THE FIA World Rally Championship is the most challenging and diverse series in international motorsport. Hosted in 13 counties – including Australia for the 25th time this year – the WRC tackles the extremes of weather and road surfaces against backdrops of spectacular scenery and distinctive national cultures.
What else makes the WRC different from other motorsports and uniquely relevant to car-driving fans?
• Cars are based on popular production models. The small hatchback in your home driveway becomes a 200 kmh forest racer in WRC form.
• Though highly modified for competition, WRC cars must remain street-legal and able to driven on the road, observing all the regulations, between competition stages.
• The competition special stages are mostly public roads closed for the duration of a rally on a particular day.
• The challenge of competing in constantly-changing, real-world conditions on a special stage means WRC drivers are among the best – and bravest – in world motorsport.
Read on to learn more about the exciting World Rally Championship.
Rally vs Race:
An FIA World Rally Championship event usually covers between 300 km and 400 km on temporarily-closed, mostly-public roads. The course comprises around 20 stages of various lengths contested over at least three days. Driver and co-driver (navigator) crews tackle the stages one at a time, running against the clock, and the fastest overall time wins. By comparison, an FIA Formula 1 World Championship event is staged on a closed circuit, on which drivers race head-to-head until the leader reaches 305 km or two hours’ duration.
The rally challenge:
Competing on (temporarily-closed) public roads, crews must deal with the same challenges as everyday drivers, such as potholes, bridges, trees, crests, cliffs, dips and other hazards – but at much higher speeds and with none of the fixed safety features of a racetrack.
The first time a rally crew drives a special stage at speed is when the starting light turns green. There’s no practice or qualifying like racing drivers enjoy. WRC crews are allowed two days of pre-event course reconnaissance, but this must be done at road-legal speeds and not in their rally cars. The crews make “pace” notes about how fast they can go and any hazards and the co-driver calls these to the driver via intercom during the rally.
During the event, it’s a true team effort. Perfect harmony between driver and co-driver, precise driving in constantly-changing conditions, focus, determination, bravery, endurance, avoidance of damage, correct tyre choice and knowing how to push are required of the crew. Back at the service park, the team monitors strategy and is ready to make ultra-fast repairs to keep wounded cars in the event. Team members can include managers, engineers, mechanics, chefs, meteorologists, publicists and even physiotherapists and psychologists. Outside the service areas, repairs and adjustments can be made only by the crew using tools and parts carried in the car. Radio communication between crew and team is not allowed.
Rallies run to a precise timetable, called the itinerary. Each crew is given exact times for stage starts and other checkpoints. They can earn time penalties if late.
Despite the differences between drivers, cars, tyres and road and weather conditions, stages times can be as close as fractions of a second. Leading positions change often and the only truly predictable factor is surprise – drama always strikes in the form of crashes, spins, missed directions, flat tyres or mechanical failures, just when a crew seems safely headed for the finish.
Three main titles are up for grabs in the FIA World Rally Championship, for drivers, co-drivers and manufacturers. The top 10 drivers in each round earn points on a 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 basis. Bonus points 5-4-3-2-1 are awarded for the televised final stage, called the Power Stage. WRC2 and WRC3 are subsidiary championships run at the same events.
After competing in 13 countries in all sorts of road and weather conditions – including asphalt, gravel, snow, ice, high temperatures and high altitudes – through four seasons, the winner truly has earned the title of FIA World Rally Champion driver.
The WRC Heritage:
Rally has an unmatched heritage. The first event, Rallye Monte-Carlo, was staged in January 1911 – four months earlier than the introduction of another legendary motorsport event, America’s Indianapolis 500 – and it remains part of the WRC today. In 1911, 23 cars started from 11 locations around Europe to meet in the mountains surrounding the principality of Monaco at the request of Prince Albert the First. His goal was to promote the micro-state as a holiday destination. Today, one of the WRC’s biggest commercial assets is its ability through global television coverage to promote the tourist attractions of the host location.
The World Rally Championship was created in 1973, but initially only for manufacturers to give them a way to test models and technologies. The Drivers Championship was added in 1978. By the mid-80s the WRC matched Formula 1 in popularity, thanks to the infamous Group B era, in which the cars boasted unlimited power. Great drivers naturally have contributed to rallying’s popularity, especially the legendary Flying Finns such as Ari Vatanen, Timo Mäkinen, Henri Toivonen, Juha Kankkunen, Marcus Grönholm, Mikko Hirvonen, Hannu Mikkola, Rauno Altonen, Markku Alén and many more for whom jumping and sliding cars at insane speeds on gravel roads seemed to be a natural skill.
More than 3.8 million spectators watch the rallies live stage-side while more than 700 million tune in from home. Live stages and daily highlights are broadcast in 150 TV markets around the world, supported by massive coverage in traditional, on-line and social media. The WRC even has its own global video game series, eWRC, a descendant of the world’s original motorsport video game Colin McRae Rally, which was based on the spectacular feats of the then-world champion. The WRC is managed by WRC Promoter GmbH of Munich and regulated by the world motorsport governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile.