Monday, 27 October 2014

Best Five Drivers Never To Win The WRC

I guess overall the World Rally Championship Drivers title has been shared reasonably fairly.

Okay, so it's been more than a decade since the WCR was won by someone who wasn't called Sebastian, but at least Solberg and Gronholm got a go before Monsieur Loeb got going, and there's time yet for Latvala and Hirvonen.

However if you look back through the whole history of the WRC you see a few drivers who should have had a title but didn't. Here's my top five unlucky drivers.

1. Jean-Luc Therier

Jean-Luc Therier, Renault Alpine A110 Corsica, 1973
Where the WRC launched in 1973 one team dominated, Alpine Renault.

Alpine was a tiny French outfit that was taken over by national giant Renault that year. They'd been rallying their little A110 for over a decade by this time and with Renault's money they were now able to take on the world with their pocket rocket.

The pilots of these little missiles were known as The Blue Riders. Jean-Claude Andruet, Jean Pierre Nicholas, and Bernard Darniche would continue to win rallies for the rest of the decade whilst Ove Anderson went on to manage Toyota, but the fastest of all them was Jean-Luc Therier.

In 1973 he won in Portugal, Greece and San Remo and finished best non-Saab in Sweden. He also
managed two thirds, a fifth and a seventh. In Poland he was one of many drivers disqualified after the organisers decided to hide the Passage Controls, and on the RAC the little car expired.

Unfortunately for Therier there was no award for drivers until 1979. Had there been a Championship for Drivers in '73 he'd have won it by a country mile.

Renault Alpine scaled down their involvement in rallying after 1973. Therier was never to win with an Alpine again, but he did give the Renault 17 Gordini, which was a sort of Gallic Ford Capri, it's only win in America in 1974. He then moved to Ove Anderson's Toyota where he retired from every world event he entered.

Then in 1980 Porsche homologated a lightweight version of the venerable 911 and Therier drove it on the 1980 Tour de Corse.
Jean-Luc Therier, Porsche 911SC, Tour de Corse 1980
He was up against Jean Ragnotti in the little Renault 5 Turbo and former Blue Rider Anduet in a Fiat France 131 Abarth, but despite being down in eighth at one point Therier brought the Porsche home first. 

He nearly did it again on his next outing in Monte Carlo. Mikkola's Quattro set the early pace,  but when an accidnt made the four wheel drive car a three wheeler Therier inherited the lead. He held it until the last night when he went wide on a corner, mounted a bank and broke the transmission.

There would be one more podium in his career, but no more chances for victory.

2. Sandro Munari

Sandro Munari, Lancia Stratos, Monte Carlo 1975
The team that knocked Renault Alpine off their perch was Lancia and the car they did it with was the Stratos. The car was built around one driver, Sandro Munari. Quite literally built around him as anyone with longer legs and shorter arms, which was just about everyone, had trouble even fitting into it.

Munari had come third on the 1974 Safari in an old Fulvia, but when the Stratos was homologated in October he managed to win back to back rallies in San Remo and Canada and come third in Great Britain. Had there been a drivers title to play for it would have been his.

The next year he could have done it again, but
Sandro Munari, Lancia Stratos, RAC 1976
Turin politics saw him sitting out several rounds. By 1976 he had a rival in the team in the form of Swede Bjorn Waldegarde, but wins in Monte Carlo, Portugal and on the Tour de Corse would have given him another title.

Come 1977 though and Lancia had to give way to Fiat. Munari would the FIA Cup, a predecessor or the WRC for Drivers, but was limited to just five actual WRC appearances. One of these though was the Monte Carlo which he won to give him a Hat Trick.

In 1978 he only finished one rally, and that was in a Fiat 131 Abarth. Apart from a few cameos in Africa that was it for Il Drago.

3. Markku Alen

On the eve of the first WRC for Drivers in 1979 who would we have said were the best rally drivers in the world? Hannu Mikkola, Bjorn Waldegarde and Ari Vatanen of Ford, Markku Alen and Walter Rohrl of Fiat and maybe Stig Blomqvist and Timo Salonen who, although not winning rallies, had put in decent performances in uncompetitive cars.

Over the next seven years each of those drivers would win a world title except one; Markku Alen.

How this could be is a bit of a mystery. Partly it was because in 1978, when he was undoubtedly the driver of the year, there was still only a Makes title, partly it was because when he had another crack at the title in 1980 team mate Rohrl beat him fair and square and partly it was because when the Italians next had shot at the title the Lancia 037 was so out-gunned by Audi it took a team performance to win.

