• The Lens Blog

Why every avid sports fan should watch World Rally Championship

Elfyn Evans driving for M-Sport Ford

I would like to consider myself an avid sports fan given the diverse amount of sport I have played or paid attention to since my interception with it during childhood. Right from my earliest experience of sport aged seven when I started martial arts for the first time; through to the nearing 20 years devotion of giving up my summer weekends to cricket; and now the more gentle of them all in comparison. Leisurely sitting in a camping chair in a wet, damp Welsh forest for a weekend. Just to witness to 3-4 seconds worth of thrill in watching the world's most stupendous human beings, drive a small hatchback family vehicle around said forests at incredibly high speeds. Those said forests by definition are bedraggled mud tracks from weeks upon weeks of a typical sodden British autumn, that would make the narrow laneways of downtown Beijing look like the autobahn of Germany.

Wales Rally GB 2018 - SS16 Sweet Lamb Hafren

Now just for that 3-4 seconds worth of entertainment, you’re probably wondering why you would even bother slumming it under a piece of tarpaulin all weekend in the pouring down rain. With no gas left the next day to make a coffee, for using it all the night before for heating. And remarkably sodden feet for 48 hours because some bright spark thought trainers were the correct footwear, for the already previously explained saturated location. Well … it's in order to grab footage like this!

You’re probably still confused, as the video to you just looked like a really fast car driving past. As if it was your Domino's delivery driver on his way with your order because he’s running a little bit late. It’s time to be proved wrong, and here is why! Lets just cover off the video footage you just saw for a start. Captured as the first car through the stage on a Saturday morning, after a restless night's sleep camping next to the stage. Only to be woken up 3 hours early by the safety marshall to clear our stuff away. It all becomes worthwhile when you hear those burbling engines in the distance at the start of the stage several kilometes away. I remember back at my first rally back in 2017 and constantly thinking that the car was coming around the corner any second; only for the sound to get louder and louder but with no signs of a vehicle appearing. Then eventually after several minutes of anticipation, getting your first glimpse as it turns the final corner from your viewing spot (of which fans spend months planning to find the perfect locale from previous years footage). Before you hear nothing but a screaming engine revving through gears, like he is going to run out of road before hitting its top speed which can be 130 mph by the way! Before you know it the car has been and gone, but not before it has left your heart racing with an adrenaline that from experience, I can only compare to skydiving from 15,000 feet from an aeroplane. Might seem quite the elaborate comparison but when you think about it … there is a reason to why people don’t casually stand at the side of a motorway watching cars drive past at 70 mph from the central reservation.

Wales Rally GB 2017 - SS8 Aberhirnant

Now all this might still seem a bit foreign to your avid sports fan, so it’s time to give you some perspective of why these world renowned drivers are nothing short of heroic. To fully understand the extremities of the conditions throughout the rally, distance plays a vital role. Just the competitive stages of the British leg of the Championship in Wales totals to 320 km. That’s the equivalent of driving from Manchester to London, on not such equivalent roads. British public car owners make this journey everyday, but what they don’t do is average near to 100 mph from door to door whilst they make that journey. In addition to the competitive elements of a rally, drivers will cover another 1000 km of driving between each stages and the service depot for repairs and maintenance. In total the equivalent of driving from Dundee, Scotland to Paris, France. Granted, not all in one journey but when you take into account the speeds they average within a stage of the rally. It makes your voyage around the south coast of Cornwall during the half-term holidays look like a sedated jolly on a bicycle.

Expanding on my references to the speed of these vehicles, I have trailed YouTube for what I believe to be the best video to give the best perspective of how fast they truly go. When all things are considered, it begs you to try and believe how this sport is even possible. As it’s not like other motorsports like Formula 1 when they take a pit stop if the rain gets too heavy, they race in every weather condition and terrain. It’s not like SuperGP where they have a nicely paved tarmac road, they change the tyres each time to suit the conditions of the stage. Most importantly, it’s not like drag racing on a closed airport field. They hit jumps, turns and obstacles such as log stacks inches away from the side of the road at 100 mph. Speed of which could only ever be authorised at a WRC rally as it would be illegal on any public roads. Anything in my mind that attracts hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide to witness something that would be so highly illegal in any other circumstance, should spark enough curiosity as it is.

