Why you should watch… World Rally Championship

Why you should watch...

Mikko Hirvonen, Ford Fiesta, Argentina, 2011

Mikko Hirvonen, Ford Fiesta, Argentina, 2011

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 rallies

Sebastien Loeb, Citroen, Argentina, 2011

Sebastien Loeb, Citroen, Argentina, 2011

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.

The drivers

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 R??ikk??nen 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

Jari-Matti Latvala, Ford Fiesta, Argentina, 2011

Jari-Matti Latvala, Ford Fiesta, Argentina, 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??

Mini, Sardegna, 2011

Mini, Sardegna, 2011

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.

Videos

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

Why you should watch…

Images ?? Ford.com, Citroen Communications, BMW Group

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60 comments on Why you should watch… World Rally Championship

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  1. TommyB (@tommyb89) said on 16th June 2011, 17:08

    Great article Greg. I do enjoy watching rally highlights but I find the series hard to follow.

    I used to like the coverage on Dave. They showed all the clips from the rallies I wanted to see from the great driver skill to the crashes but I don’t think I’d be able to watch a rally live and for me live sport is always more exciting than something that is repeated.

    • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 16th June 2011, 19:07

      And even if you wanted to watch a rally live, it’s not very practical is it! I agree that watching repeats isn’t as good as watching something live, but I have my own way of dealing with that.

      The WRC, in the last few years at least, is not something which really makes headlines. Even on my motorsport orientated Twitter feed it barely gets a mention. So, I can quite easily get through a day of rallying without hearing the results, and then watch the evening highlights as if it were live!

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 16th June 2011, 21:42

      Not sure about watching it on TV, I think I would have patience only for some highlights.

      But as for watching live, its just as good as any car race. Not that I have ever been close to a WRC event, but the yearly Rally Bohemia starts from the place where I live (Mlada Boleslav, HQ of Skoda).
      The first time I saw this (in 1999 a few weeks after coming here) I was stunned by the buzz around it and the city centre full of all sorts of rally cars.
      Really gets the pulse up to see, feel and hear these cars up close!

      A lot of friends have their favourite spots in the neighbourhood to watch them go by. And the great thing is, you can try part of the track for yourself before or after the event.

      • BasCB (@bascb) said on 17th June 2011, 13:00

        here is a nice recent video of the Sazava Rally, this years edition. http://youtu.be/_lYNfWEh_CI
        These guys went on to finish 3rd despite having their rear dampers go befor the stage.

        Oh, and although its in Czech, I should warn it has pretty rich use of words (its pretty obvious at the start, you might guess even without knowing the language)

  2. Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 16th June 2011, 17:14

    Nice work Greg!

    I think the WRC is doomed to obscurity until they embrace live web streaming and a sensible broadcasting structure. It’s all well and good watching the final power stage but the highlights of the day so far are 8 hours later! It would be like watching only the last lap of a F1 race. I believe the BBC used to tack the live ending of the race onto a hastily-prepared highlights package, perhaps such a model could work better for the WRC.

    • james_mc said on 16th June 2011, 20:54

      I think it used to be something like that, yes.

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 16th June 2011, 21:35

      I think I agre Icthyes. A good highlights and an option of watching maybe the 2-3 best at the stage, or even downloadable stages for each driver could help it a lot for watching.

    • US_Peter said on 17th June 2011, 6:34

      That’s a great idea. As it is for me, it’s pretty much and Ned/Greg said, I have no access to watch it here. I think highlights may be broadcast on some obscure cable/satellite channel here in the US, but not one I get. An online subscription to watch an hour of highlights each night would be a great option. I have way more friends who are excited about rally than F1 here, and I’m sure many of them would take advantage of something lie that. One good friend of mine actually built and races his own rally car in events all up and down the West Coast of the US. Seeing it live is really exciting, and I can only imagine how much more exciting it would be were it the WRC guys!

      Great article by the way Ned!

