Did your parents ever warn you against playing too close to the road? Did they ever scold you for going too fast when you called to let them know the family car slid off the road into a ditch? If you answered yes to either of these questions, it is likely your last name is not Loeb, Mäkinen, McRae or Solberg. In the world of rally driving, drivers are encouraged to go fast and often do slide off the track. Spectators, eager to get as close to the action as possible, crowd right up to the curb (if there even is one) ignoring the dangers posed by cars speeding by a few feet away. Unlike Formula One or NASCAR, rally racing takes place on dirt, gravel, snow and tarmac as drivers push their modified production cars to the limits of handling and endurance. The pinnacle of rally competition is the World Rally Championship (WRC).
The WRC officialy began in 1973. Like most racing competitions, awards were handed out for top drivers and manufacturers – although WRC did not start awarding the driver’s championship until 1977. Initially, the competition was dominated by rear-wheel drive (RWD) cars like the Lancia Stratos. This changed dramatically in the early 1980s with the introduction of the powerful four-wheel drive (4WD) Group B cars, such as the Audi Quattro. Group B racing had very few restrictions which resulted in cars often having near or over 500hp. Weight was also not restricted and as engine power increased, overall car weight decreased significantly. It was not uncommon for a Group B car to be able to accelerate from 0-60mph in around three seconds or less. Unfortunately, it was also not uncommon for these cars to lose control, killing a number of drivers and spectators which resulted in the class being banned in 1987.
New WRC regulations were continually added and updated over the following years. One regulation stipulated that in order for a specific car to be eligible for WRC, the manufacturer must also produce at least 5000 road-going versions of that model for the domestic market. This number was reduced to 2500 in 1993. Engines were limited to 2.0L and turbochargers were restricted in output. Horsepower was limited to around 340hp. Engine displacement was further reduced to 1.6L in 2011. 4WD became the standard for competing vehicles. Weight was set at minimum of 1230 kg. Similar to F1, certain exotic materials were restricted from being used in the engine or body. Clearly inspired by the Group B experience, the regulations aimed at power, handling and weight were also made to keep the sport competitive and financially viable. The success and appeal of WRC is evident in the diversity of manufacturers who have entered cars into the competition. Some have fared poorly, while others have established themselves as giants of rally. Which cars have won the most WRC championships since 1973?
5 Subaru Impreza : 6 titles
Although it’s only #5 on the list, perhaps no other car has come to represent the modern WRC better than the Subaru Impreza. Driven by the likes of Colin McRae, Richard Burns and Petter Solberg, the Impreza established itself in the rally world. Between 1995 and 2003, the Impreza played its part in the Japanese dominance of WRC by claiming three driver and three manufacturer titles. Due to a poor economy, Subaru announced its withdrawal from the WRC in late 2008. Despite this, the car continued to leave a mark in the racing world. In April 2010, a WRX STI driven by former WRC driver Tommi Mäkinenn lapped the historic Nürburgring track in 7:55, a record for a four-door car.
Today, the Subaru Impreza is readily available to most consumers. In North America, the WRX became available in 2002 and its more powerful brother, the STI, in 2004. In addition to these, Japanese-market Imprezas are readily available for import. Price ranges vary greatly but a used STI can be had in the range of $18,000-35,000 depending on age, mileage and modification. A road going Impreza STI is closer to its WRC counterpart than most of the cars which follow on this list. The substantial after-market support these cars enjoy makes it even easier to bring your STI closer to WRC levels of performance.
4 Citroën Xsara WRC : 6 titles
The first of two Citroëns on this list, the Xsara WRC marked the beginning of a nine-year run in WRC in which the French car manufacturer dominated. Between 2003 and 2006, the Xsara claimed three driver and three manufacturer titles. This was also the car in which Sébastien Loeb won the first three of his nine driver titles. Like other cars governed under WRC regulations, the Xsara utilized a 2.0L turbocharged motor which put out around 310hp to a full-time 4WD drivetrain.
