I’ve just had a moment. I have, in the space of two hours, thrown everything I have known, hold dear and love about rallying, right out the window.
Experiences of the past now pale into a sense of insignificance, such is the profound nature of this moment. I have arrived at Rally Legend.
San Marino is a pretty scenic, if rather uninspiring corner of the world. An independent republic within Southern Italy, the nation counts a population of just 34,000. Previously, it had only really crossed into my realm of consciousness due to the lowly nature of their national soccer team. But amongst the impressive castle and narrow streets, the world’s maddest rally has found a home, and I’m shocked it’s taken me so long to get here.
Now in its 17th year, Rally Legend is unique in many ways. Technically, on paper at least, it’s a timed special stage event, but it quickly veers off into a stratosphere of its own. Quickest times count little compared to the show you’ve put on, and everyone is out for a good time. In other words, it’s absolute madness.
The event hasn’t even kicked off as I write this, and already tens of thousands of spectators have crammed into the tiny state to witness the impending madness. Proceedings kicked off on Thursday evening with the ‘Legends Show’, a loosely organised, jaw-dropping reminder of what goes on over here.
Think drifting meets rally and you’re in a reasonable ballpark. Two roundabouts, roughly 300m apart, make up the ‘stage’ for the Legends Show, each end marked with spectators 20 deep at the barriers and lining every inch of ground that counts as a vantage point.
The crowd have favourites, drivers that have gained a reputation as showmen, satisfying the baying mob’s desire for tyre smoke, anti-lag backfires and flames. In complete darkness, the roar of an engine and the flash of headlights signals the approaching machine; hurriedly spectators jump out of the road in a flashback to the wild days of Group B.
Handbrake, rear wheels lock and screech. Bang down a gear, a metallic clink as it engages matched with a wall of revs as the clutch is kicked. Sideways, the throttle modulates to maintain momentum; controlled movements are necessary. Necessity comes from the 5,000 people that stand just inches away. Barriers and hay bales separate excited fans from these fire-breathing, tyre-munching machines. I stand amongst it all, rendered speechless.
The line-up, and action, is unrelenting for nearly two hours. Hyundai Motorsport have given Thierry Neuville free reign in the latest i20 Coupe WRC car, while fellow factory driver Andreas Mikkelsen steers an older i20 WRC. Rally cross is represented by EKS boss Matthias Ekstrom in an Audi S1 RX, while local hero Gigi Galli pilots a Kia RX car. The massive Hungarian crowd go nuts for a trio of incredibly well driven Ladas, while Ireland’s Frank Kelly and a Millington Mk2 Escort seem to get the crowd amped. In the midst of it all is a man by the name of Ken Block.
Of the 20 cars that make up the Legends Show, two garner quite a lot more attention, cheers and delirium than others, all due to the mythical nature of their exploits during Rally Legend events of past. Paola Diana in his Fiat 131 Abarth and Christof Klausner in his flame-spitting Audi Quattro throw their cars about with such abandon that a frenzy ensues with even just a mention of their names over the tannoy system.
The actual rally element of Rally Legend doesn’t get underway for another day, but already this event has reached heights I could never have imagined, and I’ve not even seen the majority of the cars taking part yet.
This is rallying heaven, no question.