It must be the smoke, or the dust, or the race fuel, because I seem to have a pair of eyes that are watering. It’s just gone six in the evening, and I’m having a moment while stood in a field just north of San Marino’s city centre.
The group chat is humming with clips and photos, and all I can respond with is “This is f**king living, folks.” Rally Legend has absolutely blown my mind. The madness all around overloads the brain, and this is only the opening special stage.
The 2023 Rally Legend welcome party the previous evening was an appetite whetter for what lay in store, and yet I could never have imagined I’d ever have an experience quite like that one.
Pausing for a second and soaking it all in, this could have been Monte Carlo in 1986, with all the carnival of colour and drama rallying seems to have confined now solely to grainy online videos. There’s an infectious feeling of anarchy in the air, and each glowing flare and whooshing firework sent skyward only ramps the atmosphere higher.
I make small talk with a stranger, sharing just the language of this wonderful sport that has brought us together in this moment. He cries as well, as do others I pass in the dark as my head torch soars from faces in the crowd to the ground in search of my next solid step through the rutted field. Emotion is being released en masse, and at Rally Legend it almost feels cathartic.Thursday Into Friday
A weekend in San Marino in late October isn’t just about having a moment on a hillside at night surrounded by thousands of others; it’s an opportunity to celebrate absolutely everything that is so incredibly special to rallying and the culture it breeds.
As I’ve already touched on in my first post, Thursday night is merely a Rally Legend appetiser. It was 4:00am by the time I submitted my ‘Legend Show’ piece, such was the buzz and excitement it had sparked within me.
At most rally events, the addition of a few donuts around a roundabout mid-stage feels somewhat cringy or dull. Almost like an attempt by the organisers to add a bit of man-made excitement for the more casual spectators. But when it happens just outside Olympic Park in San Marino at night, it’s nothing short of magic.
Having only had a short sleep – as much as one can when all your subconscious seems to want to process is the crackle of anti-lag – heading into the Rally Village was a chance to soak up the atmosphere of something unique within international motorsport.
For about what seemed like a one-mile radius, any tuft of flat ground was transformed into a makeshift service area. Here, hundreds of competing crews spent an afternoon prepping their machines. Much like the Isle of Man TT, there is plenty of down time within the Rally Legend schedule for teams to ensure their cars are fit and healthy and able to put on a show.
Ever wanted to buy a set of turbo fans for your Lancia Delta S4 from a roadside stall? San Marino is the place!
Wherever you walk, you’re bound to encounter an incoming or exiting rally car at very close range. What makes Rally Legend such an incredible event is just how relaxed and normalised everything like this is.
There are very few physical barriers separating spectators from the cars in the stadium-based parc ferme. It feels like a very Italian take on a Goodwood-style event, but solely for rallying and with very little rules.
There’s something to look at everywhere you turn. Maxi Kit Cars, 2-litre WRC machines, the icons of Group B and Group A goodness – it’s all here.
Lancia Delta Integrales are rarely seen in Irish rallying, but that definitely wasn’t the case in San Marino.
And then there were the Subarus…
2023 marks the 30-year anniversary of the Impreza’s World Rally Championship debut season, and Rally Legend celebrated the milestone in spectacular fashion. In a special paddock within the heart of the service park sat a handful of the most famous Imprezas, all in blue and sporting gold Speedline wheels and a yellow 555 – or ))) – livery.
Amongst them was WRC Impreza royalty. L555 BAT is the car that took Colin McRae and Derek Ringer to the 1995 World Rally Championship title.
The McRae family were at the heart of the Impreza celebration, with Hollie McRae, Colin’s daughter, leading a star-studded panel discussion that I strolled into the middle of thanks to a very welcome tip-off from a friend.
Juha Kankunnen, Jari-Matti Latvala, Andrea Aghini, Nicky Grist and Miki Biasion sat alongside Hollie on stage, but the assembled crowd was full of familiar faces. François Delecour, arguably the most enigmatic character in the last 30 years of rallying, sat next to Dave Richards, the head of Prodrive. Jimmy and Alister McRae, both British champions, mingled with World RX star Kevin Abbring and nine-time FIM Motocross world champion Tony Cairoli.
