Why you should watch...
Ahead of this weekend’s round in Greece, guest writer Greg Morland encourages you to get into the World Rally Championship.
May 5th, 2011 was a good day for the World Rally Championship. On the eve of the long-awaited return of Mini to top-level rallying, Volkswagen announced their own plans to compete in 2013.
Securing one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers was a major coup for the WRC – particularly when F1 is known to have been courting Volkswagen.
It’s been a difficult few years for the WRC, dogged by mismanagement, manufacturer withdrawals, calendar shortening and domination by a single driver and team.
But the arrival of Mini and Volkswagen, plus the imminent return of the blue riband Monte-Carlo Rally, is proof the WRC is on the road to recovery.
WRC: what’s it all about?
Let’s start with the basics. Rallying, as you will all be aware, is a race against the clock, not directly against other drivers. Each driver takes it in turns to tackle each stage at two minute intervals. (As much as I appreciate the current procedure, I’m sure I’m not the only person who has wondered how great it would be to let all the drivers loose at once and simply award points to the first drivers to reach the finish).
Each rally is made up of around 20 stages, most of which are around 15- 20 miles in length. A more recent innovation for rallying has been the introduction of spectator stages, much shorter routes which are usually based in urban areas and in some cases stadiums.
Although the amount of time that can be won or lost on these stages is often negligible in the overall results, their purpose is to bring the action to the people. Given how remote the locations for most rallies are, it’s a very sensible idea.
A Grand Prix may be a three-day event, but competitive action is limited to an hour of qualifying and a race of 90 minutes or so. Each WRC event, by contrast, is a three-day test of endurance. From the start of the first stage until the end of the last, the clock is ticking, and every single turn of the wheel has an effect on a driver’s final position.
The drivers must balance their need to keep up a relentless pace with the importance of keeping their car in one piece. Of course, this is easier said than done. Sebastien Ogier found this his cost after crashing out while defending his lead on the final day of the Rally of Mexico earlier this season.
The one thing I most love about the WRC is its variety. No two events are the same. In comparison to the increasingly homogeneous F1 calendar, the differences are quite refreshing.
The season traditionally starts early in the year, ensuring time for a quick blast around the frozen forests of Sweden before the spring thaw.
Then come the gravel rallies, which traditionally make up the bulk of the calendar – but to lump them all under the same category is misleading. Gravel rallies vary more than any other; from the twisty lunar landscape of Jordan, to the muddy valleys of Wales, and the high speed blast through the forests of Finland, and the mountainside stages of Argentina, they all of require vastly different driving approaches and car characteristics.
Finally, there are asphalt events, which are often far quicker than gravel based rallies, and allow WRC cars to stretch their legs and reach speeds which are often unattainable on gravel. The three tarmac rallies in Germany, France and Spain are popular events, drawing thousands of spectators from across Europe.
In addition to this, many gravel rallies also include tarmac sections, and vice versa, often changing within a single stage. Such rallies are often especially challenging for drivers, who are forced to drive cars set up for a completely different road surface. Imagine for example Monza spec F1 cars at the Hungaroring, or racing on inters in the dry, and you get the idea.
For several years, the world of rallying has been utterly dominated by Sebastien Loeb, who has won an unprecedented seven consecutive titles with Citroen. Astonishingly, he has not been beaten on a predominantly asphalt rally for over five years.
The scale of his domination is comparable to Michael Schumacher’s in F1 in the early 2000s and has had a similar effect on audiences for rallying on television.
However, it would seem that Loeb has finally met his match with young compatriot, namesake and Citroen team mate Sebastien Ogier emerging as a real contender in 2011.
At Ford, Mikko Hirvonen is desperate to claim the crown for himself after his narrow defeat to Loeb in 2009. Likeable young team mate Jari-Matti Latvala continues to win praise for his all-or-nothing approach to the sport.
Petter Solberg is another popular character. The 2003 champion, the series’ only remaining title winner besides Loeb, is in his third season as a privateer, after Subaru’s departure in 2008 left him without a seat. Sadly, he has struggled in recent years and has not won an event since 2005, though a widely-tipped move to Volkswagen could give him a chance to see out his career in style.
