The undisputed king of the dirt is Frenchman Sébastien Loeb, who won nine straight WRC titles between 2004 and 2012, all for Citroen, before stepping down from the sport to compete in Touring Cars. Loeb was then succeeded by Sébastien Ogier, who has won the driver's title for six consecutive years from 2013 until 2019, when Ott Tšnak took the driver's crown after dominating much of the season, the first Estonian to win the driver's championship. Finnish drivers have won sixteen titles, a remarkable number for a relatively small country, though the roads in the forests of Finland are likened to a perfect training ground for rallying. The WRC has also seen arguably the most successful woman driver in top level international motorsports - Frenchwoman Michele Mouton won four events in the 1980s and was second in the 1982 championship.
The Championship is split into four categories as of 2023:
- The main World Rally Championship is the main event. Cars used in the main WRC event must be homologated to the Group Rally1 class, which feature a hybrid system that mated a 1.6 L direct injection turbo engine (that produces up to 380 bhp (225 kW)) and a 100 KW electric motor together, have scaled tubular bodyframe and four-wheel drive. Unlike the rest of the class, Group Rally1 cars are classified as 'Competition Cars', meaning they were built exclusively for rallying and, unlike prior classes that Rally1 supersedes, manufacturers are not required to produce a minimum numbers of production cars.
- The WRC2 Championship is the supporting championship. Cars used in WRC2 must be homologated to the Group Rally2 class, which is similar to Group Rally1 cars, but must be based on production cars (down to the bodyframe) and have no hybrid system.
- The WRC3 Championship is the entry-level supporting championship. Cars used in WRC3 must be homologated to the Groud Rally3 class, which is similar to Group Rally2, but with a maximum power-to-weight ratio of 5.6kg/hp. Prior to 2022, Group Rally2 cars were also used. The WRC3 superseded the Production World Rally Championship since 2013.
- The Junior WRC Championship, formerly FIA Super 1600 Drivers' Championship and Junior World Rally Championship, is the lowest supporting championship. Currently, cars used in Junior WRC must be homologated to either the Group Rally3 or the Group Rally4 class.
Prior to the introduction of Group Rally1 class (along with other Group Rally classes), the main WRC event was dominated by rally cars categorized as 'Series Production Cars' (Not unlike the Group Rally2 cars), starting with Group 4, followed by Group B, Group A, World Rally Car (2.0 L) and World Rally Car (1.6 L). In order to be homologated by the FIA, cars built for those older classes requires the manufacturers to produce certain numbers of production cars. This requirement was dropped with the introduction of Group Rally1 class.
The short-lived Group B car class have fewer restrictions on engine output and materials used (to the point that the cars used are essentially In Name Only analogues of road cars they were superficially based on - the Metro 6R4 has little in common with the Austin Metro economy car save for the body shape, similar to how NASCAR vehicles are constructed), but was shortly banned following a series of accidents that cost the lives of several drivers and spectators. Despite the aforementioned tragedies, fans of the sport view Group Bnote as the WRC's golden age.
Much like 24 Hours of Le Mans the prominence of the WRC has ebbed and flowed with manufacturer involvement. Early years saw some success for FIAT and Ford Europe before Audi introduced its revolutionary four-wheel drive Quattro car in 1981, which was then eclipsed by the Group B cars after a few years. The late 1980s were dominated by European cars: Peugeot, Audi, and Lancia. The end of the Group B era led to a few years of doldrums in the late 1980s before Japanese marques took prominence, with Toyota, Subaru and Mitsubishi all winning driver and manufacturer titles. These cars - commonly dubbed Group A cars according to FIA homologation - were based more closely on road models than the Group B cars and led to many higher performance limited edition "homologation specials" such as the Toyota Celica GT4, Subaru WRX, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Ford Escort Cosworth, being available in showrooms. Surprisingly enough, despite having lower specs than their predecessors, Group A cars were mostly faster than Group B cars thanks to them being far easier to handle and therefore much more consistent in a discipline as varied and unpredictable as rallying.
By the mid 2000s these cars of WRC's Silver Age had all faded away and left Citroen and Loeb as the WRC's Invincible Hero (much as Michael Schumacher and Ferrari dominated in Formula One). In this time the championship, which rivalled F1 in the 1980s and 90s, faded into obscurity slightly. This Audience-Alienating Era was exacerbated by many prominent drivers retiring or, tragically, passing away — 2001 champion Richard Burns died from cancer, the massively popular Colin McRae (of Colin McRae Rally fame) dying in a helicopter crash, and Estonia's Markko Martin retiring after his co-driver Michael Park was killed in a crash in Rally GB. The general shortening of events dented the appeal of WRC too - until the 2000s rallies were up to five days long often with 30+ stages, many run at night. By the 2000s most events were compacted to three (in many cases effectively 2 and a half given the short number of stages on the final day) with many stages repeated. Rally GB for example once toured around stages in Yorkshire, Northumbria, Scotland and Wales, before being reduced massively to simply Rally GB Wales. Additionally, the sport was affected by The Great Recession of 2008, which was devastating to most of the world's car manufacturers and forced last of the remaining Japanese teams, Suzuki and Subaru, to leave the championships, leaving just Ford and Citroen to compete for the manufacturers title in 2009 and 2010.
