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Best Rally Car Drivers

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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.

“You really need to be self-motivated if you are going to be successful in any sport. What spurs me on is the adrenaline rush I feel when I’m racing along in the car. Of course, I want to win, but it’s about doing the best I possibly can and showing the people out there that I can do it and do it well,” British rally driver Kevin Davies told the BBC.

Oh, and, to get up the ladder, you need a pretty solid financial backing.

It ain’t easy, but here are the guys to look up to: the best rally car drivers.

Sebastien Loeb

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 and won the 2001 Junior World Rally Championship. Hitting his stride, he went on to win the world championship a record eight times in a row. Recently, Loeb, the Michael Schumacher of his sport, has been faring well in the Rally of Greece.

“We are leading, so that’s the most important thing. There was a lot of dust in this stage and I made two mistakes near the end, but generally it was a good day,” Loeb told Reuters in a May 25 report.

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.

Juha Kankkunen

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.

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.

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.

Colin McRae

Colin McRae, MBE was a Scottish rally driver who became the 1991 and 1992 British Rally Champion. In 1995, McRae was the first Briton and the youngest to win the World Rally Championship Drivers’ title. McRae retains that record today.

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.

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. This artist of rallying will be sorely missed.

Tommi Makinen

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.

Marcus Gronholm

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.”

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