Friday | 08 Apr 2022

WRC at 50: 2000s

The dawn of a new decade. And a new century. The FIA World Rally Championship dived into 2000 in the rudest of health with seven teams ready and 14 rallies waiting.

For that 2000 season, Mitsubishi retained its Lancer Evo VI and Tommi Mäkinen began the defence of his fourth drivers’ championship with a second successive Rallye Monte-Carlo win.

But the team behind Mäkinen knew change was coming. The lure of the World Rally Car couldn’t be ignored forever – no matter how strong the evolution of Group A Lancers had been in recent seasons. The year 2000 would be the final full season for a Group A Lancer. Change would be embraced by Ralliart.

The lion coughs, then roars
As was the case with Group B, one team watched with interest as World Rally Cars rolled out, then it did its own thing. And did its own thing very well.

You could almost see the fear in their eyes. The eyes of the opposition that is. And who could blame them? The last time the lions were in town, they tore the best of the rest to shreds. But that was in the last century. Surely Peugeot couldn’t recreate 205 T16 levels of dominance with the 205 T16 with its 206 WRC, could it?

It certainly could. Just not immediately.

The 206 WRC made its debut in Corsica 1999. But it didn’t rock the world. It was fast, but fragile. A Sanremo podium for Gilles Panizzi was the best it could bank from the car’s first six rallies.

Through that 1999 season, Peugeot technical director Michel Nandan beavered away on upgrades and improvements ready for the new millennium. Certainly, the World Rally Car offered scope for engineering ingenuity, but nothing like the scope Group B had given.

The 206 had flashes of brilliance beneath the skin, but it wasn’t quite as ground-breaking as its predecessor, the sport’s most prolific mid-engined supercar. Ultimately, what the 206 became was a beautifully balanced and powerful car for the early noughties. And one man made it his own.

Mäkinen's Rallye Monte-Carlo win in the decade's opening rally was his last in a Group A Mitsubishi Lancer

Step forward Marcus Grönholm. For too long the forgotten Finn, Grönholm had made his own way through the ranks. The absence of a wealthy manager undoubtedly made the job harder, but it gave Ulf Grönholm’s son a steely resolve. As a former boxer, he knew how to fight. And he fought his way into a factory seat with Peugeot, alongside François Delecour and Panizzi.

At the top of the noughties, Peugeot was reckoned to have found its feet with the 206 WRC and the 2000 Rallye Monte-Carlo was a much-anticipated opener. In the end, it couldn’t have gone worse for the Velizy-based squad.

All three factory 206s failed to restart out of parc fermé sending charismatic team principal Corrado Provera back north to Paris with the sort of fury and frustration that can only drive a team forwards. The lion was wounded. It would come back with a vengeance.

Grönholm bagged his first WRC win at round two in Sweden. After more frustration in Kenya, Peugeot’s Finn delivered a consistent mid-season with four podiums from the next six rallies, including back-to-back wins in New Zealand and at home in Finland.

Ending the year with another antipodean success in Australia and second place on Rally GB was enough to seal a maiden world championship for Grönholm.

It also continued Finland’s monopoly on the drivers’ title, with Colin McRae the last non-Finn to take the crown back in 1995. Such was Marcus’ growing confidence with the Peugeot, he went into 2001 looking strong to maintain that dominance and make it two from two.

Few could have predicted the sort of disasters that would befall the defending champion. From the first nine rallies, he finished just two. Going to Jyväskylä he’d bagged just four points and sat 10th in the championship standings.

The latter part of the year offered an upturn in fortune as Peugeot ironed out the myriad of mechanical maladies which had beset the ’01 evolution of the 206 WRC. He repeated his wins in Finland, Australia and Britain, but there was little to cheer for ‘Bosse’ through his second full year with Peugeot.

Marcus Grönholm scored his first win in Sweden en route to the 2000 title. Photo: McKlein

The classic battle in Britain
That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty to cheer about in 2001. But it was an odd season where nobody performed particularly consistently. The first half of the season undoubtedly belonged to Mäkinen. He won three times (Monte, Portugal and Safari) to build a 10-point lead ahead of his home round of the championship.

Then his season simply fell off a cliff. Across the next six rallies he scored just one point. Finland was lost to suspension failure, New Zealand netted a pointless eighth place and then came Mitsubishi’s answer to World Rally Car regulations: the Lancer WRC. It was a disaster.

A mark of 2001 being among the lowest point-scoring seasons in history was Mäkinen’s place in a four-way race to the drivers’ title, come the year-ending Rally of Great Britain.

And his chance was good too. Ford’s McRae sat on 42 points, then Mäkinen with 41, Subaru star Richard Burns on 40 and McRae’s team-mate, Carlos Sainz, an outside bet on 33.

Mäkinen was first to go. Only 18th fastest after the Thursday night super special in Wales, he failed to complete Friday morning’s opening St Gwynno test after suspension failure and a lost wheel on his Lancer.