Mechanically, there is little similarity between the WRC and road versions of the Xsara. The Xsara was produced for the domestic market with a range of 1.4L to 2.0L gas and diesel engines. The most powerful version produced a little over 160hp and was FWD, a far cry from its WRC brother. Sold in Europe, Africa, China and South America, the Xsara was never sold in North America and is ineligible for import.
3 Toyota Celica : 6 titles
From 1990 to 1994, the Toyota Celica wrestled control of the WRC away from the venerable Lancia Delta to become the dominant rally vehicle. Over these five seasons, the Celica GT-Four and Celica Turbo 4WD claimed four driver and two manufacturer championships. The Celica made WRC history when it became the first Japanese turbocharged AWD car to win a title in 1990. It also signaled the coming dominance of the Japanese rally cars manufactured by Toyota, Mitsubishi and Subaru.
Several generations of the Celica were built between 1970 and 2006. Celicas built between 1985 and 1999 garner the most attention from WRC fans as those models, often with Castrol sponsorship, became iconic symbols of the sport. Alltrac / Turbo-4WD versions of the Celica were imported to North America until poor sales brought about a halt in 1993. That said, a good condition Celica GT-Four can be found for as little as a few thousand to as much as $10,000.
2 Citroën C4 WRC : 7 titles
The most recent title winner on this list, the C4 WRC replaced the very successful Xsara in Citroën’s lineup for 2007 campaign. Over the following four seasons, driven by Sébastien Loeb, the C4 claimed four driver and three manufacturer championships. The combination of driver and car were so good that over the four seasons the C4 was used, Loeb ended up on the podium 48 times, 34 of them being first place finishes.
The C4 continues to be built and sold primarily in Europe, Africa and South America. It can not be found in North America and this will likely remain the case for at least several more years given import regulations. In its FWD road version, the C4 is nothing like its Red Bull sponsored WRC cousin. Powered by an assortment of 1.4L to 2.0L engines, the road-going C4’s power is between the 130 and 170hp range.
1 Lancia Delta : 10 titles
After Group B cars were banned following the 1986 season, Lancia demonstrated that they were in the best position to capitalize on the rule changes. Compared with the competition, the Delta had the best all around balance between power, weight and 4WD. Competitors were either underpowered, like the Mazda 323, or limited by 2WD, like the BMW M3. Utilizing the Delta HF and Delta Integrale, the 2.0L turbocharged Lancia dominated the WRC by winning four driver and six manufacturer championships between 1987 and 1992. By the 1990s, the design of the Delta had reached its limits in terms of power and handling and newer rally models, like the Toyota Celica, were pushing it further down the pecking order of dominance.
The Lancia Delta was never sold in North America. Yet, WRC fans can get their hands on this historic car thanks to car importers and import laws, such as the 15-year regulation observed in Canada. A good condition Delta Integrale Evoluzione can run a prospective buyer $20,000 and up. Being street legal, this car will be far tamer than the Martini sponsored racer of the late 1980s, but it will come with a 2.0L turbocharged engine putting out 215hp to the 4WD system. Perhaps the only downside to owning this historic vehicle will be the persistent query of other drivers who would like to know what kind of Volswagen Golf you are driving.
Perhaps a large amount of the appeal of WRC is that the fans can often relate to it in a way not possible with other racing. At the races, fans can stand closer to the action without many of the protective barriers found in other series. The Impreza, Lancer, Focus or Celica sitting out in the driveway looks similar to the WRC versions and shares some of the same parts. WRC vehicles compete on road surfaces and in conditions similar to what everyday drivers endure. Of course, everyday drivers don’t drive through a forest on snow covered roads at 150km/h. Most of us can’t even handle the speed limit. Just remember how mad your parents got the first time you put the ‘Group B’ family station wagon in the ditch on that snowy back road.