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Ah, WRC. A personal favorite of ours. There’s just nothing quite like rallying – the precision, engineering, and fluid motions involved. And while there are many different formats of rallying as a sport (with Rallycross seemingly becoming more and more popular), WRC is generally seen as the pinnacle of all time-trial-based versions of this sport.
The WRC is the World Rally Championship. It is crucially different from most motorsports. This is in terms of the tracks that the cars race on, and the make-up of the car. In Formula 1, you are basically watching multi-million dollars-worth of a machine, that is closer to a fighter jet than the SUV sat on your driveway, race around a perfectly polished state-of-the-art track. However, with WRC, it’s a little different.
The cars built for racing in WRC are based on the chassis of their road-going little brother, with more standard engines. The “tracks” (called “stages” in WRC) are quite simply cordoned off sections of roads, country roads, fields, and so on. This means that they are full of imperfections, harsh bumps, unpredictable road conditions, and have more potential for surprises to be thrown in the driver’s way.
A Quick Overview
WRC was founded in 1973. For many years before this time, rallying had become a popular sport, but they were all individual events. There was no organizing body to bring them all together in one championship. Enter: the World Rally Championship.
The World Rally Championship literally takes place across the whole world. There are many different events held around the world, from South America to China, Europe, and Great Britain to Australia. The snow-covered stages of Sweden provide a stark contrast to the muddy country roads of Wales. The gravel roads of Australia are also completely different from the asphalt roads of Monte Carlo.
Each rally event is made up of many individual smaller “stages.” Drivers queue up at the start line of the stage but are released with a few minutes gap in between each car. This, in theory, prevents the drivers from catching each other up, as there is rarely space for an overtake. Rallying is about getting from point A to point B as quickly as you possibly can, but it is a time trial and not a race – in the traditional sense, at least.
Each driver records a time for each individual stage of the rally. These times are all added up across all the stages. Whoever has the fastest time in total when all the stages are complete will win the rally and get points towards the championship.
For the championship, drivers earn points per event. The driver in first place earns 25 points. Second place takes 18 points, and the points go down to tenth place, where the driver will go home with just 1 point. There is also a “Power Stage,” with the top three drivers taking an additional 3, 2, and 1 point each to add to their total.
Track conditions and weather conditions can change halfway through a stage. This is something that the driver must be able to adapt to with sometimes only milliseconds to prepare. The road surface may go from asphalt to straight ice in one corner. Both surfaces require completely different driving styles, depending on the tires chosen at the start of the event. It’s these kinds of reactions that make WRC drivers stand out from the rest.
Of course, these cars aren’t exactly standard road cars, too, but the basics of it are very humble, and if you are fond of working with and tuning your car, you can even build your very own rally car from a standard second-hand vehicle. Unless you have a monster budget, it will not be quite the same as these WRC powerhouses, and it may be a huge headache to try to insure it, but it is possible nevertheless.
WRC cars, in fact, share little with their production counterparts other than the chassis. Every component of the car is changed or upgraded to produce the maximum amount of durability contrasted with the lightest weight possible. When completing a course, cars might regularly go over jumps and drop several meters, so you can imagine that the suspension must be able to cope with this.
Transmissions and clutches must be able to cope with insane forces for several minutes at a time. The hydraulic handbrake, vital for all rally cars, must be installed separately. Roll cages are introduced to keep the driver and his co-driver as safe as possible, with all unnecessary parts of the car being stripped out to keep it as light as physics will allow. And all that is before we even come to look at the engines used in these beasts.
The cars all feature a 1.6-liter straight-4 engine that is mounted transversely. The engine is direct-injection and turbocharged, kicking out 320 bhp to all four wheels. This 320 bhp is achieved using a restrictor. Restrictors limit the amount of air entering the engine simply by only allowing a set amount past. The air restrictors used in WRC measure 36 mm in diameter.
Most curiously, and interestingly, WRC cars are road legal. You might even get overtaken by one of them on your drive to or from the rally event itself. There are almost no other motorsports in the world where this might happen.
Setting Up and Working with WRC Cars
For each event, a WRC car will be set up differently. This means that different tires and suspension setups will be applied. For races on asphalt, for example, you will usually find cars to have low, hunkered-down suspension that allows for better aerodynamics and less body roll. The tires will also be bigger. However, when going to rougher events, the suspension will be softer to accommodate the brutal bumps and jumps, often accompanied by smaller wheels.
Between each stage of an event, a team of four mechanics usually has a limited time to replace broken parts and get the car moving again. This time ranges from 15 – 45 minutes. Each team is only allowed to bring a limited amount of spare parts per car (for example, only 39 tires are allowed per car per event). This serves as a way to balance the playing field, reducing the financial bias that is often seen in so many sports.
If something on the car breaks while on the stage, the team is not allowed to help; it is solely the responsibility of the driver and co-driver to fix these problems themselves. Because of this, it’s not uncommon (in fact, it is actually quite common) to see WRC cars with their drivers and co-drivers pulled over on the side of the road halfway through a stage, jacking up the car to change a wheel as quickly as they can. Because of this, all cars carry some extra parts. This includes items such as hoses and spare wheels, just in case a situation like this arises. Of course, the driver and co-driver also need to be at least somewhat proficient in car mechanics, too, as well as their normal roles.
Scandinavian drivers have traditionally dominated rally events. These men and women have grown up driving on icy dirt roads and, therefore, often have a natural car control that is not found in most areas of the world. However, in recent years, European drivers have won many championships, with French drivers Sebastien Ogier and Sebastien Loeb dominating in the post-2000 era. Between them, these two French drivers won every WRC championship from 2004 to 2018 inclusive.
Other well-known WRC champions that you may have heard of include Colin McRae, Hannu Mikola, Tommi Makinen, Juha Kankkunen, Carlos Sainz, and Ott Tanak, a rising star in WRC who won the most recent championship, in 2019.
This article would be incomplete without mentioning co-drivers. While the driver is responsible for guiding the car in its beautiful dance along the stage, he could not do it without the co-driver. The co-driver has a list of carefully prepared instructions to read out to the driver, to tell him what corners and jumps are coming up, when to brake, and how severe corners are.
The co-driver must maintain focus throughout the whole stage, so they’re not being distracted by anything going on, or the likelihood of crashing is increased substantially. Although they often seem to get none of the credit, they play an essential role in rallying.
To finish up, then, there is nothing quite like WRC. The car control is immense, the concentration levels out of this world, and the speed and power of the cars utterly mesmerizing.
To start watching, you can download the app or search for what channels show it in your country. Unfortunately, it’s currently not shown on any channels in the USA, but the app is still available and well worth the monthly fee. Alternatively, you can always go to watch a rally in person.
Whatever you decide to do, we hope you fall in love with the World Rally Championship in much the same way as we did.