One man who most definitely did make it through the 14km test was McRae. He was spectacular and fast, building a 2.9sec advantage at the top of the timesheets. That lead was trimmed through the next stage, so the Scot redoubled his efforts for Rhondda, the final stage in the loop.

All was going well until he failed to hear the crucial words ‘don’t’ and ‘cut’ from co-driver Nicky Grist. McRae threw the Focus WRC 01 into a right-hander, where the right-front wheel dipped into a ditch and pitched the car into a massive rally – and season – ending roll.

With Sainz retiring on Saturday morning, the title was Burns’ to lose. He and now FIA deputy president Robert Reid held everything together for an exceptionally nervy couple of days before being crowned as the best in the world.

Burns and Reid triumphed in 2001 after a tense finale at Britain's closing round. Photo: Prodrive

While Burns celebrated rallying’s ultimate prize, Grönholm hoped a rally win in Wales might signal the start of a change in fortunes in 2002 for the outgoing champion. That it did.

After a modest fifth in Monte-Carlo, Marcus and co-driver Timo Rautiainen won Sweden and never looked back. From round two onwards, the Finns were never headed in the title race as they romped away to four more wins and celebrations of a second title in three years with two rounds still remaining.

Peugeot’s 206 WRC had become a powerhouse in the WRC. It wasn’t just Grönholm winning, as Harri Rovanperä, Didier Auriol and Gilles Panizzi demonstrated the car’s ability across all surfaces. Panizzi’s mastery of the asphalt was as exquisite as it was complete through the early noughties.

Looking back now, Grönholm has nothing but the fondest of memories of his time working with the charismatic Provera.

“It was fun times,” he said. “All the time, Corrado with his cigar and speeches. Incredible! And the car, this was my car. Fantastic. When it was working and everything was good, it felt like I could do anything with this car.”

Video: Richard Burns - the making of a champion

A different French force
While French rally fans enjoyed Peugeot’s renaissance, they were still searching for the next Auriol: the next French world champion.

At the top of the decade, the French Federation was investing in an Alsatian called Sébastien Loeb. Was he that next big thing? Nobody knew at the time. He started rallying aged 21, having spent much of his time until that point winning gymnastics titles up and down France.

Nobody could have predicted how the diminutive man from Haguenau would turn the WRC upside down. But two rallies at the end of the 2000 season offered a firm indication.

Armed with a Toyota Corolla, Loeb scored a pair of top-10 finishes in Corsica and Sanremo. Total domination of the following year’s inaugural Super 1600 series (now known as Junior WRC) in a Citroën Saxo kit car added more weight to the thinking that Loeb was something a bit special.

But it was a soaking wet Sunday in the Ligurian Alps where those thoughts were confirmed. On his debut in Citroën’s Xsara WRC, Loeb came within 11sec of defeating Tarmac master Panizzi at the 2001 Sanremo Rally.

That performance alone fully justified former WRC runner up and now Citroën team principal Guy Frequelin’s faith in his young charger.

A few months later, in the same part of the world, only a tyre change in the wrong place (for which Citroën was penalised) came between Loeb and victory at Rallye Monte-Carlo. By the middle of the season, Loeb’s account was open. He and co-driver Daniel Elena celebrated their maiden success at ADAC Rallye Deutschland.

Having tackled a limited programme through 2002, Loeb was ready to join the Versailles all-stars for 2003. His team-mates? McRae and Sainz.

Germany in 2002 was the scene of Loeb's first WRC win. Seventy-nine more have followed - and still counting....... Photo: McKlein

Subaru’s last stand
Before the Loeb era could truly get going, there would be one more drivers’ title from a manufacturer which had become one of the sport’s icons and a driver himself who, to this day, remains among the WRC’s most popular figures.

Through the early to middle of the decade, it was near impossible to go anywhere in the WRC without being serenaded by, at times, hundreds of Norwegians declaring Petter Solberg to be: “Our Solberg, our only Solberg. You make us happy…”

And he certainly did make people happy. With a mile-wide smile, seemingly endless enthusiasm and a talent to take him to the top of the world, Solberg won three of the last 2003 rounds to take the title by a single point from Loeb.

To this day, the Norwegian whose engaging personality earned him the nickname ‘Hollywood’ remains the only driver ever to beat Loeb across a complete WRC campaign.

One man who should have been in the thick of that 2003 title scrap, having led the championship for much of the season, was Burns, who had jumped ship from Subaru to Peugeot. Unfortunately, the Englishman was diagnosed with a brain tumour ahead of the final round in his native Britain. Burns tragically died two years later.

The celebrations in Margam Park were joyous as Petter Solberg clinched the 2003 crown in Wales. Photo: Prodrive

The Loeb machine
Talking to Loeb about losing the 2003 title race in early 2004 was a painful process. “I lost by just one point,” he said. “When I looked back, I could see this point everywhere. This year I have to find that point.”

And he did. After winning the first two rallies of the season, the only time Loeb was headed in the 2004 title race was when Markko Märtin won the inaugural Rally México to lead the Frenchman by a point. From then on, he was away. Wins in Cyprus, Turkey, Germany and Australia landed him a first world championship.