  3. Bleu said on 16th June 2011, 17:32

    Well, WRC isn’t as good as it used to be, but hopefully getting better in the next few years.

    Being Finnish, I usually follow how things are going but haven’t watched too much rally reports though. But I’m mostly aware who won which race and so on, at least for that year.

    Last year, I was watching Rally Finland live for the first time and it was quite nice experience. Nothing dramatic happened where I was watching, but at least got to see current top drivers apart from Hirvonen (who had retired already) twice. Along with rally legend Kankkunen and Kimi.

    But also there are lots of other drivers competing, not only WRC cars. On the first time they went through the stage, there was a total of 69 drivers left in the race. I left after two thirds of second run (I was there with my father, his co-worker and co-worker’s son so timetables had to be thought along with the fact that there was about 200 kilometres back home), but still could see a lot of those drivers who have just rally as a hobby. I liked seeing those drivers, although I don’t know their backgrounds that much. When being back home, I found out that three of six most interesting back-of-the-pack drivers had retired between two runs, so there was no possibility to see them again.

  4. damonsmedley (@damonsmedley) said on 16th June 2011, 17:35

    Well done Ned! I’ll post a better comment in the morning, but I’m too tired at the moment. :P

  5. jonnyw360f1 (@jonnyw360f1) said on 16th June 2011, 17:37

    Great writing as ever Greg, have you ever thought about a career in journalism? You could give our Keith a run for his money. ;P

    That last clip is great, I love the argument between Gronholm and the Welsh bobby!

    I used to really like the coverage on Dave, but I have no money to pay for ESPN so will have to go without in 2011, will definitely be getting the season review DVD for Christmas though!

    • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 16th June 2011, 19:02

      Thanks a lot Jonny. I have considered it, mainly because there’s nothing else I’m particularly good at!

      The season review DVD’s are really good aren’t they- the recent ones contain several hours of footage per season. This time last year I had no interest in rallying- but last Christmas I bought the 2010 DVD, mainly out of curiosity, and now I’m a bit of a fanatic!

      • BasCB (@bascb) said on 16th June 2011, 21:47

        Don’t be negativist about what you do Greg!

        I agree this is a very nice article and it really gets the buzz in for WRC. Your last one about the 10 best turns was also great, so you might seriously consider doing this more often.

        Thanks for the article, really enjoyed it.

        • Pink Pirelli said on 19th June 2011, 2:40

          Great article Greg, although you are preaching to the converted here ! I love WRC, luckily Ch1 shows it here so I can get at least 1.5 hours of the action over 3 days. Not ideal, but butter than nothing. I loved those clips, some I hadn’t seen before. Everytime I see that Tommi Makkinen crash I still shake my head in wonder at that spectator.

  6. Tom said on 16th June 2011, 17:44

    I refuse to watch anything with Ken Block.

  7. Scott W (@gasheaduk) said on 16th June 2011, 18:24

    Something WRC need to sort out very quickly is the way the sport is broadcast. I don’t have ESPN so can’t comment on their coverage so I’m left with Motors TV which is horrid to watch. Dave’s coverage was criticised by hardcore rally fans, but for those of us with a more casual interest, the show was very accessible and entertaining.

    In an ideal world, a nightly show on terrestrial TV (featuring Neil Cole please BBC or ITV) with a British driver competing at the top should see fans flock back.

    • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 16th June 2011, 19:13

      I enjoy the ESPN coverage, certainly more than the Motors TV alternative, but admittedly I’m relatively new to rallying, so maybe the coverage was better in the past?

      One good thing that ESPN does provide that many people are probably unaware of is the regular one hour compilation shows on ESPN classic. They range from biggest crashes, to strangest moments, to the history of classic rallies like the Safari or Finland. They show great footage from the WRC’s heyday- it’s well worth watching

  8. Fixy (@fixy) said on 16th June 2011, 18:24

    I’ve just recently re-started playing at Colin McRae Rally 2 (the series that has now become DiRT). I like timing sessions like Qualifying in F1, but a whole three days of just that makes me hesitate in following it regularly. I admire the driver and co-pilots for their bravery and great skills, but I prefer seeing battles on track.