Nearby sat a trio of rather special Subarus. The ‘Best Impreza’ is the brainchild of Carlo Boroli. Italian firm Best Engineering have built eight restomod iterations of a modern Group A Impreza, each celebrating a historic victory between 1994 and 1996.
Thanks to a very generous walk-around given by one of the mechanics on Sunday evening, I discovered mind-blowing attention to detail. But the most impressive aspect of these cars is the improvements made over the original WRC cars, which makes them approximately 1.3-seconds per kilometer faster on tarmac. These machines are something worth a more in-depth look at in the future.Gods Of The Night
Mental capacity already on overload, it was time to head into the night and the opening ‘I Laghi’ stage. And my god was it insane.
A natural amphitheatre surrounding a quick uphill sequence of corners, the crowds had swollen throughout the day to thousands, all intent on having a good time. As daylight faded, the flares and chainsaws began to appear, providing a feast of noise and colour.
By the time the safety cars had passed, there was a buzz in the air – everyone knew who was due next. Faintly in the wind came the glorious sound of a Millington-powered Fiat 131. Paolo Diana was on his way.
It’s very hard to describe the whole Paolo thing without comparing it to almost religious adoration, but for one weekend a year, the man behind the wheel of the iconic yellow Fiat enjoys an almost god-like status. The crowds go absolutely berserk any time Paolo appears, and he repays the favour with a display of absolutely outrageous driving.
I was ready and waiting for Paolo to appear through the first left-hander, hoping to get a decent shot of him at full oversteer. Having used the power of my media bib to secure a shooting spot halfway between the crowd and the road, I had a clear view.
But when Paolo appears, they appear!
As if from out of nowhere, a wall of fans, lit flares in hand, headed straight for the road. I also take off running – my view will be blocked otherwise – with my eye firmly glued to the viewfinder. This is wild. Through the smoke, the front of Paolo’s Fiat shoots past feet from my face as I swivel to see even more pyrotechnics emerging from what I thought was just trees and shrubbery.
The next few hours are a blur. Shooting almost on autopilot, my brain simply stopped processing what was going on as the darkness was broken with all manner of smoke and fire, and colour and exhaust flames. It was utter magic. I have a cry to myself, sit down for a while in the middle and just try to take it all in.
Eventually, Rally Legend’s organisers see sense and stop the stage, but not until it’s nearly 1:00am. I leave tired, weary, caked in dust and dirt, but wearing the broadest smile I’ve had in quite a while.Letting It All Sink In
Sunday is a bit more poignant. Even before the event started, I knew I wanted to enjoy this day more as a spectator than a photographer.
Irish rallying has had an incredibly tough year, losing a number of competitors in accidents. Many Irish fans headed to Rally Legend to pay tribute to them.
Through the power of Facebook, a long sweeping hairpin on the La Casa stage was transformed into Irish Corner, a point to celebrate our departed heroes, including the irreplaceable Craig Breen who lost his life testing before WRC Croatia in April this year. The road into Irish Corner bore his name and race number.
A Škoda Fabia S2000 adorned in a multitude of Breen’s famous quotes was celebrated unlike anything else – even more than Paolo Diana – when Andrew Fanning and Mike Chen blitzed past with the tri-coloured Irish flag draped out the window.
As things began to wind down, Sunday was also a chance to take on the ultimate test of cardio at Rally Legend and make the climb up to ‘The Legend’, the high-speed finale of this year’s event, set in the industrial estate that borders the Rally Village. In the midday sun, the crews tackled a weaving path through hay bales before launching over the massive mid-stage Pirelli jump.
Car after car received adoration from the crowds, many weary looking after the four-day feast of rallying that they had enjoyed. But for King Paolo, it was a chance to thank those on the banks that continue to make him the largest draw to an event that’s only growing year on year.
You can never get enough jumping rally cars, right?
As the field worked its way through, it felt refreshing to occasionally put the camera down and appreciate the opportunity to see these cars being driven properly.
Leaving San Marino, I felt tired and refreshed in equal measure. The weekend had reminded me just how great car culture can be, and in particular how much its worth setting aside serious competition from time to time and simply enjoying the utter wildness that an event like Rally Legend can throw at you. If you’ve never been, I implore you to make the trip to the world’s fourth smallest country – one which manages to throw world’s biggest and best rallying party.Gallery