The safety argument. It’s such an easy thing to use as the basis for an argument because nobody wants to say they are against safety right?
This week is the Rally Sweden, round 2 on the WRC calendar and the only true winter rally on the schedule (although Wales has had its share of surprises with a bit of the white stuff). Unfortunately mother nature wasn’t cooperating and unseasonably high temperatures had melted all the snow for many of the stages. In a desperate move to keep the rally on, organizers cancelled many second runnings of stages and delayed recce for hopefully colder temperatures later in the week.
Wednesday’s recce alone dug ruts in the soft soaked gravel roads on the southern most stages and 3 times World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier told a Swedish newspaper
“I don’t know what we’re doing here. There’s no point being here. I don’t know who took this decision, but it’s completely idiotic.”
When the outspoken Sebastien Ogier was asked whether the rally should be run in full, he said:
“No. I do not think so. The only routes we can run are in Norway (the northern stages). We can run a short sprint rally there, that’s OK.”
“But the rest is a gravel rally and it would be completely unsafe to try. If we try to run the race, we’ll lose the studs immediately and then it becomes really dangerous.”
I’m trying not to pick on just Seb here, as he often speaks for other drivers as well. This was also true if you remember his complaints about running gravel stages at night with dust. He had a superior road position being first on the road, but still voiced his concerns.
That said, are these concerns really about safety? Let’s go back to Sweden and analyze the situation there. Sebs argument was that the studs would be torn off and then they would have a “dangerous” situation. Just a few weeks ago was Rally Monte Carlo which is famous for changing conditions and tire choice never being perfect. Often in mountains around Monte Carlo, a driver will start a stage with studded tires on dry tarmac where half of them can be ripped off before they drive up to the snow and then finish the remainder of the stage back on tarmac again. So why is it okay for such changing conditions at Monte Carlo, but not in Sweden? Okay, they don’t have much of a choice between tires in Sweden (short studs or long studs), but would it be that much of a safety issue?
One of the biggest concerns whether the rally would continue was for the organizers of Rally Sweden. Unlike most rallies on the calendar, Rally Sweden is self funded from ticket sales, vendors, sponsors, etc. As of course was the WRC Promoter who had TV spots all lined up for the event. So with the rally still going forward, was this a case of ticket sales and TV promotion vs. safety of the competitors? Not likely because if the roads were destroyed it would end up being a huge cost to the event organizers to have repaired.
The drivers had one valid concern. The deep ruts from the recce could freeze rock solid and become dangerous come race day. If you’ve ever driven through ruts in a field that was once full of mud and then dried up, you’ll have an idea of what they meant. We’ve discussed this a number of times on the podcast though. Aren’t ruts, dust, mud, snow, ice, etc. just another changing condition? Aren’t changing conditions on real roads what makes rally a rally? I can get the argument that you must make sure safety vehicles can also get down the stage to assist a driver if needed, but I don’t think that is the typically argument used these days.
Here’s my take on it. World class drivers want to drive fast. To go the fastest they want conditions to be predictable. Nobody likes to slow down because they just don’t know what lies ahead. Their job is simply to drive the fastest as is possible with the notes they have. Today’s hub and spoke sprint style rallying adds a lot to this predictability, and indeed creates faster speeds.
Rallies still have changing conditions, but not to the level they used to. Back in the day a driver/co-driver used to get a basic route book which had little details other than how far it was to the next road and what direction to go along with some basic landmark information. Hardly the information necessary for going ten tenths like they do today. Yet those rallies, like the Safari, were often considered some of the greatest adventures. Certainly like any other motorsport these longer rallies had their dangers too, but drivers knew how to anticipate them and managed their pace accordingly.
So is it that the Rally Sweden itself is dangerous, or is it that drivers just can’t or won’t dial back a few notches to deal with the uncertain conditions that lies ahead? Swedish organizers and volunteers went above and beyond by working all night steamrolling the stages eliminating the ruts, as well as adding water so that a good ice base could freeze into place in time for competition. The plan worked as temps plummeted before Saturday’s stages were run and a nice blanket of snow fell making the point moot.
I get that drivers want to go fast, but rally is at its heart about dealing with unpredictable changing conditions. My biggest point is that the stages are only as dangerous as the speed a driver is willing to go on them, period. If Ogier and other drivers can’t slow down in the dark, dust, fog, mud, ruts, or what have you, then who is the one making it dangerous?
What’s your opinion on the dangers of stage rally as recently raised by Sebastien Ogier? Is safety overlooked in favor of event organizers and TV? Or is it just whining drivers who don’t want to have to slow down? Let us know in the comments below.