I hope everyone else is as excited as I am about WRC coverage coming to Speedhunters! One of my favorite things about working for this site is getting dropped into unfamiliar territory and trying to figure out not only how to shoot a new type of event, but also trying to figure out the rules, regulations and car specifications. They say variety is the spice of life, and for me this is never more apparent than when I cover a new event for the first time!
That said, it’s not always all fun and games and with WRC I found that it is actually an extremely difficult event for a first timer. There are lots of trade secrets and tips and tricks that I discovered along the way and I ended up learning so much that I wanted to share some of my discoveries with you guys in hopes of making your first WRC experience more pleasurable.
Now of course this is only going to be a survey of one, taken by me at one rally event – so I’m by no means and expert and I’m sure not all rallies are created equal, but I’m sure much of this information should carry over to any event. I’m also hoping that some of you hardcore experienced WRC fans will also share some of your tips with the readers below in the comments section; together I hope we can create the ultimate “beginner’s guide to WRC!”
So for starters, there’s this funny looking folder that is given to all the media people. Inside it contains a lot of pertinent information about the event, including some brief car and driver specs and other miscellaneous tidbits. But there’s one thing inside here that is extremely important…
Maps! Since a rally occurs over many many miles/kilometers and the stages are very spread out, it’s critical that you have maps to tell you where to go and when to be there. In the case of Mexico, none of the stages were marked by public signboards, so it was a real task finding the stages even with the help of the maps, but without these you might as well give up.
So that’s all fine and dandy, but what if you aren’t a member of the media? Well, in that case you can purchase one of these fan guides, which actually contains even more information than the press versions. I’m not sure what these normally cost, but whatever the price, it’s unquestionably worth it.
The maps inside the fan guide are even laid out in color! If you’re attending a rally pretty much anywhere other than the city you live in, this is an absolute must-have item and it also makes a pretty cool souvenir.
There’s also more good information like this guide to rally etiquette overviewing dos and don’ts. You’d be amazed how many times #5 was broken in Mexico!
In yesterday’s story, I mentioned that a good spot for the public to get some shots of the cars is on their way out of Parc Ferme for the early morning transit. Here you can get right up next to the car and get some pretty cool shots of them on public roads.
However, if you time it just right, this is also an opportunity to stage your car ahead of the start and follow the cars in route to the next stage. If you plan it out properly you can get some pretty cool shots, like the opening image I took of Ken Block… but beware, the cars can and will make erratic movements and can prove very tricky to follow!
You’ll definitely want to expect to spend a lot of time driving to and from stages, in fact you’ll probably end up driving more than watching, but that’s just a part of rally. In some cases certain stages are ran multiple times in one day and people will often camp out in one spot, but where’s the fun in that!?
It’s probably a very good idea to get an off-road-capable rental car and FULL INSURANCE if you’re going to be venturing out into the sketchy stages. Be prepared for some extremely gnarly and dangerous roads, and also remember that however hairy the stage routes are – the access roads will be even more treacherous.
Since this was a gravel rally, there were plenty of times where visibility was cut to zero if we were following another car. If there is a whole group of cars in front of you, be prepared to slow down and add some gap if you don’t want to plummet off a cliff!
Here’s an example of just one of the roads we had to drive down to get to a good vantage point. I shot this on day one thinking that this was pretty extreme, but by the end of the weekend I realized that this was actually one of the more civilized routes!
You can also anticipate getting to places where you might get stuck. Actually, some of the best spots I’ve found are the ones that are the hardest to get to because it eliminates all but the most determined spectators. The harder to get to, the better to be at!
On the morning of the second day we saw a grim reminder of just how dangerous these roads can be. While I missed the shot in the morning due to my camera being packed away, this photo from the return trip in the afternoon depicts the remnants of a car that rolled off the cliff and the pieces left behind after it was excavated from the hillside. Scary stuff, please be cautious!
Once you find a suitable place to park, you’ll need to be ready for some pretty sketchy hiking conditions as well. This was one of the more casual areas, hence why I could stop and shoot a frame, but you’ll definitely want to be wearing appropriate footwear suitable for being on your feet for several hours.
This is the view of a problem we encountered a lot in Mexico – returning from a stage only to find that we had been blocked in by careless spectators. All it takes is one car to block in hundreds of others, so I’d issue a warning to be prepared for this to happen and also please don’t be bone-headed enough to block in others yourself.
Sometimes you just have to be resourceful and try to figure out a solution to move cars out of your way. Where there’s a will and enough man power, there’s usually a way. Oftentimes others will come to help if they see you’re in a pickle, all part of the rally brotherhood I suppose!
Even when there isn’t anyone directly blocking you, the passageways can become pretty slim. We discovered that a Suburban is about the maximum sized car you can reasonably expect to take through rally access roads.
Seriously glad I wasn’t driving!
