Soon to be crowned 3 times consecutive World Rally Champion in his dominant VW Polo R WRC, Sebastien Ogier told organizers at the end of Day 2 of the Coates Hire Rally Australia that “night stages increased risk for drivers and provided little for spectators.” He then asked Rally Australia organizers not to include a night stage again as nobody benefited and he said this supposedly on behalf of all WRC drivers. (Thanks to Gary Boyd @KiwiWRCfan for this excerpt)
This is interesting coming from Sebastien Ogier who has been the ongoing complainer regarding start order and as the championship leader gets the joy of being road sweeper on the first two days of every rally. Starting first on the road is a massive disadvantage on most gravel rallies, but can in some case have its advantages too. In this case Ogier being first on the road on the night stage was a big plus. To be fair, Ogier’s complaint wasn’t for himself but for the hanging dust that his competitors who followed would have to contend with. Hanging dust at night in a forest is similar to thick fog or snow blindness. To that end, should we cancel stages due to fog or snow as well?
This is an Op-Ed piece, but I think I speak for many (since apparently Ogier can do the same) when I say that eliminating night stages would be a terrible idea, even if all he meant was for gravel rallies in particular. This goes back to earlier arguments I’ve made about the sport of rally over the years as it has moved away from being the traditional endurance racing it used to be, to a series of short sprints it has become today. That said, let’s talk about the night stages specifically.
Historically night stages have been part of the challenge of stage rally since its inception. Are they harder? Hell yes they are. Are they more dangerous though? Now this is the key argument where opinions may differ. My take is rather simple. Night stages are only as dangerous as the speed a driver is willing to drive them. Who is forcing these drivers to drive at such a pace that it is too dangerous? I don’t recall a minimum speed requirement in the regulations. If it is too fast for you to be comfortable, then slow the hell down! Some say the safety has to do with not just the driver, but potential unseen issues ahead from someone else. Sure, let’s say a car has an accident in front of another driver. Not being able to see them is indeed a dangerous possibility, however at the top level of WRC they have modern tracking systems with pinpoint accuracy for specifically this type of occurrence (unless a car ends up in a lake as we found in Mexico’s TiTanak incident). This is similar to the RallySafe system that has been tested here in the states and is used specifically in all Rally Australia national events with great success. So to me this is a non-issue.
What about the fact that it is not good for spectators then? Night stages are still run all around the world in national and regional rallies. It is a unique spectacle and for Ogier to assume that it provides little for spectators, he should take a trip to Bonfire Alley at Rally America’s Sno*Drift Rally. The masses of fans that line the stages are impressive (even by the paltry by comparison American rally fan base) even though they are huddling together with blinding snow and freezing temperatures. The sounds of rally cars piercing the night is a unique experience that I think many more enjoy than Ogier and maybe the other championship drivers he is speaking on behalf of don’t quite understand. Why is it that organizers at the regional or national level are okay with these night stages and find value in them, but it is too much for the top level WRC?
How is it that years ago night stages were the norm and not the exception? Could it be that drivers just don’t have the experience now and are panicking a bit? We all know that pace notes are the key to speed in stage rally. However if you listen to a lot of modern pace notes you’ll hear a lot of details regarding visual references and less info on distances unless those distances are significant. At high speeds a co-driver can only spew out notes so fast before they become incomprehensible for a driver, so it makes sense to simplify them (except Petter Solberg, and if you’ve heard them then you’ll know what I mean). However, in a night stage where you may not be able to make out the visual references distances in the car are key. So my opinion is that drivers either need to make more detailed notes and learn to drive by them, or maybe they need more practice in driving in dark or poor conditions to become better at it. There will be those that can step up to the challenge and those that fail, but that’s racing. I’ve seen David Higgins drive night stages in Rally America and he knows how to drive to his detailed notes and it is impressive to say the least (he’s done it in blinding dust too). How come he has no problems with it, but top level WRC drivers are saying to eliminate them?