When it comes to rallying, what should “fair” really mean? It’s a bit controversial, isn’t it? To be honest, I am still wrestling through this question as I reflect on Rally Sardinia. I haven’t settled on an answer, and that is why I am going to throw it out to you. With the fallout from Sebastien Ogier’s comments at the end of Rally Portugal spilling into last weekend’s rally in Sardinia, there is still hot debate about the “fairness” of the new road position rules. This specific issue has been picked apart and debated ad nauseum and I am not going to enter into that discussion. It has already been covered by those far more knowledgeable and experienced in the rally community than myself. Instead, I’m wondering this. What does “fair” really mean in rallying, and is “fair” what we really want? As I ponder these questions, I have two conflicting perspectives: those of the purist against those of the realist.
As a hardcore rally enthusiast, I want to see pure competition on the stages. I want the cream to rise to the top, and I want the best to be rewarded for their efforts. I don’t want to see the spirit of pure competition diluted by gimmicks (cough cough… DRS… cough cough). If a team does a better job of building a car to the specifications outlined in the regulations, then they deserve to win. If a driver is at the top off his form, I don’t want to see him hamstrung by arbitrary handicaps just to “spice up the show.” (Where have we heard that one before?) For the purist, this is the definition of “fair.” The WRC is the pinnacle of the sport, and just because a driver or team shows up doesn’t mean that they have the right to win. This needs to be earned through hard work, determination, focus, and attention to detail. The purist wants only the best to win and nothing else. It was the purist in me that held my interest in the WRC during all those years of Loeb’s dominance. I enjoy watching excellence on display, and to punish the best for their success only ruins the spirit of competition.
However, life isn’t always fair… it sucks… but it’s true. Sometimes the team that puts in the most effort doesn’t win. Sometimes the driver with the most promising talent falls by the wayside because the proper funding wasn’t in place. Sometimes a company boardroom pulls the plug on a rallying program because it didn’t fit with their corporate goals. Unfortunately, rallying operates in the real world where these things happen all too often. If rallying existed in a utopia with unlimited time and financial resources, then the purist’s definition of fairness would be just fine. However, rallying exists in the imperfect world where sometimes sheer effort and determination just aren’t enough to succeed. There are outside forces at play that influence the purity of the results. With these realities in mind, perhaps we need to shift our perspective on what “fair” should mean. Would it be more “fair” to make adjustments to ensure sure that competition occurs on an even playing field?
What makes rally so special when compared to other forms of motorsport is that it exists as a microcosm of real life. A rough rally stage serves as a perfect metaphor for the human experience. Life does not take place on a carefully manicured racing circuit. No, it is a journey from start to finish through ups downs, hazards, and obstacles. One minute you’re flying along thinking no one can catch you, and the next, you’re left by the side of the road wondering what happened. The beauty of rally is that it doesn’t need artificiality to keep things interesting or “fair.” By its nature, rallying has enough variables in place to keep the playing field mostly level. Even though there will always be a discrepancy between the “haves” and “have nots”, it is one of the last forms of motorsport where the Hayden Paddons of the world still have a chance without carrying a huge check paying for their careers. I would say that rallying has a way of keeping things “fair” on its own. In general, winners usually win because they are the fastest. However, in rally, the fastest aren’t always the best, and that is what makes it “fair” on its own. Sometimes it rewards those who show the most perseverance and resiliency in the face of adversity. And, Seb? Road sweeping is just one of those pieces of adversity that you will need to overcome to prove that you really are the best. In rallying, the best win, not only the fastest, and that sounds pretty “fair” to me.