What is Rally Driving?
The World Rally Championship is one of the planet’s most watched sporting events. Alongside Formula 1, Indy Car and NASCAR, it has millions of fans around the world. Technically in a race, rally cars – highly modified versions of production cars – compete in ‘stages’ on closed-off public and private roads, between set control points against the clock.
Rallying is about raw power and world-class car control, on demanding roads, across remote and hostile terrains. Drivers compete on all surfaces, including tarmac, dirt, snow, off-road, mud and gravel. The fastest overall time over all stages of a rally wins.
Similar to Formula 1, the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) is the zenith of the sport, but there are dozens of different classes and sub-classes of rallying, including Group R, Super 2000, Group RGT, WRC-2, WRC-3 and Junior WRC.
Idris is being thrown in at the deep end of this fast and furious rallying world. He needs to keep his wits about him as he negotiates super-fast straights, hairpin bends and rough, uneven terrain. This is not taking a leisurely drive to the shops!
The History of Rallying
Rallying can trace its roots back to 1894 with the Paris–Rouen Horseless Carriage Competition (Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux). It was won by Frenchman Albert Lemaitre, in his 3hp Peugeot. Sponsored by the French newspaper Le Petit Journal, it drew great support and enthusiasm from the few auto connoisseurs around at the time. Prizes were dished out based on votes given by a chosen ‘jury’ of observers.
True to form in competitive sport, Lemaitre actually came second behind Comte de Dion, whose steam-powered car didn’t conform to race specifications.
The success of the Paris-Rouen race led to a number of city-to-city road races, originally in France. But as word spread and popularity increased, Europe joined in and the format we know today – staggered start times, racing to a specific point, competing against the clock, route notes and road books – has stayed more or less the same for 120 years.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, road surfaces were not much more than dusty gravel tracks and certainly weren’t designed for racing andit soon became evident that the spectators were as much in danger as the drivers. Safety considerations were unheard of, but the thrill of racing cars against the clock couldn’t be contained.
The first great race (sometimes dubbed ‘the first motor race’) was the 1,178 km Paris–Bordeaux in June 1895. Frenchman Paul Koechlin won the race in a Peugeot despite arriving 11 hours after the first- and second-placed drivers, who were disqualified as their cars had two seats rather than the stipulated four.Eight years later, the 550 km Paris–Madrid race was won by Fernand Gabriel driving a Mors car that averaged 105 km/h, but the French authorities weren’t happy about cars tearing around the country, and banned this form of racing. With increasingly sophisticated cars that could go faster and faster, and a road infrastructure used almost exclusively by horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians and farm animals, there were the inevitable crashes, injuries and fatalities.
Italy aside, most of Europe followed suit with the ban and limited races to closed circuits. At first, they were still on sweeping loops of public roads like the world-famous Sicilian Targa Florio and Giro di Sicilia, but in 1907 the world’s first purpose-built track, the 4.43 km banked Brooklands circuit, opened in Surrey. Despite this innovation, road racing remained the most exciting form of motorsport in the early days of the automobile industry.
There were other motoring events happening across Europe at this time, most notably in the UK, Austria (the first Alpine event) and Germany (which introduced hill climbs and time trials) as well as ultra-long distance rallies. The Peking–Paris race of 1907, the New York–Paris a year later which went via Japan and Siberia, and the 1909 New York-Seattle attracted very few hardy souls. However, each entrant demonstrated the attributes drivers still hold dear today – meticulous preparation, mechanical expertise, resourcefulness, and a single-minded will to win.
The First Rally
Before 1911, road racing was unsafe, poorly organised and wasn’t subject to ratification by an organising body. But that was about to change. In January 1911, at the behest of Albert I, Prince of Monaco, the first Rallye Monte Carlo was held. Later referred to as ‘The Monte’ and ‘The Mother of All Rallies’, it was seen as the place where manufacturers could test new models and technologies – just as Indy Car and the Le Mans 24h are today. In addition, judging wasn’t simply based on time, it was also, rather arbitrarily, based on the judges’ opinions on car design, passenger comfort and also what state the cars were in at the end of the race! Naturally, this system sparked outrage (chiefly amongst the losers), but it stood.
The inaugural race was won by car dealer Henri Rougier in a 45hp Turcat-Méry. A driver called ‘Aspaigu’ came second in a Gobron, while third place went to Jules Beutler in a Martini.