Solberg’s title defence was hit by mechanical issues, but the defending champ did manage to string together a superb Japan-GB-Sanremo towards the end of the year. The silver medal beckoned for Solberg, but the return trip to Wales provided one very big reason to be cheerful.

In a straight fight for victory at Rally GB, Solberg edged Loeb in a run through the Margam Park stage that remains etched on the memories of those present and watching from around the world. It was a sensational run packed full of bravery and brilliance.

But from then on, there would be just one man celebrating season-long success as the noughties played out.

If six wins was impressive in 2004, it was nothing compared with 10 wins in 2005. Tumbling from a bike and breaking his arm 12 rounds into a 16-event season gave Grönholm hope of catching a third title.

Loeb sat on the sidelines hoping the eight wins and 112 points he’d stacked up ahead of his bike shunt would be enough. When his Finnish rival rolled on Rally Australia, the deal was done: Loeb was a champion from his couch at home.

itroën’s Xsara World Rally Car was a marriage made in heaven. He secured his first world title in Australia in 2004. Photo: McKlein

The start of 2007 marked a new era for Citroën with the C4 WRC replacing the all-conquering Xsara WRC.

The result was the same: four more championships for Loeb. By the time the first decade of the new century was done, Loeb had amassed six titles and 54 world rally wins. The next best? Grönholm on 30.

Loeb made the sport his own. He certainly made Citroën his own and the Xsara is the car which will always hold a special place in his heart.

Right from the start of his full-time career, Loeb had the edge over his team-mates. And don’t forget, he started with McRae and Sainz and dominated both of those masters. At opposite ends of their careers, Loeb and McRae forged a close bond, with the Frenchman a big admirer of the Scottish star’s abilities in and out of the car.

Like the rest of the motorsport world, Loeb was stunned at the news of McRae’s death in a helicopter accident in September 2007.

McRae had retired from the full-time WRC at the end of 2003, but still had the capacity to thrill fans. His Škoda outing at Rally Australia, where a transmission problem ruled him out of the lead fight in 2005, is still talked of – like so many McRae memories – the world over.

Dominant as Loeb was through the second half of the noughties, the 2009 season was as close as he would come to losing his title. Mikko Hirvonen had stepped into the big shoes left by Grönholm in the Ford team and the younger Finn was determined to follow in the footsteps left by those shoes.

As the new decade loomed large, Hirvonen was left to reflect on a title missed by a single point to Citroën’s superstar.

Next Friday: 2010s

Finn Hirvonen won on home ground in Finland in 2009 - but agonisingly missed the title by a single point. Photo: McKlein

The Experts' View

We enlisted the help of six WRC experts, whose knowledge of the sport’s history is encyclopaedic, to tell us their Greatest Moments from the 2000s – and what a wonderfully wide range of views we received.

The decade belonged to Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena. They won their first world titles in 2004 and were undefeated across the remainder of the 2000s.

The records were many, but the one that impacted Jari-Matti Latvala, Julian Porter and Reiner Kuhn came in Corsica in 2005. The Citroën Xsara duo won all 12 stages, the only time this has been achieved in 50 seasons of the WRC. They won 10 of the 16 rounds en route to their second crown.

Michel Lizin highlights Rallye Monte-Carlo three years earlier. Having finished second in Sanremo the previous season, Loeb’s talent exploded in the French Alps when he finished second – despite a two-minute penalty for an illegal tyre change.

WRC at 50: 1990s

WRC at 50: 1990s

Il Canto degli Italiani. The FIA World Rally Championship had grown entirely familiar with the chant of the Italians as the ...

Read More

Loeb featured in one of the WRC’s greatest finishes, recalled by Lizin and Marco Giordo. Rally New Zealand in 2007 was a thriller from start to finish. After swapping positions throughout the event, Marcus Grönholm snatched the lead in the penultimate speed test by 0.7sec. The pace in the finale was frantic and although Loeb was quickest, the Finn held on to win by 0.3sec. It remains the WRC’s second closest finish.

Loeb’s win in Britain in 2009, which earned his sixth title by a point from a devastated Mikko Hirvonen, was highlighted by Giordo. Lizin pointed to his 2003 duel with Petter Solberg in Australia, where the lead changed hands six times before the Norwegian triumphed.

Four rallies later and Solberg was world champion after winning in Britain to defeat Loeb by a point. David Evans recalls the celebrations there, along with those two years earlier when Richard Burns lifted the crown, a memory shared by Giordo.

Latvala spotlighted Colin McRae’s masterful display at the 2002 Safari Rally when the Scot took his 25th and final win, while Evans lists Latvala’s maiden victory in Sweden in 2008. The 22-year-old became the – then – youngest driver to win a WRC round.

The end of the noughties gave a glimpse of what was to follow in the WRC’s fifth decade when Sébastien Ogier won the 2009 Rally de Portugal. Porter marks that as one of his favourite moments from the era.

More news