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The best drivers in the world?

The best drivers in the world?

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We're now in the thick of winter, and it's pretty damn cold -- at least from where I stand. The roads are covered in hard-packed snow and a bit of ice, making them awfully slippery.

The perfect setting for rally races!

Since it requires tortuous roads in remote locations, this sport remains auto racing's lesser child. Not many people indeed want to venture into the backcountry to attend races on less-than-accessible roads in freezing temperatures.

Personally, though, rallying is the most intricate, most demanding and possibly the purest form of auto racing.

Rally drivers need to put the pedal to the metal while showing enough smarts not to fly off the road and crash -- and that's with near-production cars. Yep, all rally cars must be street-legal and registered, even the most exotic ones that compete in the WRC and are worth over a half-million dollars each.

Photo: Peugeot Sport

Unlike closed-circuit races like in Formula 1 and NASCAR, rallying demands to be fast on any type of terrain (asphalt, gravel, snow, ice, or dirt), in any type of weather (heat, cold, rain, etc.)

These highly gifted drivers have an incredible knack for anticipating what lies ahead and improvising on the spot. They manage to decipher the environment and predict the level of traction even before they start to brake in a corner.

I had the opportunity to attend a few basic lessons in the art of rally driving, and I can assure you that maintaining control of a car in such difficult conditions is no picnic. I have tremendous respect for rally drivers who keep flirting with the laws of physics at every turn, not to mention the trees, ditches and spectators all around!

Are they the best in the world? Is nine-time WRC champion Sebastien Loeb a more skilled driver than Sebastian Vettel (three F1 titles), Jimmie Johnson (five NASCAR titles), or Tom Kristensen (eight victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans)? No one will ever know for certain.

However, one fact speaks for itself: Rally drivers who try their luck on the track usually fare a lot better than track specialists who go out and compete in rallies. So, yeah, I think they're the best on the planet.

What's your take?