Street stages, spectator stages, super-special stages… whatever you decide to call them, they all tend to have the same characteristics. Usually they are tight, narrow, slow, lined by concrete walls, and fairly uninspiring. The layouts on most of these stages don’t really do justice to the abilities of either the car or the crew. In addition, the risk/benefit balance of these stages mean that most of the time, the crews aren’t really pushing that hard. None of the drivers want to make fools of themselves on the very first stage of a rally. As a result, I find myself watching these stages more to justify the money I spend on WRC+ instead of any real interest in the rallying “action”. Yes, I understand that these stages are necessary to make rallying a bit more accessible and to bring the sport to the masses. However, let’s be honest and admit that most of the time, these stages deliver a very neutered version of an otherwise spectacular form of motor sport.
So, it was with some apathy that I switched on my PC after a long shift in the hospital and began to watch the replay of SS1. I realize that this stage was run last year as well, but at that time, I did not have WRC+ and was unable to watch it live. Consequently, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I anticipated the same “Micky Mouse” stuff that I had seen on other spectator stages. However, as I watched Juho Hanninen slide his way through as the first car, I began to experience a very unfamiliar feeling when watching these street stages in the past… actual, legitimate interest!
First of all, this stage had a little bit of everything. The surface changes are what made it truly stand out from the other street stages. I’ll concede that the damp roads may have made it a bit more interesting, but the tricky transitions from tarmac to gravel and then back again really put up a challenge to the crews. As more cars passed and pulled gravel onto the square left corner leading back onto the tarmac, it became increasingly difficult for the drivers to keep their cars tidy. Secondly, this stage threw up all kinds of different corners. There were hairpins and junctions like other street stages, but there were also some faster and more flowing sections through the woods. As a result, you could actually see very clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the different cars and drivers as they passed through. For example, it seemed like a few of the Fiesta’s got bogged down coming out of the slow hairpins while the other cars appeared to skip away without a moment’s hesitation. Seeing these differences in how the cars performed really held my interest through the entire (re)live broadcast. The last thing that really captured my attention was the real risk to be found in this stage. If you looked at the edge of the road there were ruts, rocks, and even a few trees! Did you notice how close Hayden Paddon got to that rock at the apex around 40 seconds into his run? That sure made me hold my breath for just a moment! Even though it was only a few KM’s long, this stage required full commitment and concentration from start to finish.
All these factors made SS1 of Rally Finland quite a pleasant surprise for me. I know that some other rallies aren’t as fortunate to have a flowing stretch of gravel road sitting right in the middle of their host city. However, maybe other events could still learn a thing or two from the Rally Finland organizers. If it’s done right, the opening spectator stage doesn’t have to be a predictable formality. Watching a WRC car spin doughnuts around a barrel doesn’t do justice to how spectacular rallying really is. The stage may have been short, but in those 2.7 kilometers of Harju, the spectators were exposed to REAL rallying, and at the end of the day, that’s exactly what the spectator stages were meant to do.
Just for fun, what spectator stage do you think is the best in the WRC at this moment? I’ll narrow it down to 4 for you to choose from. Leave a comment below or on Twitter, I’m really curious!
A: The WRC cars on the Monaco Grand Prix Circuit (Rally Monte Carlo)
B: The tunnels of the Guanajuato street stage. (Rally Mexico)
C: The tricky changing surfaces of Harju (Neste Rally Finland)
D: The cars passing in front of the Font màgica de Montjuïc (RACC Rally Spain)