He had a theoretical chance of the title on the 1983 RAC, but Lancia had spent so much Lira on winning the Makes they didn't want to waste any more hopelessly chasing Quattros through muddy British forests.

Then in 1986 Alen finally had a great car and great chance.  When he beat Juha Kankkunen to win Olympus Rally at the end of the season he was indeed crowned World Champion, only to lose the title to the Finn 21 days later when the FIA took away his Sanremo win.

Walter Rohrl thought Alen was the greatest driver of his generation. He was a Flying Finn who became more Italian than the Italians. Calm behind the wheel, he was a bag of nerves at service points. half the vocabulary of the WRC, from 'maximum attack' to 'Mickey Mouse' stages, is thanks to him.

He continued to win into the Group A era and, after he eventually left Turin, he gave the Subaru Legacy it's first podium, but 1986 was his last challenge for the WRC.

Alen is the Stirling Moss of rallying, the greatest driver never to become World Champion.

4. Henri Toivonen

But perhaps the driver who really should have lifted the 1986 Drivers trophy was neither Alen, nor Kankkunen, but Henri Toivonen.

The 22 year old Finn would have been on nobodies list of great drivers in 1978. In fact he wouldn't have made many lists two years later when he started the 1980 RAC Rally in his Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. But then he went and won the event, beating Mikkola and the previously invincible Ford Escort RS into second place, and becoming the youngest driver ever to win a WRC event.

Toivonen continued to drive for Talbot and then switched to Opel. He led his first event for the Germans, but despite some solid performances never looked like winning anything in either and Ascona or a Manta. By 1984 he had largely dropped out of top flight competition and was driving a Porsche in the European Championship. However by the end of the year he had signed for Lancia.

A back injury following an accident at the start of 1985 kept him out of rallying for six months but
he stuck with the team despite the 037 being too long in the tooth to be competitive.

The reward was a drive in the fearsome 038 on its d├ębut in the 1985 RAC Rally. Up against a pack of Group B monster from Audi, Peugeot and Austin Rover, as well as team mate Alen, he drove the beast to victory.

Toivonen continued his winning streak on 1986 Monte Carlo Rally. He then retired in Sweden and was withdrawn in Portugal along with all the other top drivers after a fatal accident.

He started the 1986 Tour de Corse then as the fastest rally driver in the world. On tarmac the car's boost was turned up to give the 038 over 500bhp. To reduce weight all under body protection was removed and to improve the balance the crew sat on the petrol tanks. At the end of the seventeenth stage he was leading the rally.

He started the next stage complaining of the strain of keeping up the pace in such a powerfula nd twitchy machine. He never reached the finish. The car had left the road at a sharp left, out of sight of spectators and marshals, and exploded. All that was left when fire crews arrived was a burnt out shell and pieces scattered over the hillside like the aftermath of a plane crash.

The accident didn't just kill Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto, it killed Group B as well. Alen would keep up the fight against Peugeot for the rest of the season, but I suspect there was only one man who could have beaten Kankkunen in a Lancia, and that was Toivonen.

5. Francois Delecoeur

28 year old Francois Delecoeur was plucked from obscurity by Ford in 1991 to drive their palatial Sierra Sapphire 4x4. On his first event, the Monte Carlo, he looked set to reward them with a win, then his suspension collapsed. Over the next two seasons he pedalled the over-sized vehicle to four podiums.

Then in 1993 Ford unveiled the nearest thing the Group A era had to 'homologation special', the Escort Cosworth. On the Monte Delecoeur once again surged into the lead then on the final night Didier Auriel went mad and overturned a three minute lead.

He gave the new Cossie its first win on the next rally in Portugal. He also won in Corsica and Spain and only lost out in New Zealand thanks to another awesome drive, this time by our own Colin McRae.

Delecoeur then started the 1994 season as favourite to lift the crown.

He started well by finally winning the Monte Carlo then retired in Portugal whilst leading. The Driver's trophy looked like it might have his name on it.

Then he went for a spin in a friend's Ferrari F40, and met an amateur rally driver coming the other way. The car was destroyed and Delecoeur suffered injuries that kept him out of most of the rest of the season. He was fully fit again in 1995, but by this time the Escort had lost its competitive edge and didn't win a single round.

Delecoeur switched to Peugeot and helped to develop the world conquering Peugeot 206, but he never again had a shot at the title.

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