However, starting in The New '10s the WRC started to gain popularity again with newer, faster cars that have been likened to the Group B cars of yore, and some more manufacturer involvement from Hyundai, Ford, and a returning Toyota Factory team, who made their debut in 2017 as Toyota Gazoo Racing, after previously backing out from the WRC stage in 1999 to focus on Formula One. Citroen however pulled itself out of the championship following the defeat of six-time championship winner Sebastien Ogier to Ott Tšnak; as did Volkswagen in 2016 following a four-year stint, likely due to their "Dieselgate" emissions scandal that year. Tänak's 2019 championship win marked the first time a non-French driver had won the driver's title since Petter Solberg in 2003.
The COVID-19 Pandemic brought a major blow to the championship schedule, with Rally Mexico shortened to give ample time for crews to head home as countries brace with lengthy lockdowns and quarantines to contain the spread of the virus, on top of the lack of snow in Sweden which also led to said rally being abridged. Subsequent events were also cancelled as a result, though all is not lost as two new events—Rally Estonia and Ypres Rally—were added at the last minute alongside rescheduled rallies in Turkey and Sardinia to make up for the now-truncated season. 2021 fortunately more than made up for it as a mix of old, new and reintroduced events came to the calendar, like the revived Safari Rally which was cancelled last season due to the plague as well as the Acropolis Rally, though as the pandemic is still raging on protocols had to be done to mitigate any further infection—Rally Japan and a few others had to be cancelled due to a spike in Delta variant cases, for example.
The New '20s post-COVID have, so far, been a period of transition and flux for the championship, with the long-standing World Rally Car class retired, replaced in 2022 with the new Rally1 class, notably sporting a hybrid power system that provides momentary boosts of an extra 134hp to the already-380hp 1.6l engine, as well as, for the first time in championship history since its inception, zero requirement to produce any road-going production car variants. Their first season saw opinions divided, as fans, journalists and rally legends drew comparisons between the new breed and the Group B golden age, while manufacturers and drivers lamented a lack of reliability, and a quick-spreading fire breaking out in the year's Rally Japan leaving yet more striking echoes of Group B — this time, in a negative light. However, the 2023 season saw both warmer reception from drivers and issues quashed by manufacturers, now finding their footing, though doubts on the feasibility of the regulations in attracting new manufacturers still linger. Sadly, that year the championship was also marred by its first fatality in decades, when Irish driver Craig Breen—who was then driving for Hyundai Motorsport—was killed in a pre-rally testing accident; his co-driver survived the crash uninjured. Breen's death was the first fatality involving a competitor since German co-driver Jörg Bastuck in 2006, and the first driver death since Portuguese driver Augusto Mendes in 1989.
These two most recent seasons, though, have seen the emergence of the sport's most likely candidate for wider stardom since McRae, in young prodigy Kalle Rovanperä. A second-generation competitor—his father Harri was a WRC fixture between 1997 and 2005—Rovanperä was raised on rally from a young age; a video of him enjoying a spot of Finnish dirt in a Toyota Starlet at the age of eight went viral in 2009, and his official rally debut came two years later at ten years old. It showed, as Rovanperä made his top-flight debut at 19 in the 2020 season, taking his first podium in only his second start at the top level. A year later, he took his first two event wins, and by 2022's end, he was the youngest ever world champion, clinching it only a single day after his 22nd birthday — and doubling his total by taking 2023's championship as well. Whereas recent spree-winners Loeb and Ogier dominated stages with precise, almost track-like driving along the racing line, Rovanperä drives with a much more exuberant style that harkens back to the "wild years" of rallying. With that, an active social media presence, most of his years still ahead of him, and already branching out into other sports (taking wins in drifting events in Europe and Japan), if the WRC is to make another resurgence, it will be in the jetstream of the latest Flying Finn.
World Rally Championship in fiction
- There had been several official World Rally Championship video games, which were developed by several developers over the decades.
- Evolution Studios's WRC series, which were published on PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable, features cars from the 2001 to 2004 seasons.
- The second WRC series, developed by Milestone and published by Black Bean Games, were published on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC between 2011 to 2013, features cars from the 2010 to 2013 seasons.
- The third WRC serries, developed by Kylotonn and Bigben Interactive and later Nacon, were published on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch and PC between 2015 to 2022, features cars from the 2015 to 2022 seasons.
- Electronic Arts's EA Sports WRC, developed by Codemasters, is a sequel series to Codemasters' DiRT series and features cars from the earlier WRC seasons to the 2023 season.
- Gran Turismo series does includes various rally cars from the WRC in multiple entries.
- Prior to the acquisition by Electronic Arts, Codemasters' Colin McRae Rally series and DiRT series includes cars from various WRC seasons.
- The Sega Rally series includes cars from various WRC seasons, namely Lancia Delta HF Integrale and Toyota Celica GT-Four ST205 in the first game.