A second Rallye Monte Carlo was held the following year, but the outbreak of WW1 all but ended rallying in Europe. It was resurrected in 1924 and, although postponed between 1940 and 1948, has remained an immovable fixture in the rally calendar ever since.
The Golden Age of Rallying
Following another hiatus during the Second World War, the 1950s brought rallying front and centre once again. With Juan Manuel Fangio’s utter domination of Formula 1, rallying needed to keep pace and the classic races of Monte Carlo, France and Austria were supplemented with tournaments in Portugal, The Netherlands, Greece, Finland and Sweden. The latter two introduced the ‘special stage’, racing on short courses through forests. As popularity grew in Europe, so did the sport’s worldwide appeal.
Perhaps the most famous road race of them all, the Mille Miglia or ‘1,000 Mile’ was run 24 times from 1927 – 1957. However, the event was banned after a 4.2-litre Ferrari 355S crashed, killing the driver, co-driver and nine spectators, five of whom were children.
It was around this time that motorsport became increasingly professional. Gone were the days of amateur drivers turning up with home-modified cars; it was the age of professional drivers and well-financed teams.. Works teams (those financed, sponsored and run by auto manufacturers) were introduced and, in 1973, the World Rally Championship arrived.
Formed from a series of rallies that were originally part of the International Championship for Manufacturers, the WRC kicked off in January 1973with the 42ème Rallye Automobile de Monte-Carlo. The Alpine-Renault team was victorious.
Until 1979, the WRC was for manufacturers only. Italian domination in the form of Lancia and Fiat prevailed until the early 90s, although wins were clocked up by Ford in 1979, Talbot in 1981 and Audi’s world-famous Quattro in 1982 and 1984. From 1993 the Japanese triumvirate of Subaru, Mitsubishi and Toyota were all-conquering, until 2000 when they were eclipsed by Peugeot and Citroën. The 2013 and 2014 titles were taken by Volkswagen.
The first driver’s champion was won by Swede Björn Waldegård in a Ford Escort RS1800, and the title has remained in Europe since day one.
WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP WINNERS 1980 – 2014
Like all forms of motorsport, rallying is dominated by a few teams with seriously deep pockets. The rest are forever trying to play catch-up, and are essentially there to make up the numbers. The top drivers – Ogier, Neuville, Loeb, Kubica et al – will always succeed, while the rest are content with the odd podium and trying to keep their £200k motors out of the scenery. So what does the future hold?
The US aside, there are very few people in the UK, through Europe, South America and the Far East who wouldn’t recognise F1 champ Lewis Hamilton if they saw him in a restaurant, but the same probably can’t be said for current WRC champion Sébastien Ogier.
The issue is not with the ethos of the sport or the professionalism and talent of the drivers, which has remained true for more than a century, but more so the commercial appeal. F1, Indy Car, NASCAR and even MotoGP attract multi-billion dollar blue-chip names as well as primetime TV coverage, and the key for 2015 and beyond is how rallying can capitalise on its popularity, attract a new breed of fans, and promote the sport outside of its core demographic.
While the marketing of the sport remains a major challenge, what about the actual rules and regulations? Unlike the often dramatic changes seen in other motorsports, such as F1, FIA Rally Director Jarmo Mahonen said in December 2014 that WRC won’t be seeing any revolutionary technical changes, rather the cars will evolve organically.This means there will be no hybrid technology any time soon in WRC nor any dramatic push to change other key vehicle specifications. However, despite this it may still be possible to catch a glimpse of things to come in the form of a company called eRally, who have developed the world’s first fully-electric, zero emission competition-standard rally car. In this car, they have developed a vehicle that will be eligible to race in the UK and have the green light to use the car in the British Rally Championship.
Yet as with most research and development of this type, the practical applications can be much further-reaching than just the forests of Wales and snowy roads of Sweden – meaning this kind of cutting edge technology may soon be pushing forward the design of the cars we drive on the streets every day.
It is unclear whether eRally will prove to be the future of the sport, but whatever is decided in the corporate offices of the FIA, rallying remains one of the most exciting spectacles in the world of motorsport. A raw, fast, gruelling spectacle, there’s no doubt that as pure sporting drama, rallying is tough to beat.
Coached by rally legend Jimmy McRae, find out how Idris got on behind the wheel of his Ford Fiesta Zetec on a stage of the Circuit of Ireland with co-driver Michael Orr.