by Joe Lamm, November 23, 2015
Deeside, United Kingdom – Other than hardcore followers of Rally America and European motorsports, we'd likely be hard pressed to find anyone in the U.S. who has heard of Sebastian Ogier. Have you?
This autumn, the Frenchman became a three-time driving world champion in the World Rally Championship. His machine? A Volkswagen Polo, another non-starter in the U.S. market.
There are 13 WRC events each year held in all sorts of environments from snowy Monte Carlo to Down Under for Rally Australia. We had the chance, courtesy of Subaru, to get a taste of one of the original and most iconic WRC rallies. Our draw was England’s Wales Rally Great Britain, once called the RAC Rally and legendary for great competition and foul weather. Wrapped up in a thick sweater, an old Barbour coat, and walking in Wellies, we waded into damp forests and trudged up windy hills to experience European rallying.
This is great fun and compelled us to take another look at why rallying has never taken hold in the U.S.:
1. The Cars: To begin with, few of the top-level RC1, RC2, and RC3 class WRC cars are sold in the U.S. There were three Subaru WRX STIs and a lone Mini JCW in the Wales Rally, but even the Ford Fiestas are the two-door version you can’t get in the U.S. Can you spot a Ŝkoda Fabia or Citroën DS3?
Truth is, small, inexpensive production cars have never been our image of a race machine. Big-engined stock cars yes, but until the advent of the Global RallyCross Championship how many Americans would have thought of a Fiesta, VW Beetle, or Chevrolet Sonic as a race car? Some SCCA production car racers, perhaps, but that’s about it. Too bad, because the WRC cars are a piece of work.
There are a variety of classes from the top-line RC1 cars through production classes and even a historic group. You might see the latest Ford Fiesta RS or Hyundai i20 and, 20 minutes later, a classic Ford Escort or Datsun 240Z.
Basic rules keep the fastest WRC cars at 2,640 pounds minimum, urged along by a 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder. Horsepower tends to be in the 300 range, with torque advertised somewhere around 300 lb-ft. That torque is what counts in a rally car, and the working rpm range is something like 4,500-6,500 rpm. Teams employ lots of little tricks, such as squirting fuel into the turbo under deceleration to keep it spinning.
Naturally the big problem is getting the power down on loose, filthy surfaces. Four-wheel drive is standard, with mechanical diffs front, rear, and center. The split is 50/50 front rear. One feature you won’t find in your street WRX STI is a handbrake that, when pulled up to break the back end loose in the inevitable handbrake turn, also decouples the rear diff for the short time you need.
Global RallyCross cars are similar in some ways -- Ford uses the two-door Fiesta RS for both -- but the GRC machines have close to 600 horsepower and feature modifications such as rear radiators due to GRC cars’ proclivity for running into one another.
2. The People: Rally fans are a hearty lot. We’re in a thick forest with rain dripping from branches as thick clouds keep the light level low … and the crowd doesn’t seem to notice. Most are well wrapped in rain gear, often lime green or emergency orange. Five guys carry in a barbecue complete with propane tank, ready to cook. Several people have beers; other cups contain a brown liquid. It isn’t coffee.
This is a friendly group -- we’re all in this together -- who has trudged in for some distance just to enjoy the rally cars.
That’s when you get to wondering how many Americans would do the same. Never mind shirtless Packer fans at Lambeau Field during a blizzard --they are in another class -- but we are used to having our sports entertainment brought to us. Consider how many of our snack and drink ads feature TV viewing parties or tailgate gatherings. Yes, we do drive to stadiums and racetracks, but that’s different than wending your way into a forest, parking then walking a good distance to a special rally stage.
3. The Tradition: Have you heard of Roger Clark, Richard Burns, or Colin McRae? Perhaps not the first two, though McRae is a hero to video gamers. When McRae was in Los Angeles to compete in the 2006 X Games, some young fans were stunned to realize he was a real person and not just a digital hero.
Wander through the crowd and past the concession stands and you’ll find reminders of rally heroes past. This year the focus was on the late McRae; he died in a helicopter crash on September 15, 2007. For all the great rally pilots from the U.K., this Scot was in 1995 the first to win the drivers’ championship and, to this day, the youngest of all at 27 years old. Subaru painted its newest NR4-spec WRX STI in the blue and yellow colors of McRae’s title-winning car.
Such respect for the past extends to the cars. Naturally the historic class had plenty of Ford Escorts, but also a Hillman Avenger and a Vauxhall Firenza Can-Am with a Chevy V-8 driven by McRae’s dad, five-time British rally champ Jimmy McRae.
4. The Circuits: We don’t mean racetracks like Road America or The Glen or Circuit of the Americas, but open roads. Sort of. Turns out it literally takes an act of Parliament to close U.K. public roads, so the organizers go to private lands or the Forestry Commission to open roads for the Wales Rally. Rallies tend to run on either tarmac or gravel.
The Wales Rally has a total of 19 special stages covering 194 miles, with some of those being one stage that drivers tackle twice. Getting there isn’t half the fun. Luckily we had some local guides on our side, and they know exactly how to find their way as close to the action as possible. Without them, we would have parked literally miles away from some stages and hiked in through the rain.
How many Yanks -- including some of us -- would be willing to do that? Mind you, rallies also have some “civilized” stages that aren’t a huge trek, but there is a bivouac aspect to others.
5. Atmosphere: Wet. Wales is on the southwest of the United Kingdom and is one of the first landfalls for weather coming in off the Atlantic. Nasty weather isn’t normally a news item in the area, but it was for our weekend, most notably the wind that made rain fall horizontally. Cameras’ electronics went berserk.
Then again, you could try Rally Sweden, a February event where snow banks are a main danger for the racers. That rally has a special award called Colin’s Crest named for Colin McRae and for the longest flight over one particular jump. American Ken Block is tied for second longest. Go Yanks.
Or try the Rally de Portugal with plenty of dust and hillsides filled with thousands of fans.
Or maybe a Rally America event. Driver David Higgins and navigator Craig Drew, who won the production class in Wales, are the 2015 champion team in their Subaru WRX STI. There are eight events planned for 2016, and you can get the schedule at Home | Rally America. The events can take you well into the woods or snow or dust but also such in-town venues as Portland International Raceway.
We’ll say this: For Americans, rallies might be an acquired taste but one well worth sampling.
Read more at: 5 Reasons Europeans Love Road Rallies, and Few Americans Do