Nothing can prepare you for a rally stage. Whether you’re a fan or an aspiring driver, everything about rallying is beyond the bounds of traditional, single-seater racing.
Let’s start at the events themselves. The tracks aren’t manicured as they are in V8 championships, NASCAR, and Formula 1. Rally stages are held in mud, snow, tarmac, gravel, sand, and every other material that you encounter on a normal road. This means that rally tracks never have the best conditions for driving. Every track is fundamentally different. And the racing is more grueling than it is in NASCAR or Formula 1. There’s a large part of every event that’s more like endurance racing than a traditional race because the teams have to outlast whoever and whatever it is that they need to outlast.
Then, there are the cars and the drivers. Both are more remarkable than they let on to be, and what’s remarkable in rally is outright insane outside of it. And in this sport, crazy is normal.
Loose Screws, Looser Feet
This video, made by the governing body of the main rally championship, will give you a snapshot of what is normal in rallying. There are huge jumps, fans who are on the racetracks, and to casual motorsport fans, an ungodly amount of crashes. So, you’d think who would be crazy enough to compete in a sport where you’re surrounded by all this craziness and disaster?
Well, there are 21 teams with two drivers each that do it every year. All of them is as crazy as each other, but also crazy talented. As they should, as rally stages aren’t for everyone. They aren’t even for every racing driver because this is unlike any motorsport. The drivers are a different breed, wherever they come from, and they have that one quality that separates them from all other racing drivers: they have a natural inclination for what’s wild. How would you explain then the jumps that will make every other person tremble, other than a rally driver?
This is only one of the countless other reasons rally drivers are unique. In F1, braking from 200 mph to an almost complete stop in 100 yards is normal. But then you have to consider that F1 drivers are driving on pitch-perfect tracks. If they’re going fast enough, they’re going to have enough stopping power. There’s none of this convolution in a rally stage. You’re going 150 mph, you need to brake for a steep turn, and you’re driving on mud. The surface isn’t going to help you, and your co-driver’s depending on you to survive the race. How would you deal with it? There’s not enough money in the world to make me drive that fast on that kind of surface. Rally drivers do this, probably, a thousand times in a race. They don’t always make the right decision, as the crashes show, but you need to have a screw loose to do this week in and week out.
Furthermore, no rally driver ever succeeded just by being great at driving. You need to be a great navigator, an expert in ice and tarmac racing, an exceptional drifter, a master in fuel efficiency, and more. All of these talents are in full-show in every race, and the results speak for themselves.
Rally Cars: A Unique Specimen
In F1, the cars have a small share of the spotlight. The drivers take the lion’s share of the attention, except for the times when a driver is performing so well that it can’t just be about him. That’s why Ferrari’s F2004, Red Bull’s RB9, McLaren MP4/4, Benetton B195 and many others are put side-by-side their drivers because these machines were, at one point, as great as their masters.
Rally cars are different. For one, you can buy a hatchback and turn it into a rally car that can compete professionally. Another is that the main principle in building rally cars is that simplicity is key. Other than the magnificent sequential transmission system of rally cars, everything else is simple. If you need your car to be lighter, get rid of the seats or anything that’s unnecessary. Your car receiving a colossal amount of punishment? Get a heavy-duty suspension that can survive a jumps and the roughest racing terrains on earth (and get a spare one, at that). Engine work is minimal, and Team O’Neil explains it here as simple as possible. You need a heavy-duty rolling cage to protect the people inside. That’s about it. You can change the tires, exhaust system, and everything else, but you don’t necessarily need to put more “oomph” to the car. You only need to make it safe for the driver.
This is the complete opposite of F1 cars, where everything is unique. As a result, you don’t hear about what car Kris Meeke or Sebastien Loeb drove. One reason is that these are the same cars as some of you drive, a regular Mini or Citroen that’s just modified. But for how simple they are, these cars say a lot about who manufactured them. Rally cars are legends, and they carry their manufacturer along. Mini’s Monte Carlo masterclass during the 70s elevated the brand to iconic status in and out of the circuit. Subaru molded their consumer image according to their rallying legacy. Ford, despite being famous for their pickups and SUVs, has a car that survived partly because of its rallying pedigree. They may not have the prestige, but they get their drivers safe on the other end of the track and creates a legacy for their manufacturers. Rally fans don’t ask for more for their cars because the sport is entertaining enough as it is.
The Other Guy in the Car
But any article about rallying isn’t complete without mentioning the co-drivers. They are the primary guides of rally drivers, giving indecipherable instructions so that they know how fast or how slow they need to be. It may sound redundant, as rally drivers learn to feel the road by instinct, but co-drivers are as crucial to victories as drivers. They risk their lives for an inch of the glory of rally drivers, and that’s commendable.
F1 shows the cutting-edge of automotive technology at every race. Formula E is showing the world how far you can go with a battery. WEC may well be showing us the cars of the future. Rally, though? It shows the best driving humans alive. The sport isn’t unique in showing what humans can do, as Le Mans is a testament to human endurance as it is with cars, but it’s not showing you what a driver can do if he’s given an unsuitable road for driving and a modified consumer car. Rally does every week during the season. Despite the bumps, crashes, and accidents, it’s still the most absorbing racing event in the world.