two years later, this time driving for Opel.
He won the Monte Carlo Rally four times and managed to win 14 world championship titles during his career.
Carlos Sainz is the most famous Spanish rally driver. Though his early career began with Ford, he mainly drove Toyota Celicas during his prime.
In the mid-nineties, he signed for Subaru after one year of driving Lancias. Later he again switched between Toyota and Ford on two occasions, until he settled with Citroën.
He finished his career after a crash with his Peugeot during the Dakar Rally in 2016. However, he took his second Dakar rally win in 2018 with his Peugeot team.
Carlos Sainz has an amazing 196 starts, two world championship titles from 1990 and 1992 and 26 rally wins in total.
Mikkola’s career spanned for over 30 years. He was a 7-time winner of the 1000 Lakes Rally. On top of that, he managed to win the RAC four times.
He started his career with Volvo PV544 in 1963 but his real breakthrough came during the ‘70s, and he really shined during the ‘80s.
He mainly drove Ford Escorts during the ‘70s, and with his Escort he won his first British Rally Championship. Though, one of the most important moments of his career happened in 1983. Mikkola was then an Audi driver, and with his new partners, he managed to get crowned as a world champion that year.
After the ‘80s, Hannu Mikkola finished his career with Mazda but wasn’t able to surpass any of his earlier successes.
A four-time World Rally Champion, Finn Juha Kankkunen has racked up 23 international rally wins. Arch rival Sebastien Loeb has amassed more world titles, but nobody has emulated Kankkunen’s accomplishment of becoming a world champion with three different manufacturers.
Rally driving came naturally to Kankkunen. He was raised on his family’s farm in Laukaa in Central Finland, near the Rally Finland route. His father — an ice racing enthusiast — taught the future champion how to handle an ice racing track, which was good practice.
Kankkunen started driving at age seven and owned his first car at age 12.
Kankkunen started his Racing career in ‘79. He was one of the most successful drivers from Finland. His amazing career spanned many decades, until his official retirement in 2010.
Kankkunen was mentored by Finnish rally star Timo Makinen: a friend of his father. Mentored by Makinen and funded by Finnish talent scout Timo Jouhki, Kankkunen had quite the head start.
The flair he showed in two World Rally Championship (WRC) rallies in 1982 inspired Toyota Finland to lend him a car once belonging to Swedish rally ace, Bjorn Waldegard.
Kankkunen never looked back.
His breakthrough came with Toyota in 1983, and he won his first world championship with Peugeot in 1986. At the time, he was the youngest champion ever.
After Peugeot was banned from group B, he moved to Lancia and successfully defended his title. Afterward, he mainly switched between Toyota and Lancia until he moved to Ford in 1997. He later went to drive for Subaru and he also drove half of the season for Hyundai.
Juha Kankkunen is also known for setting the world speed record on ice in a Bentley Continental GT in 2007.
Retired Finnish rally driver “Turbo” Tommi Makinen is one of the most successful WRC drivers ever. Makinen ranks second in championships, tied with fellow Finn Juha Kankkunen and behind Frenchman Sebastien Loeb.
The Mitsubishi ace is a four-time World Rally Champion. After Makinen’s first win, he triumphantly defended the series continuously throughout 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999.
In classic Finnish style, Makinen started out competing on farm tractors, winning the Finnish national ploughing title in 1982 and 1985.
He embarked on his first rally in 1985, tackling his first world championship race just two years after. By 1989, Makinen was winning European Championship rallies.
His career kicked up a gear in 1990, when he teamed up with veteran co-driver Seppo Harjanne.
After his stellar career gradually lost steam, he retired from the sport at the end of the 2003 season with third place in that year’s Rally Great Britain.
Makinen now runs a rally car preparation business in Finland. He lives in both Monaco and Jyvaskyla in the western part of Finnish Lakeland.
Finland has a habit of breeding superb rally drivers. It might be the strong farming culture, where there is always a chance to zoom around in a tractor. Whatever the reason, the third Finn in this shortlist, Marcus Gronholm, was a two-time World Rally Champion in 2000 and 2002 and ranked by his rivals as among the world’s top drivers.
Gronholm started out as a teen motocross rider before a knee injury derailed that career. He then raced in the Finnish Rally championship through his 20s, winning five titles, and grabbed a WRC ride at the end of 1999.
Gronholm declared his retirement from full-time competition at the end of 2007, but he remains still very much in the running. Last year, he won the inaugural Global RallyCross Championship event at Irwindale, California, triumphing on both days.
“The track was good to drive,” Gronholm told Autoweek. “The competition was good with many good drivers. I want to come back and race here again this season.”
Sebastien Ogier is an amazing driver and the current holder of the World Rally Drivers Championship.
Born in France on December 17, 1983, Ogier discovered racing at a very early age. His father was a Senna fan, and his uncle was actually an autocross driver.
When Ogier was a child, he liked cars, like all the other boys. He particularly liked karting. And from that, he was introduced to rally. Soon after, he entered his first rally competition — FFSA’s Rallye Jeunes.
He did splendidly and finished first. Recognizing his enormous talent, a talent scouting agency offered to sign him, which was the official start of his driving career.
Just a couple years after his first competition, Ogier competed in the 2008 world championship. He won this competition, too, and a couple of others after it.
In 2009, he started driving in WRC’s Junior Team. From that point on, he was getting better and better rapidly. During his youth, he never placed lower than the 3rd place.
Over the course of his career, Ogier had 44 wins in total. He also won 5 World Rally Championships, 5 years in a row (2013-2017).
Petter Solberg is one of the best rally drivers the world has ever seen.
Solberg was born on November 18, 1974, in Norway. Both of his parents were rally enthusiasts. They also did big cross, a driving discipline quite similar to rally. So it’s no wonder that he became an enthusiast as well at an early age.
His brother, Henning, is also a successful driver.
During his childhood, Solberg worked with his parents on their cars, helping them fix and rebuild them. As soon as he was old enough to drive, Solberg jumped into his first car and entered his first competition — the 1987 Norwegian Tamiya Cup.
He came in first place. Ever since then, he’s been unstoppable.
In 1992, Solberg turned 18 and got his driver’s license. The very next day after getting the license, he entered his first bilcross competition. Of, course, he won that one, too. And he was getting only better with time. He won the Norwegian Rally Championship in 1998.
To this day, Petter Solberg is still competing at the age of 43. He has a wife and a son, who are both in the rally world as well.
Pernilla Walfridsson, his wife, was a female world champion for some time. His son, Oliver, is also a successful rally and crosskart driver.
Michèle Mouton is the person who broke all stereotypes when it comes to racing. She is not only the greatest female rally driver ever but also an inspirational figure.
Mouton was born on June 23, 1951. Her love for cars came from her father, a World War II prisoner. She started racing to honor him in a way and quickly realized that she’s very good at it. So did everybody else, once they saw her compete.
At first, Mouton was a co-driver, but she soon became an independent driver. In 1975, she competed alone for the first time in a local competition and won.
Soon after that, she competed in the European Rally Championship, Tour de France Automobile, Monte Carlo Rally, and many many others. She was successful in all of these, much to the surprise of everyone else who didn’t think a woman could be a rally racer.
When asked what her goal was, she said that it was ‘not to beat all the men, but to be at their level.’ Mouton is a truly inspirational person that has fought for female rights all her life. Her coworkers, including Niki Lauda, often referred to her as a ‘superwoman.’