FACTORY RALLY TEAMS HOT IN EUROPE
by Larry Roberts
July 10, 1998
Once a week, I get a multi-page fax from Ford in which is detailed the company's happenings in motorsports. Most of them describe Ford's ongoing involvement in CART, NASCAR, Formula One and NASCAR Craftsman Truck racing but occasionally there's a brief mention of international auto rallying. Like soccer, it's a professional sport that is popular all over the world - except in the U.S.
And like all motorsports, pro rallying is a race, but in this case the adversary is time. Like Formula One Grand Prix racing, the 13 world- championship pro rallies are governed by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) and are run under strict rules. They are organized in "stages" over everyday roads in several countries and many factories (including Subaru and Toyota as well as Ford and Mitsubishi) are very involved. The win by Finland's Tommi Makinen in his factory Mitsubishi a few months ago in Cordoba, Argentina guaranteed a spurt in sales for Mitsubishi dealers all over the world - except here.
Each international rally has to be run on a single type of surface (the Argentine event was on gravel, for instance) but it's not continuous miles. The event in Cordoba was held over a three-day period in 23 stages for a total of just over 900 miles. Each stage was made up of several special high speed sections and the time it took a driver to run through each special stage was accrued to get the total stage time. Between each special stage there were low-speed "connector" road sections which weren't counted in the overall time, since the special high-speed portions were run in closed roads. The reason behind running these events on a single type of surface is to eliminate the need for changing suspensions, engines, gear ratios and tire types between each event during the three-day time period.
A vehicle "team" has a driver and a co-driver, and pre-running of the selected rally stages and map-making is allowed seven days before each event. Teams are allowed three passes at each stage. During the race, no outside assistance is allowed between back-to-back special stages, so if anything goes wrong, the driver and co-pilot have to effect a field-fix before continuing. Pit stops for outside help are allowed only before the start of odd-numbered stages.
Cars are categorized by performance potential and are broken up into three classes; World Rally Car class, Group A and Group N. Within each category, cars are sorted by engine displacement into sub-categories and the limitations that are applied to each category (such as performance-equalizing turbo restrictors, etc) are set by the FIA.
High-speed rallies take place on normal, everyday roads and the specially-constructed racers involved in rallying loosely resemble their showroom counterparts much like NASCAR Winston Cup racers do their Pontiac, Chevrolet and Ford namesakes. This "there goes my car!" visual association by spectators contributes to the sport's popularity.
In my video library I have a British-made tape labeled "Greatest Auto Crashes" and most of the tumultuous tumbles involve single cars rolling into the trees on gravel or dirt road rallies put on by the FIA in Europe. This action too may have something to do with its popularity around the world.
In the distant past, an FIA rally in this country was included on the international calender but that was many years ago. Now the closest thing here is the seven-event SCCA Pro Rally circuit which is fast and furious but like soccer, it just doesn't have the universal appeal of its closed-circuit, fender-to-fender U.S. counterparts.
Unless you're willing to travel to Australia, Sweden, Great Britain or any of the FIA rally locations around the world, you won't be able to see international rallying unless one happens to show up on an odd-ball TV sports show. If you do, you'll probably join other viewers who, for the most part, consider pro rallying organized mayhem.