In retrospect, I think that the best thing to do (if you can afford the luxury) is to show up a week or so ahead of the event to scout out the stages ahead of time. This is precisely what the rally drivers do when they make their notes and refer to the process as reconnaissance or “recce” for short. The Volvos above are vehicles supplied by M-Sport for the Ford drivers to do their runs in and are equipped with hydraulic hand brakes, rally tires and bucket seats. Too cool.
If all else fails, you can always regroup and intercept the cars at service and/or Parc Ferme. At various points throughout the rally and at the beginning and end of each day, the cars can be found here.
Parc Ferme is French for “closed park” and this is where the cars must be stored and guarded when they aren’t either running a stage or being serviced. While the cars are stored here they cannot be worked on or even touched by anyone. If this rule is broken, even by a drunken spectator jumping the fence, the driver(s) whose car(s) were affected will be penalized.
The service bays are another area where spectators can get up close to the cars and drivers, but it’s a bit of a madhouse! If you want a shot at getting close to the action you really need to arrive at least thirty-minutes or more before the cars start coming in.
Once opened up in the service bay, it becomes even more apparent what a staggering piece of equipment the modern rally car has become. Obviously what they are capable of doing out on the stages is phenomenal, but how they’re designed to be torn down and put back together so rapidly is an engineering feat all its own.
Depending on a number of factors which I don’t fully understand (probably length of stages etc) the cars are given a set amount of time for repairs that varies between 30-45 minutes. In this amount of time, most of us would be lucky to get much done at all, but these guys can change everything from engines and gearboxes to entire body panels and all four corners of footwork in those precious minutes.
In addition to having a state-of-the-art-modular-car, it also takes lots of practice and a very organized work space to make massive repairs in such a short amount of time. Here we see one of the most anal-retentive of service bays belonging to, surprise, the Germans from Volkswagen.
Everything is cleaned and prepped, patiently awaiting the car’s arrival. After the service is hustled through, all the damaged pieces are discarded, the workspace and tools cleaned and everything goes back in its place to be used again in the future.
But to be honest, every workspace is amazingly well organized. Since I was embedded with the M-Sport operation for this rally I got a pretty good look behind the scenes and I have to admit that even as a former mechanic, the logistics behind servicing this many cars and moving that many parts and tools all around the world makes my brain hurt!
In most forms of racing you’ll often hear drivers crediting a win to their crew team, but I don’t think this could ever be more evident than in rally. Sure, they’re not doing pitstops in 2.5 seconds like in Formula One, but they’re also changing out half a car at a time, not just four tires!
The amount of spares required to do racing this brutal is almost hysterical. In virtually all forms of racing you’d expect to require at least four spares for any given part over the course of a weekend, but in rally I’d imagine you’ll need twice that or better.
Container after container is carrying spare everything, shocks, clutches, gear sets, differentials, body panels, brakes and more. It’s almost unfathomable how many components are on hand.
Then once the event is over, the parts are all examined and the good pieces get packed back up while the rest are literally thrown away. At one point I was discarding an empty water bottle and saw a throttle body that must have been worth several hundred dollars in the same garbage can. Mental.
Something else that stuck me as being quite unique to rally is the camaraderie amongst all the drivers and co-drivers. It almost seemed more like they were all participating in a non-competitive sport with a vibe similar to that of childhood skate sessions I used to have with my friends.
Perhaps this is due to the non-wheel-to-wheel nature of rally, but it was really cool seeing everyone hanging out and chatting pretty much anytime the cars were at rest. I would guess they aren’t exactly sharing pace notes or giving away secrets to stages, but nevertheless, I’ve can’t recall having seen this much interaction between competitors in world-class racing.
I guess in a way it probably helps pass the time too, since there does seem to be a lot of standing around and waiting involved in rally. It was actually pretty neat getting to talk with some of the drivers like Ken Block between stages over the course of the weekend, something I’ll discuss a little more tomorrow. It’s definitely a very different atmosphere compared to the other forms of motorsport I’m accustomed to and something I look forward to investigating further.
But as cliche as it might sound, if I had to pick a favorite component of WRC Leon it would have to be the human experience. I’ve never before been so blown away by the fans at an event as I was down in Mexico. These are good people who are genuinely excited and passionate about motorsport and also some of the kindest and most grateful I’ve ever met.
I cannot believe that some of these people would make the same dangerous trek we made to come out and see a few cars running down a gravel trail. But they do it with a smile and bring their whole family, enjoying motorsport as it should be. There were numerous occasions where I would make my way down to a stage and have people, like the family seen here, offering me food and drink.
I know it might sound a little crazy, but that weekend in Mexico restored some of my faith in humanity. It was really charming to return to a place where people are going to see motorsport for pure enjoyment, not to show off how much money they have by purchasing a VIP box suite over start/finish and spending the entire weekend on their phone. These are real motorsport fans.
It’s around people like these that I feel the most alive. For the first time in a long while I felt like a kid again, completely overcome by the sense of wonderment. If this is how most rallies are, I cannot wait to go back and see another. If you’re like me and you’ve been putting off going to see a WRC event until now, I can’t encourage you enough to go out and see it in person. It will change your life. I guarantee it.