The first major rally event of 2013 has already come and gone, and with it kicked off what is promising to be an epic year for what I feel is the top of the motorsports pyramid. Why do I think rally is the creme de la creme? Just let me describe how this event played out and you just might agree.
This weekend’s 2013 Jänner Rallye was won by half a second. That’s right, two days of racing in over 18 stages with 248 Kilometers of changing conditions and it came down to 0.5 seconds. That’s less than a car length in circuit racing terms. With racing like that, it is no wonder that they had an estimated 120,000 spectators.
Jänner takes place in western Austria and is part of the newly re-branded European Rally Championship. Usually known for its snow and ice, this year the temps warmed a little and offered changing conditions that made tire choice almost a roll of the dice. The drivers could choose from wide tires with studs, narrow tires with studs, studless winter tires, rain tires, dry tires, pretty much any choice they wanted.
Day 1 had a bit of everything. It started out with simply wet tarmac on the first stage. Czec driver Jan Kopecký in his Skoda Fabia S2000 used the wider tires and took the stage win a few seconds ahead of French driver Bryan Buffier in a Peugot 207 S2000 also on the wide studs. Local Austrian Rally Champion Raimund Baumschlager gambled on the narrow studded tires for his Skoda Fabia assuming the following stages would be more in his favor. That gamble put him almost a full minute behind leader Kopecký.
Stage 2 fit those with the narrow studded tires well as snow and ice covered the roads. Baumschlager took the stage win and gained back 27 seconds to leader Kopecký. After the short 9K Stage 3, Baumschlager was in second and trailing Kopecký by a mere 2.3 seconds as they headed to service.
Learning their lessons from the first loop of stages, Kopecký and Bouffier were not going to make the same mistakes again. Bouffier won Stage 4, but Kopecký held his lead by the smallest of margins until Stage 5 when Baumschlager pulled ahead by 3.4 seconds. Kopecký pushed hard on Stage 6 to take back the lead by 4.1 seconds.
As day turned to night over the next 4 stages the tarmac went from icy to wet with a steady rain and fog hampering vision. At the end of Day 1 Kopecký extended his lead to 20 seconds over second place Bouffier with Baumschlager a further 18 seconds behind.
Temperatures on Day 2 warmed up to the 40’s which meant all precipitation came down as rain. And plenty of percipitation there was. Kopecký held on to his lead through the morning loop with Bouffier and Baumschlager each taking a stage win to chip away at the leader’s time. Then on SS15 disaster struck. Kopecký hit a rock and punctured his front left tire and hemoraged time. By the time he made it to the stop boards he had lost almost a full minute to the stage winner, which was amazingly a Group N production cup car.
Only 58 Kilometers over 3 stages remained with Bryan Bouffier in his Peugot 207 now leading the event. Baumschlager was 27 seconds in second place. Jan Kopecký was just 2.3 behind Baumschlager, but he had no spare tires left which meant another puncture would end the event for him.
With an incredible never give up attitude, Jan Kopecký with co-driver Pavel Dresler would have to push up to and maybe even beyond their limits to pull off a win. First up was a short Arena Königswiesen stage, in which they only gained back 2.4 seconds. Then came the two long runs through the 25K Bad Zell – Tragwein – Aisttal stage. Being 25 seconds back, they would have to make up half a second per kilometer.
Mother nature opened up the heavens with a deluge of rain. At the end of SS17, when asked how he felt he did Bouffier said “Good, but it was raining like hell. We still have to push.” Bouffier might have thought he did well, but Kopecký did exceptional as he took the stage win and now only trailed by 10.6 seconds going into the final service.
You can imagine the pressure on both Bryan Bouffier and Jan Kopecký as they sat in the service park waiting for the regroup for the final stage run. Both drivers knowing that they have to give it all, but can’t make a mistake that might lose it all.
Again it was cold, raining, getting dark with fog mixed in for good measure. Bouffier made it to the end with a time of 13:53.1 and waited at the stop control for Kopecký to arrive. Jan Kopecký approached as a huge crowd watched the board to see his time. 13:42.0, 11.1 seconds faster than Bryan Bouffier. The crowd erupted in applause and Bouffier congratulated his rival.
Bouffier: “I tried to do well, but it was complicated. Jan was pushing all the time. It was crazy rally, so dirty and so quick!”
Kopecký: “Thanks to Bryan, it was incredible fight. It was really incredible rally, I was trying my best.”
Now this my friends is why I love rally racing. These guys give it their all in the harshest conditions where winning is truly about being the fastest driver. There aren’t any gimmicky push-to-pass, KERS, or DRS features. There aren’t any blocking maneuvers making a win more of a political debate than who was fastest. Rally racing is simply about setting the fastest time. It is about the car, the driver/co-driver (and how big their cajones are), the road, and the clock.
Some might think I’m crazy to wear headphones to bed at night listening to rally radio coverage from 9 time zones away, but with action like this who can blame me? If we could only get the rally TV coverage like the helicopter in the picture below is filming I think a lot of Americans would watch it.