The Mini duo of debutant Kris Meeke and returnee Dani Sordo lead a supporting cast of drivers, including the spectacular (albeit not particularly fast) Ken Block.
Following his high-profile switch to the series last year Kimi Räikkönen is only conducting a partial season this year, but has scored point in the three rallies he has done so far.
Of course, it would be unfair of me to completely ignore the contribution of co-drivers. Unsurprisingly, it is the man behind the wheel who gets the plaudits, but without the helping hand and support of his passenger each driver would likely find himself spending more time falling off cliff edges, entering hairpins at 100mph and getting lost en route to each stage. So let’s give co-drivers the credit they deserve!
WRC in 2011
Approaching the halfway stage of the season, the WRC standings suggest that the 2011 season is yet another Loeb whitewash.
But this is misleading – Ogier has more often than not out-paced his team mate, yet has an tendency to make costly mistakes under pressure. In both Mexico and Argentina, Ogier crashed whilst leading comfortably on the final day, handing victory to Loeb on both occasions.
Hirvonen and Latvala cannot yet be discounted. Although a series of accidents and mechanical failures have cost Latvala dearly in the first half of the season, his pace has generally been a match for the Citroens.
Hirvonen, whilst lacking the outright speed of his rivals, is hanging on in the title race through his remarkable consistency – he is yet to finish outside of the top four in 2011.
Of the six rallies so far this season, one stands out in particular- the Jordan Rally in April. Although logistical problems resulted in the cancelling of the first day of stages, the shortened rally soon developed into a thrilling three way battle between Loeb, Ogier and Latvala across the barren yet spectacular Jordanian desert.
Going into the final ‘Power Stage’ – a new-for-2011 concluding stage which is televised live and worth points for the top three – Loeb had dropped from contention, and Latvala held a half second lead over Ogier.
But a stunning drive from Ogier saw him take the stage win, and with it the rally, with a winning margin of just two tenths of a second: a WRC record. Considering quite how much time can be won and lost over the course of a rally, it was a quite astounding finish.
This weekend’s event, which marks the mid point of the season, is the historic Acropolis Rally in Greece. It is notorious for its gruelling stages, with cars tackling rock strewn mountain tracks in the intense summer heat.
This season’s iteration also includes a night-time stage on Saturday evening. Unlike F1′s Singapore night race, the roads are not floodlit, so drivers are dependent on their headlights to see. The powerful headlights pierce through the darkness of an evening stage, creating an incredible spectacle.
On the other hand…
The WRC offers a different kind of thrill – one which those used to on-track battles and head-to head-competition may find hard to get used to.
When great battles take place in rallying – such as the recent Jordan round – they are always fought against the clock, rather than head to head.
A gripe that is peculiar to rallying is ‘road order tactics’. This is when frivers deliberately slow down at the end of the first or second day to finish behind a competitor and thus start behind them on the road the following day. This can offer a significant advantage on loose-surface rallies, where the leading cars clear the way for those behind.
Fortunately the FIA looks set to clamp down on this, with an alternate system of reverse road order set to be introduced next year.
Regrettably, a significant proportion of the people could respond to this article by saying “but I can’t watch the WRC”. Although the television coverage of the championship is for the most part superb, it is often frustratingly hard to come by.
Taking the UK as an example, WRC coverage is restricted to relatively obscure satellite channels ESPN and Motors TV. It’s hard to see rallying ever truly taking off as a mainstream sport until WRC coverage is more easily accessible.
For British viewers who do have ESPN, you can catch highlights of this weekends Acropolis Rally on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening at 8pm, and the live power stage at midday on Sunday. Don’t miss it.
Some spectacular clips from the last decade of WRC action to whet your appetite and show what you may have been missing:
Ken Block crash (Portugal 2011)
Gilles Panizzi does a 360-degree spin mid-stage (Spain 2002)
Gigi Galli punches his co-driver for making a mistake (New Zealand 2005)
On-board with the late Colin McRae (Great Britain 2001)
Some occupational hazards of being a rally driver
What motorsport would you recommend other F1 fans to follow? If you want to put the case for your favourite non-F1 category write a guest article and send it in. More information here: Write a guest article for F1 Fanatic
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