Indeed, not since Rallye Monte-Carlo back in 1997 has an Italian triumphed in the WRC when Piero Liatti bagged first place on the advent of the World Rally Car era.
Liatti came close to winning again in the WRC that season when Sanremo hosted his country’s world championship counter. The fact he didn’t win means his home round of the WRC will always hold mixed emotions.
By far, Liatti’s most successful season was 1997, when he was a factory driver for Subaru and team-mate to Colin McRae (sharing the second car with Kenneth Eriksson).
The year couldn’t have started better for the man from Biella, when he won in the principality, following that up with second place in Catalunya and then fifth place in Corsica. Then came Piero’s home round of the championship in Sanremo: the first year that the rally was run as a purely asphalt event, without the classic gravel stages in Tuscany.
Liatti, co-driven by Fabrizia Pons, was instantly at home on his favoured surface, looking set for another victory. Heading into the final day, he had a six-second lead: a number that probably still haunts him now. And this is why.
With the championship so finely balanced, team orders prevailed on the last day. Liatti was told to make way for McRae: a task the crew reluctantly carried out by stopping for about five seconds before the end of the final stage and handing their time cards in late.
And so McRae won Sanremo by just six seconds. To make it all the more galling, McRae didn’t manage to win the title that year, finishing one point behind Mitsubishi’s Tommi Makinen. Liatti never won another rally.
It was undoubtedly the most disappointing experience of his career, while Pons was in tears of rage at the final control, hiding behind oversized sunglasses. “Every Italian wants to win in Sanremo, and that was very cruel,” Liatti says. “At the time, I was extremely upset. Now that a few years have passed, you accept that these are things that can happen in sport sometimes. But it’s still not nice when it does.”
Liatti is still involved in rallying as he is mentoring Lorenzo Bertelli, who is contesting the Production Car World Rally Championship. For the moment, the jury is still out on the Italian youngster, who is only in his first year of full-time competition.
“Lorenzo definitely shows potential, but he needs to learn,” says Liatti, who now instructs for the Italian motorsport federation. “I’ve tried to help him as much as I can by sitting in the car with him during tests, but now he just needs to get out and do it on his own.”
Liatti, after all, did it all on his own. But he’ll always regret never being allowed to keep the victory that would have meant most to him.