We preach rally safety a lot here on World Rally Blog, and we will continue to do so as long as people keep doing silly things. However, at times, there’s being safe, and then there’s going a bit too overboard. I’m afraid that we saw this today on the Chirk Castle spectator stage on Wales Rally GB. In defense of the MSA, the tragic events on the 2014 Jim Clark Rally are still fairly fresh in the memory. With that in mind, I hesitated to write this piece, and I don’t want to be too harsh on the organizers. However, I couldn’t help but feel that from the TV camera angles on the broadcast, it looked like the spectator areas were excessively far away from the stage. In addition, several locations required the spectators to peer through trees and fences to catch a glimpse of the cars. After watching the live telecast of SS13, I would have to say that if I were there spectating, I would have been sorely disappointed.
There are several factors at play here that bring me to this conclusion. First of all, the type of stage being run needs to be considered. The Chirk Castle stage is a far cry from the ultra fast and flowing roads in the Welsh forests. It is a fiddly spectator stage where I doubt the cars reached much over 100kph at any point during the stage. The road was lined by bales and featured two artificial chicanes to keep the speeds down. There were very few opportunities for a high-speed accident on this short stage. With this in mind, on the “safer” areas of the stage such as straight sections and the insides of corners, did the spectators really need to be kept that far away? In addition, on a short stage like this, spectator control is much easier than on a long forest stage. There were plenty of marshals to address any issues in real time. On top of that, the marshals while still standing in safe locations were far closer to the stage than the general public. I felt like this was a bit of a double-standard that would have left a very sour taste in my mouth if I were there in person.
Secondly, this is not the first time that the Chirk Castle stage has been run. It was used in 2013 and 2014, and in those years, the spectators were allowed to move up to the fences that lined the straight sections of the road. Nobody did anything silly and like this year, there were plenty of marshals on location to direct spectators and address any issues. What has changed in 2015 that now makes this unsafe? I’m afraid that it’s not the layout of the stage itself, but instead, the context of recent events that has caused this reaction from the organizers.
Lastly, Wales Rally GB is one of the few WRC rallies that charges admission and requires tickets to spectate rally stages. On the website, the price for admission for the Chirk Castle stage was 25 GBP. Now, I understand that with that ticket came more than just a rally stage. Before the WRC came through, the spectators did get to see some historic cars and stunt drivers. In addition, if the weather had been better, there was going to be an airshow for them to enjoy as well. However, despite all of those extras, if I had paid for a ticket for an accessible spectator stage, I would have expected a much better view of the rally cars.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the reasons why the MSA is being extra careful with this rally. In the greater context of all that has happened in the world of rallying over the past year, the organizers can be forgiven for being careful. However, if spectators are going to be charged admission prices to stand in the cold and wet and watch a fairly uninspiring rally stage, they perhaps deserve a bit better than what they got at Chirk Castle today. What do you think? I’m curious if anyone was actually there today. Maybe I’m wrong… were the vantage points better than they appeared on TV? I understand that this is a touchy topic, but I fear that sometimes, with the good intentions of safety comes the unintended consequence of neutering of the experience of the spectators. It is a difficult to find the right balance, but in the end, when it comes to rally safety, common sense needs to prevail… on both ends of the spectrum.