5 things we learned about WRC at Rally GB
Is it possible to follow WRC? Are rally fans really complete masochists? Can anyone comprehend the complex rules and regulations? Could WRC rally cars relate in any way to the vehicles you and I drive? And might I fall back in love with a sport that lost its appeal for me after the Group B heydays of the 1980s? These and more questions will probably not be answered in the following discourse.
I spent the weekend at Rally GB in Wales as the guest of the most successful current WRC team – Citroen Racing. The team has 99 WRC wins and 8 manufacturer world titles. Six-time WRC champion Sebastien Ogier returned to Citroen this year and currently sits second in the title race behind Ott Tanak thanks to wins in Turkey, Mexico and Monte Carlo. The WRC Citroen team is third in the manufacturer's series with Hyundai in first and Toyota in second.
With two more rallies to go, at Wales Rally GB Ogier brought his C3 WRC car in third behind Tanak in a Toyota and Thierry Neuville in a Hyundai. But this is not a report on the event, this is about what I learned from revisiting WRC. Let's go.
1 – C3 WRC has only about 100bhp less than a Group B rally car
The C3 WRC starts off with the chassis of the production car, and then of course it's butchered, roll-caged and clothed in a bespoke carbon-fibre body, festooned with wings and splitters and barely resembles the civilian C3 – apart from maybe the door handles!
Four-wheel drive is added along with massive locking diffs, race suspension, a cerametallic twin-disk clutch (I have no idea what that is, but it sounds awesome) and mated to a six-speed sequential and one of only three engines each driver is allowed to use for the entire season.
That's a 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo engine producing 380bhp. Which is only about 100bhp less than some of the monstrous Group B rally cars of the 1980s. The 1985 fire-breathing Lancia Delta S4 put out 480bhp. Of course the C3 must be smaller and lighter than the Delta right? Er no... the Citroen has a 2540mm wheelbase and weighs a minimum of 1200kg. The Lancia had a 2440mm wheelbase and only weighed 890kg.
Regardless, whilst not quite as compelling as the rampant rage of a Group B racer at full chat – defying the laws of nature and making the very Earth shudder – the spectacle of a popping, banging, slithering, grappling, scurrying little C3 setting an eye-popping blistering pace is jaw-droppingly impressive.
2 – C3 WRC suspension is also used in Citroen road cars
Let's talk technology transference – does motorsports help improve your road car? Well, Citroen very kindly lent me a C5 Aircross to drive to and from Wales Rally GB – which worked out cheaper and easier than a train ticket!
This car, along with the C4 Cactus, features suspension with 'Progressive Hydraulic Cushions'. The French marque is famed for its ride quality, but conventional hydraulic suspension can be heavy. This system simply uses two hydraulic stops for rebound and compression, giving the shock absorber more movement to float over bumps and create a 'magic carpet' ride. It also slows down movement to avoid sudden jolts and dissipates the shock of a bump, filtering it out of the cabin.
The suspension was developed on the C3 WRC rally car to cope with the constant battering it experiences over the roughest possible terrain at outlandish speeds. I didn't take the C5 Aircross on any rally stages, but after 500 miles I can confirm my bum was not sore, my back was not aching, and it was a pretty soothing ride.
3 – It can cost €1 million per tyre
Not really – but made you look didn't I? Well actually – that's what it could end up costing a team.
Each car gets allocated 32 tyres and at the end of the rally, even if shredded to slivers of rubber, they must be returned to the supplier, in this case Michelin. For Tarmac tyres, if the team loses one and fails to return it, it could result in a 1 million Euro fine – hence possibly the most expensive piece of rubber in history!
I never understood why people stand around the service areas to watch the cars being worked upon, until now. The teams only get three service opportunities: 15 minutes in the morning which is just to change set-ups and put on the right tyres, based on feedback from reconnaissance crews that have been out since 4am checking the stages, looking at weather forecasts and taking surfaces temperatures.
Then there's a 30-minute midday session and finally a crucial 45-minute slot in the evening – which is when the car has to be patched up from the day's abuses and prepped for the next day. Thing is, these are timed - and there's not only a camera monitoring the mechanics but also a beady-eyed and stern FIA rep in black with a clipboard watching EVERYTHING.
One of the things being observed is who is touching the car – there are only four designated mechanics allowed to touch it at a time - they wear yellow armbands and have to swap them to another mechanic if they take over.
Unsurprisingly when we posed next to Ogier's car for pics, we were warned over and over to make sure we didn't touch the car – oh I was sooooo tempted!
4 – Hybrid and EV rally cars are coming
Oh yes, that's happening – for 2022. But no one is quite sure exactly what it entails because the rules and regulations will only be revealed in December 2019. Considering the C3 WRC started development in 2015 for debut in 2017 that should be cause for concern for team boss, Pierre Budar.
"We need to know the rules and regulations so we can start to develop the car next year," he revealed with a suggestion that it could even dictate if the team continues to compete. "A challenge is the cost of the car, that is why have pushed for common components and software for all the teams, at least to start with.''
He anticipates it will add about 100kg to the car but that they would reduce mass elsewhere by using different materials. Of more interest is how, when and where they could use the extra battery power to gain a strategic advantage – maybe a boost feature during the stages?
During the road sections they may run as full EV cars but Budar reassured me that the noise and drama of the current rally machines would not be lost: 'We will still use the same engine – so in terms of sounds and fun perception, during the stages it will be the same.'
5 – Rallying is the MOST difficult motorsport to follow
Apart from when viewing hypnotic in-car tunnel-vision footage of the incredibly skilled and brave drivers flying down the narrowest of foreboding tree-lined paths, barely in contact with the hardly reassuringly grippy surface at inconceivable speeds, it's really difficult to feel the full fury of a rally car unless you behold it in action in person.
Unfortunately, and particularly in the case of Rally GB, that means traipsing and trudging along muddy paths, with rain spearing at you from an angle generated by unforgiving blustery conditions, only to stand around for hours, shivering in anticipation of a few seconds of the sensational sight and sound of a full-fledged works WRC car flash past. That and the onset of pneumonia.
And that's if you're lucky. It's not unusual for stages to be cancelled without much notice if the conditions take a real turn for the worse, or some spectators persistently get too close to the action, or a stage runs near water and the sea is too choppy for the rescue boat and divers to be on standby should a rally car decide to go for a dip!
So to answer the crucial question: do I feel a rekindling of passion for WRC?
I remain in absolute 'I'm-not-worthy' awe of the unreal driving skills, the awareness and coherence of navigators, the unrelenting dedication and work of the team and the inspiring determination of team principles like Budar.
But as a sport it remains too convoluted and difficult to follow, and the cars just aren't terrifying enough to fire up the imagination – plus you can't buy road-going homologation versions of them that'd we'd all relate too. Who didn't and still doesn't want an Audi ur-Quattro or Delta Integrale?