1- WHAT IS RALLY?
The origins of modern day world championship rallying coincide with the invention of the motor car.
Humankind has always had a competitive spirit. It was inevitable that as soon as the possibility of moving from A to B on four wheels arose, one person would want to do it faster than the others! Thats what world rallying is; moving from one place to another faster than any other person in the world.
In the "old days" little regard was taken of where such movement occurred. Many of the original "rallies" were more "road races" such as the famous London to Brighton Rally, where cars were timed over the entire distance and the winner was the competitor with the fastest time.
Things have progressed somewhat and rallies now have a tightly controlled format with specific sections (called special stages) being reserved for competition, connected together by road or liaison sections.
Preparations for the hard-fought World Rally Championship begin many months before the first rally of the season. The governing body, the Federation Internationale de lAutomobile (FIA) approves routes, stages and final locations of the 12 rallies around the world, and passes on a copy of the proposals to the major teams.
Each rally must allow two days for the reconnaissance ("recce"), one day for "Shakedown" (final testing of cars) and Media Conference and three days for competition. The rally typically has between 15 and 25 special stages. The manufacturer-backed factory teams enter two or three cars each, and arrive on location up to 2 weeks before the start of a rally for on-site preparation. The competing World Rally Cars are seeded and start the event according to their ranking, with the leader of the drivers championship setting off first.
Often there are up to 90 cars taking part the rest of the field made up of the Junior World Championship (smaller, lower-powered cars for younger drivers), or the Production Car World Rally Championship and private teams, including local competitors.
Driver and co-driver familiarise themselves with the various stages before the start of the event. They drive each special stage twice in a standard road-car (fitted with extra safety equipment) in the two days preceding the rally. It is here that the co-driver writes detailed pace notes for use on the special stages during competition.
The special stages are the competitive sections of the rally - where the drivers and co-driver drive as fast as possible to achieve the quickest time. They take place on private roads or public roads, which are closed to the general public while the rally is in progress. A typical rally will have about 25 special stages overthree days. The stages are linked by public roads - called road sections -on which competitors must obey all local traffic laws. Each day contains about 400km ofdriving - a third of which are the competitive special stages. Stages vary in length from five to 60kms, with the cars' times being recorded after each stage to the tenth of a second. Over the entire event, the special stage distance must total between 300 km and 500 km.
Forget about first across the line. Rally cars dont race directly against each other. They compete against the toughest opponent of all; time. Cars start at one or two minute intervals, racing against the clock, their times monitored and entered into the FIA computer results system. Unless they run into trouble, rivals rarely see each other during a stage.
The Time Controls
A rally itinerary is governed by a strict timetable. Drivers get time penalties for being late (or early!) to clock in to the start of the special stage and at the entry and exit of service parks. Late arrival at these controls is typically penalised with 10 seconds on every minute over and is added to the overall time of the driver. Drivers can be excluded from a rally if they are 15 minutes late for a time control, 30 minutes late for a leg or 60 minutes for an entire rally.
How is a winner determined?
Each driver is given a starting signal on a set minute, the signal consisting of an electronic countdown involving a series of lights. When the start signal is given, the driver takes off from the start of the special stage and proceeds to drive as quickly as possible to the finish of the stage where, as the car passes the Flying Finish at full speed, its finish time is recorded as a time of day (in hours, minutes, seconds and tenths of a second). The drivers time on the stage is then calculated and expressed in minutes, seconds and tenths of a second.
As each stage is conducted, the drivers times are accumulated and the winner is the driver at the end of the event with the lowest total time.
On the liaison sections (on public roads) crews are given a set amount of time in which to travel these sections, obeying all the speed limits. If the crew is late on one of these sections, because of a mechanical problem or similar, they are penalised at the rate of 10 seconds per minute late. This penalty is added to their total time for the rally and is called a Road Penalty. Crews who exceed the posted legal speed limits on the liaison sections not only face the usual civil penalties the FIA has much harsher penalties which it does not hesitate to impose, and which can involve substantial fines (much larger than civil fines), time penalties and even exclusion from the event. At the end of an event, the driver who has taken the least amount of time (including any road penalties) to complete all the stages is the winner.
Results achieved during each of the 13rallies count towards the two FIA world championships one for the drivers and one for the manufacturers. The points system for the drivers works as follows:
1st 25 points
2nd 18 points
3rd 15 points
4th 12 points
5th 10 points
6th 8 points
7th 6 points
8th 4 points
9th 2 points
10th 1 point
A manufacturer can add up the points tally from two nominated cars.
