Standing in the hot sun, perched on a hill side, surrounded by thousands of spectators waiting for the first car to burst into sight, I am reminded why rallying is so popular with fans and spectators. It’s the real-world appeal of rallying that makes it special, because, unlike the controlled environment of circuit racing, the competition takes place on natural terrain in cars you can easily relate to.
The world’s best drivers race against the clock in mud, slush, sand and snow, in cars that are loosely based on mass-production hatchbacks you and I can buy.
Ceremonial start at a picturesque resort in Marmaris.
Even at a World Rally Championship (WRC) event, you can enjoy a level of accessibility you wouldn’t expect at the topmost level of the sport. It’s not just about getting to see cars jumping and sliding at insane speeds without any barriers in front of you, but also the fact that a lot of the cars move from stage to stage on normal roads (at normal speeds) with regular traffic.
It’s not uncommon to spot a WRC rally winner or world champion parked by the side of the road changing a tyre or struggling to fix a damaged part with just his co-driver to help (the rules don’t allow competitors to take outside help except in designated service areas). Can you ever imagine Formula 1 drivers, sealed off from everything outside the paddock, ever doing that at a Grand Prix?
The service park is the hub of every rally.
The hub of every WRC rally is the service park, which is the equivalent of the paddock as well as the pits. There’s a relaxed, carnival-like atmosphere here unlike the frosty and unfriendly paddocks at an F1 Grand Prix. It’s also here that fans can get close to the cars and watch them getting repaired.
The Hyundai Motorsport team has the biggest set-up in the service park here in Marmaris, the base for Rally Turkey. It’s a massive two-storey structure big enough to provide five-star hospitality for their guests. You can hang out here and get a good view, from the first floor, of the three WRC Hyundai i20 coupés getting serviced by a flurry of mechanics, whilst sipping a beer.
Hayden Paddon and Seb Marshall stayed out of trouble to finish 3rd overall.
Apart from the basic chassis and body, there’s not much in common between the WRC i20 and a showroom car. Powered by a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine producing 380hp, the
WRC cars are the quickest they’ve been in a long time. Also, with more aerodynamic freedom
allowed, WRC cars generate more downforce than before and look the part, too. Large wings, big diffusers, splitters and spoilers are what add the wow factor to an otherwise mundane-looking hatch.
But despite the massive, well-oiled operation of a big-budget team like Hyundai, things can go awfully wrong. Hyundai came to Rally Turkey as favourites, with championship leader Thierry Neuville hoping to extend his lead at the top of the table. Neuville led on the first day but then bust his suspension on day two, which knocked him out of contention. In fact, the action-packed Rally Turkey saw a high rate of attrition due to the gruelling stages, which were by far the roughest on a WRC event in recent years. The gravel roads, strewn with rocks and stones, took their toll with many of the top drivers dropping out, including Andreas Mikkelsen and five-time world champion Sébastien Ogier.
Winner Ott Tänak completes a hat-trick of wins.
At the end of the third day it was Ott Tänak, rallying’s new sensation, in his Toyota Gazoo Racing Yaris, who cleverly stayed out of trouble to take victory. The Estonian driver also completed a hat-trick of WRC wins and has leapfrogged over Ogier to move into a close second place behind Neuville in the championship standings.
In the unpredictable and uncertain world of rallying, it’s not always the fastest but the smartest driver that wins.
Q&A MICHEL NANDAN, TEAM PRINCIPAL, HYUNDAI MOTORSPORT
On being hopeful of a championship win despite challenges and fierce competition.
How tough were the stages?
The stages are really rough and I think this generation of drivers has never driven in these types of rough conditions. The stages here are very difficult, much worse than stages from difficult rallies like Argentina, Portugal or Sardinia. But we know that on these types of roads, when it is quite rough, the car can be quite competitive.
While the WRC i20 is competitive on gravel, it’s not, on tarmac. What work needs to be done?
We have a car that has a longer wheelbase so for sure the car is not very quick to react or turn into corners quickly. But this is the basic design of the car, which we can’t change. In fact, we are really trying to reduce the lack of responsiveness. To do that, we are working on the differential and the suspension. We have new evolutions of the front suspension, which we will test; we are confident it will give us a faster turn-in. Also, we have some new differentials to test, for reducing the understeer. The advantage we have is that due to the long wheelbase, our car is more stable on some stages and also has good grip.
How confident are you about winning the championship?
Of course, our target is always to win the championship and we are in a very good position this year. It is quite tight with Toyota and Ford but we are confident about some of the remaining rallies. In Wales last year, we performed quite well; and also in the previous year. So we know we have a very good chance there. Spain is on tarmac and that’s where we need to improve. So we are working on that. The last rally in Australia is always quite favourable for us. The competition is really strong and it looks like the championship will be decided in Australia.