  9. MVEilenstein said on 16th June 2011, 18:27

    Not WRC as such, but I find the Targa-Newfoundland rally immensely entertaining.

  10. Ral said on 16th June 2011, 18:39

    Nice for a change of pace.

    I was waiting for the section explaining the bit about S2000 cars and stuff. I have no idea how that ties into WRC and why runners are (sometimes only?) allowed to continue under s2000 rules or something.

    But like Tommy, I wish they’d still show it on Dave. Especially since I don’t get ESPN or whatever the other one is.

    • Ned Flanders (@ned-flanders) said on 16th June 2011, 19:22

      There was lots more stuff I could’ve mentioned, but I had to keep the word count sensible. But, to be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure of S2000 situation myself! I don’t really understand the technichal stuff.

      I may be getting this completely wrong, but when you say “allowed to continue under S2000 rules”, do you mean under Super Rally instead? That is, the rule that allows drivers to retire but return with a time penalty the following day.

      • Ral said on 16th June 2011, 22:31

        Ah, yes I think you got that right. See, that’s how confusing that whole situation is to me ;)

  11. King Six said on 16th June 2011, 18:48

    Except there’s no real way to watch WRC.

    • hohum said on 16th June 2011, 21:40

      Sadly this seems to be true, not so long ago there was (what appeared to be) an official 1hour coverage program of each of the 3 days plus another mid-week summary usually played late-night but it seems to have been dropped. Rallying is great, no run-off area, no safety car, water on the track and the odd bump or two.

  12. S.J.M (@sjm) said on 16th June 2011, 18:50

    Bring back a safer Group B regs and id probably watch more ;)

    In all seriousness, WRC was great to watch until around 5/6 years ago when Loeb starting sweeping up but it had drivers i enjoyed (Solberg, Grönholm, Burns, Mäkinen, McRae et al) and it was easy to watch being on British terestrial TV. I saw the odd episode when it was on ‘Dave’ but the whole format just annoyed me and didnt keep my attention. Being on MotorsTv probably isnt going to change that either.

  13. Fer no.65 (@fer-no65) said on 16th June 2011, 18:59

    WRC should have a much more followers.

    It has to be the last series which truly holds the essence of motor racing. The cars are important, but the driver and co-driver are much more important.

    WRC drivers must be the most skilled drivers in the world by a long way too. Just watching those videos, is very difficult to follow. So much is going on in the car that you wonder how come this guys are not institutionalized.

    Even if WRC isn’t what it used to be, it’s still unbelievable. I cannot imagine how good it must have been to be in this world when the Quattros, Lancias and 205s were alive and kicking.

    • MattW said on 19th June 2011, 3:46

      Yep, the amount of work the driver & co-driver do together is more important that the car itself, I love that. And I love how if someone has an accident, all the spectators run in to help, the on-the-run fixes that are done to keep cars going to service, the endurance aspect of the events.

      In Australia we get the daily 1 hour highlight shows on OneHD, but they are aired around midnight unfortunately. When the Dakar Rally is on at the start of the year we also get the 1 hr daily highlights around dinner time, great viewing there too (and the scenery is spectacular!).

      The Australian leg of the WRC this year is on around my home town of Coffs Harbour, so I’ll be heading back to attend my first rally, looking forward to it.

  14. UKfanatic (@) said on 16th June 2011, 19:07

    With F1 you can turn the tv on and enjoy with rallye you can now the final result before watching the highlight, that ruins the expectations

  15. craig said on 16th June 2011, 19:09

    I used to love watching the WRC when speedvision broadcast it. Since it was changed to nascartv it never gets a mention at all. =(

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