2- WHAT IS WRC?
The FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) pits cars and drivers in a series of three-day events against some of the toughest, and most varied, conditions on the planet from the ice and snow of Scandinavia to the stifling heat of Greece and Jordan over surfaces ranging from smooth tarmac to boulder-strewn rocky tracks.
Unsurprisingly, the series is widely regarded as the most challenging motor sport competition in the world. Established in its current format in 1973, in 2010 drivers and manufacturers will battle it out for the 38th annual drivers and manufacturers championship trophies.
Each rally must allow two days for the reconnaissance (or recce), one day for technical checks (or scrutineering) and three days for competition. The rally is divided into three legs, and typically has between 15 and 25 special stages. On each special stage drivers and co-drivers start singly and race against the clock. The co-driver reads pace notes to alert the driver to the conditions on the road ahead.
The manufacturer-backed factory teams will enter two or three cars each, and arrive on location weeks before the start of a rally for on-site preparation. The competing World Rally Cars are seeded and start the event according to their ranking, with the leader of the drivers' championship setting off first. Often there are up to 80 cars taking part - the rest of the field made up of the Junior World Rally Championship (smaller, lower-powered cars for younger drivers), or the Production Car World Rally Championship, WRC Teams Cup crews and private teams.
The WRC is regulated and controlled by the Federation Internationale de lAutomobile (FIA), the governing body for worldwide motorsport. Each event follows the same basic format: two days of reconnaissance on Tuesday and Wednesday, to enable the driver and co-driver to check the route, and shakedown in effect practice on Thursday, followed by the competition itself on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Some events also include super special stages short and compact sprint tests which often feature two cars racing head-to-head.
Being able to work in this pressured environment means WRC technicians are some of the best in the world, capable of extraordinary ingenuity, speed, and the odd miracle. In the heat of competition a suspension upright, hub and brake unit will be swapped in around five minutes, a gearbox in about 10, while their skills with hammers, welding torches and tank tape have regularly transformed a sorry looking wreck into a rally winner. Away from the service park repairs or adjustments can still be made, but only by the driver and co-driver, and only using tools and spare parts carried in the car.
3- THE CREW
Pivotal to success in the WRC is the partnership between driver and the co-driver, who work as a team to bring the car home safely in the fastest time.
If the accelerator isn't flat to the floor, a driver's going too slow. If the brake isn't flat to the floor, he's going to crash. It's not easy sitting behind the wheel of a £400,000 World Rally Championship Car.
Just having a World Rally Championship Car will not make you a World Rally Championship driver. Nor will flat-out, foot to the floor driving win you any titles. A top-class World Rally Championship driver must be instinctive, brave, technically and tactically skilful (and a little bit mad). He must be passionate, precise, concentrated and have unflinching trust in his co-driver.
And, he's got to be quick too. The trust between driver and co-driver has to be absolute. Would you drive over a blind brow at 150kph in the fog, because your partner next to you said it was safe?
It's the co-driver's job to 'guide' the driver through the course. During the pre-rally recce, he (or she) writes extensive hand-written 'pace notes' on every corner, road surface, pothole, rock and potential hazard, so he can predict the speeds at which his driver can take the course the next day. He then reads them out to his driver as they hurtle through the stage. The co-drivers are the unsung heroes of the World Rally Championship. More usually it is the driver that hits the headlines, while the co-driver is back at the service park going over his 'pace notes' for the next day's rallying. But he must be just as alert, committed and dedicated as his driver - without a good pace note reader, a driver is severely hindered.
4- WORLD RALLY CARS
All cars competing at the top level of the WRC are based on four-cylinder two-litre production cars. But although they look similar to the ones in a high street showroom, changes allowed to the engine, transmission and suspension, mean a WRC car is a turbocharged, four wheel drive monster that develops around 300bhp and masses of torque.
Sure, they look pretty similar to the car you hired on holiday last year, but underneath that familiar exterior lies £400,000 of high-tension steel, carbon fibre and titanium packed with the most sophisticated technological hardware available. They have 2.0 litre turbo engines that produce over 300bhp, 6 speed gearboxes and 4-wheel drive. The extensive safety measures include a 'roll cage', welded into the car to protect driver and navigator in case of an accident. Cars are four-wheel drive and have over 3 times more power than your average 100bhp engine. Stopping quickly requires carbon-fibre brake discs that have a bigger diameter than the wheels of a usual car (which means it can stop in an instant).
