It has been a little over one week since the 2017 WRC regulations were announced. For the most part, they have been met with a great deal of excitement and anticipation for the future, and with good reason. After several years of somewhat unspectacular cars that all seem to look quite similar, the thought of unique and awe-inspiring machinery making it back to the WRC’s stages is nothing but mouth watering. However, as Jeff Whitten so eloquently brought up in his article on Rally Sport Mag, are we getting so caught up in the excitement that we are beginning to forget common sense? (A link to his article is at the end of this piece) Are we re-opening the can of worms that was closed back in the 80’s when Group B was banned? Like Jeff, I’m a little worried that in the quest for a spectacular rally car, the FIA might be losing their way just a bit.
We have all been conditioned to believe that faster is better, but do we really need our rally cars to be faster in order to be more spectacular? Over the past decade, we have seen the rallying go through some dramatic changes. In the early 2000’s, most of the drivers were still employing the flamboyant, “Scandinavian Flick” style of rallying that had been developed in the days before active differentials and anti-lag systems. Then came along this Sebastien guy who proved that true speed actually looked quite ordinary. It made sense, the fastest way from point A to B is a straight line, and Seb dominated the WRC by keeping his car as straight as possible. Suddenly, this philosophy became the ideal way to drive a rally car, and once they all caught on, the teams designed their cars to achieve this. All of a sudden, everyone was going faster, but it didn’t look nearly as cool.
I’ll be honest, if I’m standing alongside a stage and watch a rally car go past, the difference between 210 and 250 kph isn’t what is going to make me say WOW! To the naked eye, they both look plenty fast. What is going to take my breath away is how the car looks and sounds. Take for example the notorious Group B cars. What did we love about those monsters? They were fast, yes, but it was the sound and appearance of those cars that stirred our souls. When one of those beasts came into view around a corner, they looked and sounded spectacular. Even going around a hairpin at slow speed those cars gave us goosebumps. They could have had just a bit less horsepower and down-force, and they still would have been spectacular. Another example is the MK2 Escort. Is it fast over the length of a stage compared to modern cars? Not at all! But I still love seeing those cars sliding all over with their engines screaming as the drivers try to find any bit of grip. To me, that’s spectacular!
I find the most worrisome aspect of the 2017 rules to be the down-force combined with increased horsepower. The popular counter argument to the horsepower increase of the 2017 WRC cars is that the advances in down-force and mechanical grip will keep the cars safe. I’m afraid that the exact opposite will actually be the case. If the increased horsepower is combined with higher down-force levels, the cars will be going through the corners at far higher speeds than before. It has been often discussed that kilometer for kilometer, the current WRC cars are faster over a stage than the notorious Group B cars. How is this possible? It is because that with the today’s anti-lag, suspension, and differential technology, the cars are able to carry higher average speeds over the length of a stage. Time is being made up in the corners instead of the straights, and here lies the real problem. Because of the momentum that is carried through the turns, when crashes occur, they are happening at far sharper angles and higher speeds. In addition, it is the increased grip that is keeping these cars neat and tidy through the turns which doesn’t look particularly spectacular. Maybe taking away some of that grip will keep the speeds of the cars in check while making them look a whole lot cooler.
Before I sound like I am down on all the FIA’s proposed rule changes, let me applaud them for their efforts to make the cars look distinct and memorable. Because I love rallying so much, I can still find some interest in the current generation of cars, but to the average viewer, they all appear quite bland. The proposed changes to the appearance of the cars are definitely a positive step in the right direction. (As long as they don’t look like the rendering released on the website last week!) However, I’m afraid that making the cars faster is only going to cause problems without making the WRC any more spectacular. The things that make rallying spectacular are the appearance, sound, and behavior of the cars on the stages, not their outright pace. I’ll leave you with this thought: Ken Block didn’t amass 76 million views on YouTube by driving around San Francisco quickly. He did it by sliding around and looking cool. I’m not asking the WRC to turn into Gymkhana, but maybe there’s more to the concept of spectacular than just pure speed.