Sport by definition requires a level of skill alongside physical exertion, whilst competing against another be that as an individual or a team. So by now you have surely conceded that WRC is undoubtedly a skill. So to supplement my suggestion of why you should start watching WRC as a motorsport, by definition I will diverse the remaining physical exertion and competing elements.

Have you ever had one of those car journeys that by the time you get out the car, you feel like you have just done 12 rounds with Anthony Joshua? You know the one, you had it all planned out. The best time to set off so you can beat the traffic, just to find out Debra on her way home from pilates got a flat tyre on the far outside lane of a motorway. Bringing the whole motorway to a standstill for 25 miles on a busy bank holiday Monday, when everyone's on their way back from the school holidays in August. Where a nice simple two hour journey, turns into a horrendous eight hour nightmare that feels like it will never end. So imagine how you felt all those times you’ve ever felt like that rolled into one, and then probably times it by 10. That’s how they must feel after each and every day of a four day rally, of which there are fourteen rallys in a championship season.

Wales Rally GB 2018 - SS16 Sweet Lamb Hafren

The performance training these drivers undertake during non-racing days comes from an array of activities, such as twelve hour mountain biking sessions through the same forest trails they would soon be competing over in the coming days. Interval training by in large is an indispensable part of their endurance master plans, as inside of the car during a stage it can reach a sweltering 70 degrees celsius (hotter than any extreme conditions countries have seen around the world). Their hearts are beating expeditiously at 150-170 bpm for every stage, conforming to the same peak fitness levels of a professional footballer in the Premier League. Over 25 minutes drivers will complete a 35 kilometer stage by being able to focus under such oppressive conditions, an equally important component for not only completing the stage crash and injury free, but in such a competitive manner against all the other drivers.

Finally, the importance of posture and strength as the 2016 season brought to a close the era of the previous classification of WRC cars. Nowadays rallying machines yield in excess of 380 bhp with a reduced weight of 25 kg to provoke higher speeds with incredibly powerful downforce on the stage. Such downforce where training strength in the darklit backroom of a gym with heavy barbells and steroid ridden community of spotters is a distant fantasy. Instead they are building muscular endurance in muscle groups such as necks and legs that most lumbering gym junkies forget they have (probably due to training biceps for the fourth time that week). Reason being for when freak occurrences such as power steering fails at top speeds of 100 mph, and for fear their roll cage collapsing during a major crash - they have the strength to counterbalance the wheel when required to help minimise the crash (as crashing becomes inevitable at that speed, just like Thierry Neuville’s commitment unveiled in Chile this year).

Please take note that these mechanical changes came at a time when safety was becoming only a slight concern of the event promoters. When in comparison to the previous Group B category vehicles were at times, outperforming the top level WRC cars. Since resulting in modifications that made the car better in stability and handling, whilst being able to offer continuous turbo charged power of 15,000 revs at any given second during a stage. Engendering quicker and safer lap times that encapsulates the ever growing annual audiences of millions around the world. And if that is not enough, let's just quickly digress the competitive element of rallying and how they are competed for on a bi-fold level; individually as the driver and co-driver compete for the fastest times on each stage for the glory of winning the overall rally. And collaboratively as a manufacturing team such as Ford, Citroen or Hyundai. Where each team are an alliance in ensuring they are tactically astute in what they are trying to achieve for the stage, rally and overall championship at any time of asking. So when you think of this sport in the future, don’t just think it’s as easy as turning your Audi S3 to sport mode and popping down your local Tesco Express to replace the milk that has just run out.

This year marks my third adventure into the Welsh wilderness and has since my first encounter, become a not so laborious annual excursion for me and my friends to attend. No matter how many times I will attend this event in future years, the feeling you are left with after seeing that first car of the day pelting it past will never perish. Neither will my admiration for these motorists and their passion of driving, for what most everyday passionate car enthusiasts could only ever begin to comprehend achieving in their own small family hatchback vehicle.