They're familiar because the FIA stipulates that every World Rally Car must originate from its fourseater road-car and be available to the general public (so at least 25,000 of them must have been built). But that's where the similarities end... building a World Rally Car
To make it rally-fit, the car has to undergo a World Rally Championship makeover. Teams start by stripping it down to its very barest of essentials, its panels, and then work up from this blank metallic canvas. Usually, it will take 100s of back-wrenching man-hours just to turn these bare panels into a chassis on which the World Rally Car can be built. And this is no normal chassis. It's 2-3 times more rigid than a normal road car and comes complete with an ultra-stiff roll-cage and acres of safety tubing (40m if laid out fully).
The car starts life looking like its suburban counterpart, but teams are allowed to re-shape the noses and add a rear 'wing'. The aerodynamics at the front produce less drag and the 'wing' (like an aircraft wing, only upside down) at the back generates a down-force which helps the car balance on the road.
All this technology requires a huge investment of time. It takes six mechanics working flat-out for three weeks to create a World Rally Car.
Usually, each World Rally Car has 6 forward gears, which are changed by a sequential shifter mounted on the dashboard (not your conventional hand-height gearstick). Regardless of the road surface, these machines can accelerate from a standing start to 100kph in around three seconds. Their top speed depends upon the gearing chosen for each rally, but 220kph is not unusual.
There's a clutch pedal too - but it doesn't get much use other than to drive away from the start line. The drivers push or pull the shifter and let the computers do the rest. Which is just as well. With rally cars travelling at over 200kph, and every tenth of a second saved counting towards your final time, you can't waste time messing around with your feet. A gear-change in a World Rally Car takes 50 milliseconds - that's nearly 10 times faster than a road car.
For extra grip and safety, World Rally Cars have giant 18 inch tyres (15 inch for snow), which are changed regularly. It is not unusual to hear of crews changing tyre type seventimes in one rally. For asphalt, cars need racing-style, smooth 'slicks', though when it rains they have to be changed to wet-weather grooved tyres. On gravel, the tyre has a chunky tread capable of flinging stones out of the way. For ice, studded tyres are a must.
The tyre companies Pirelli and Michelin also fit anti-deflation systems which, if punctured, fill the tyre with a mousse that expands to prevent deflation and potentially dangerous accidents.
5- SERVICE PARKS
After each group of stages is completed, the cars can visit a designated service park where repairs may be carried out by the teams under strict supervision at pre-determined times during each event. Besides interrogating data from the on-board data systems, changing tyres and making running adjustments, during this time a team of six technicians is allowed to perform mechanical work on each car. The time available is strictly limited, with each stop being either 10, 30 or 45 minutes depending on the itinerary.
At the end of each day the crews are allowed a longer 45-minute period to work on the cars before they are locked away in the guarded 'parc fermé' until the following morning's restart. Crews are punished with time penalties for exceeding these alloted times.
After a gruelling stage, there's no telling in what condition a car will come back to the service park. The crews, forewarned by radio just minutes before a car might limp home, wait to patch up the injured machine. They have just 20 minutes to make the car rally-worthy again.
As soon as the car enters the team enclosure, the clock starts ticking. Every second over the allotted time could land the team with a time penalty, potentially undoing all the time gained on a fast super stage.
Crews need to be quick, efficient, dextrous and calm under pressure.
Normally, cars are raised on four slim triangular stands and attended to by about 12 technicians, each specialists in their field. If the car comes in relatively unscathed, a routine stop would include a complete change of wheels and tyres, a fluid top-up and a 'spanner' check, which ensures every nut and bolt is tight and not loosened by the engine vibration.
The 'silver box' (the black box of World Rally Championship Cars) is downloaded for immediate analysis and data checks. The shock absorber, damper and ride-height settings may be adjusted and all four brake discs checked for wear and tear. Last but not least, the windshield is thoroughly cleaned. If, however, the car has struggled in, its bodywork battered, the windshield shattered, the bonnet crumpled and the suspension shot, the technicians have a more serious problem on their hands. Ingenious solutions have to be made up on the spot to ensure the car makes it around the next stage.
The choreographed blur of tool-wielding hands is an impressive sight in and under a World Rally Car and the 20 minutes elapse all too quickly for the frantic technicians. They work under the beady eye of their crew-chief, who monitors their progress, oversees trouble-spots and constantly watches the clock, counting the minutes down in a loud and clear voice.
Typically, a World Rally Team will consist of around 40 people at the event, with a further 60 - 100 people supporting them at the team base.