Imagine you’re perched on a wall on Lagoa Azul, the first stage of the 1986 Rallye De Portugal, as the very latest in Group B technology from Peugeot, Lancia, Audi, Ford and MG shoots past barely a foot from your face. You can feel the noise and smell the fuel. The bit of your brain that made you love cars as a child is in ecstasy. Rallying is becoming more popular than Formula 1, and you’re right in the thick of it.
Imagine you’re standing on a ditch on St. Gwynno, the second stage of the 2001 Network Q Rally, savouring one of the closest title fights in the sport’s history. McRae is on it, the Martini-liveried Focus dancing from apex to apex. Surely the title has to be his. There are 7 works manufacturers and a host of drivers that can win any given round. The sport is going from strength to strength.
Now, imagine the person beside you in Portugal tells you that by this time in 1987, Group B will be gone, banned and replaced by glorified production cars with half the power. Also, imagine the person beside you in Wales telling you that by 2010, there would be two manufacturers left in the world championship, and the young French guy in the little Saxo back down the field would win every title from 2004 onwards. You’d feel like either ridiculing them or punching them, wouldn’t you?
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…” So sang Joni Mitchell, and though her thoughts on rallying’s greatest years are sadly undocumented, those words are prescient for the current state of world rallying. We are in the midst of a glorious period for the sport, one of those rare times when spectacular yet still evenly-matched cars are being piloted by some of the most talented drivers in rallying history. Just look at that Toyota. It looks completely nuts, like the lovechild of a DTM car and an Andros ice racer, and sounds like the modern incarnation of a 205 T16. The Fiesta and i20 are aggressive and purposeful and exactly what a current top-level rally car should be, and even the C3 looks good, no mean feat considering the absolute poop-fest of a road car it uses as a base.
The cars are fast. Really, truly, scarily fast. The high-speed events are a sight to behold, with aerodynamics (always something of a black art in rallying) playing a huge part. Pace notes are being shorn of detail so that co-drivers can keep up with the road ahead, drivers are physically tired at the end of stages and the challenge is the greatest it’s been in recent memory.
We’ve got a genuinely outstanding crop of driving talent, too. Looking at the stage winners from last weekend’s Rally Catalunya, we see the names Tänak, Latvala, Ogier, Neuville, Mikkelsen, Sordo and that sly old dog Loeb. It is a lot harder to predict a winner on any given event, and the gaps between first and second at the end of rallies often consist of only a handful of seconds.
This is being reflected in spectator numbers. More and more fans are travelling to see their heroes in action, though sometimes this can end up in situations that are a little too reminiscent of the wild Group B days. Red Bull’s coverage, while arguably still not at the same level of fever as that from the early 2000s, is much better than anything in recent years.
Of course, the only thing that is certain is that this can’t and won’t last. Formula 1 will start to feel threatened, and the FIA will pull strokes to counteract that at rallying’s expense. The next recession or emissions scandal will hit one or more manufacturers’ motorsport budgets. A safety incident involving spectators or crews will cause the speed of the cars to be questioned. Like all sports, rallying is cyclical, and we appear to be on the absolute crest of a wave at the moment. My advice is to enjoy it while you can, get to as many WRC events as possible and gather plenty of stories for your grandchildren, because motorsport might not even be allowed in that dystopian future we seem doomed to live in.
We look back at Group B with a mixture of awe and wonderment for the cars involved. We look back at the early WRC car era with great fondness for the sheer level of competition. I can guarantee you that we will look back at the current era in twenty years’ time and thank our lucky stars that we were around to witness it.