The World Rally Championship – what is it, and how does it work?
The FIA World Rally Championship, or WRC, is the top level of international rally competition. Competitors will drive across all terrains and in all weathers, with the winner being crowned World Rally Champion in November.
It’s a gruelling contest, featuring regular crashes and an ever-present risk to participants. Unlike the controlled environment of circuit racing, rallying embraces uncertainty – drivers are expected to encounter and cope with changing surfaces, dangerous weather, and even animals on the course.
This real-world driving is what keeps fans and spectators interested, though. The fact that a course can be icy in the morning, gravelly at lunchtime and muddy in the evening presents a constant challenge for teams. Tyre choices are crucial, but so too is communication – rallying involves both a driver and co-driver, who effectively share the life-threatening stress of driving a car at 140mph through dense woodland, gently shifting snow drifts or arid desert.
The championship covers pretty much the entire year, with thirteen rounds taking place between January and November. Each round is held in a different country, though the names don’t necessarily correspond with the host state: the French rally is the Tour de Corse in Corsica, for example. At each rally there’ll be a service park, which usually takes the form of a large paved area where teams can set up their workshops. In the Tour de Corse this is at Bastia airport; at Wales Rally GB it’s a carpark in Deeside.
Every round has its own flavour. Rally Sweden, for example, is generally pretty snowy, and competitors here will use studded tyres. Wales Rally GB on the other hand is a drab, grey affair, with lots of mud and rain making the course difficult to predict. We’ve written a brief preview of what to expect from each of the rounds, available here.
Each round is divided into stages, which are sections of road, track or pathway that have been closed for the competition. The cars set off at different times – at no point will the cars be competing directly, as they would be on a track. While it’s not uncommon for cars to pass each other en route, normally if one of them has broken down or crashed, the objective of the staggered starts is to prevent this from happening as much as possible.
There are usually between 15 and 25 stages in each round. These stages, which can be up to 15 miles long, will be geographically disparate, connected by public roads – WRC cars must be road-legal, and drivers must abide by traffic laws and regulations when travelling between stages. If you’re spectating at a World Rally Championship event, for example Wales Rally GB, it’s not uncommon to meet competing cars on the dual carriageway.
When they get to the stage, the driver and co-driver will attempt to complete the route in the shortest time possible. There are several stages on each day, with three days of competition usually spanning a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Each day is called a ‘leg’, and stages on each day tend to be clustered around a certain area.
There are also Power Stages at the end of each rally, offering more points for the winners, and Super Special Stages, which are orchestrated to be spectator-friendly and often take place in arenas. Points are awarded as such, from 1st to 10th: 25 18 15 12 10 8 6 4 2 1.
Timed down to a 10th of a second, the co-driver will guide the driver through the stage using detailed pace notes. The ‘crew’ is this unison, two people navigating the rally stage at immensely high speed. To do this, the co-driver uses pace notes, detailed outline of the stage ahead. Each WRC co-driver has their own form of notation, usually incorporating a variety of written instructions and diagrams. The team creates pace notes as part of the ‘recce’ process, which is held during the week before the competitive part of the rally.
At the WRC level, the crews will often have worked together for many years. Their bond, inside and outside the car, is similar to that of other sportspeople who work in pairs.
Ostensibly based on road cars, the vehicles used in WRC are lighter, more powerful and somewhat safer than the kind of machines you can buy in a dealership. Strict rules limit the power of the cars, as well as mandating the use of roll cages and full-harness seatbelts.
In previous years, rallying was less regulated and became dangerous as a result. The ‘Group B’ era of rallying is said to have produced some of the most iconic cars, heroic driving and memorable characters, but it also resulted in many competitor and spectator deaths. The sport in its modern form balances the audience’s desire for spectacle and the need for everybody involved to go home to their families on Sunday night.
The new cars are certainly exciting. A leap in maximum power from 300bhp to 380bhp, as well as a slight change in turbo regulations, mean that the cars will be more brutish than they have been for years. A slight relaxation of rules concerning aerodynamics mean that the new cars should have more downforce. All of this should mean better rallying and more people engaged with the sport.
The FIA (motorsport’s FIFA) have made the new cars more powerful than before, but in doing so have placed more restrictions on who can drive them. Whereas previously, private teams could enter ‘gentleman drivers’ who are rubbish but rich enough to pay for a seat, WRC drivers now need to have demonstrated their competence. With 380bhp, speeds well into three figures and spectators usually a few feet away from the track, this change is understandable.
The manufacturer teams, known as ‘works’ teams, usually bring with them around 80 people. Among them will be mechanics, technicians, crews, as well as cooks and PR people. The teams will set up camp at the service park, an area designated as the central hub of the whole rally round, and usually bring with them a massive physical set-up. A two-storey rally headquarters with space to rebuild two cars simultaneously, with kitchens, canteen and hospitality suite, is not uncommon.
WRC events take place in the countryside and is generally very accessible. Apart from in certain places like the Super Special Stages, where you may have an allocated seat, spectators are given open access to the courses and are generally expected to look after themselves.
On a rally stage, there’s usually no barrier between you and the cars. Fans are reminded to keep off the stage, rather than physically prevented – expect to get splattered with mud or pelted with gravel if you stand too close to the track.
Fans root for drivers and teams, and with support events like WRC2, WRC3 and local championships taking place on the same stages, many nations and and cities are represented in some way at each rally round. This year, Wales Rally GB will become part of the British Rally Championship. And with several of the rounds happening within easy reach of the UK, the 2018 World Rally Championship is a superb opportunity to witness some world-class motorsport.