Could Rallycross Be The Future Of Our Favorite Sideways Sport?
City to city road races were taking place in Europe as early as the tail end of the 19th century, and considering that dedicated circuits were still a ways away from their first pavings, this was the predominant format for early motorsport, and so it can said that rallying has existed since the earliest days of racing. The fledgling form of competition at the turn of the century saw drivers setting off from one city and finishing in another, departing in sequence one after another at timed intervals, and often along routes made up of gravel and other surfaces that were less than smooth. What I’m getting at is that these first races were for all intents and purposes, rallying. Before the first dedicated race tracks were built across western Europe, racing and rallying were one and the same.
Longer endurance events were also popular in this early era, with the idea being much the same, but with distances that might span multiple countries. Yes, you can hop across a few borders in a day driving around in modern Europe, but imagine the speeds from a century ago and this becomes a much more grueling journey. All serious motorsport is a physical test of the driver, and the level of fatigue that beset the pioneers of the sport as they herded their cars across the continent must have been immense—no team radio, no fleet of mechanics tracking your progress, not much at all in terms of backup. And nothing in the way of self-preservation either, save for a set of goggles and gloves and a good luck kiss goodbye.
Although the term would be launched into the popular lexicon by events like the Monte Carlo Rallye (which in 1911 became the first race to include the word “rallye” in its name), the first event was arguably the 1894 race from Paris to Rouen. The point-to-point format was popular for reasons of necessity of course (remember, not many circuits would be built for years to come), and it offered a great challenge to the pilots of the early racing cars, for they would not only have to master their machines, but deal with the changing and unpredictable environments they faced along the way. Just as in modern rallying, success demanded a great deal of adaptability and the occasional roadside repair when that wasn’t enough. Dodging errant dogs and paying careful attention to the route were necessities to those who would rather avoid sailing through the local bakery’s plate glass storefront, and considering that the earliest rallies were half-race, half-display of motoring elegance, crashing was not the ideal way to participate. The official criteria for winning was not in fact finishing first, but as quoted from the newspaper that organized the Paris-Rouen, it was to be awarded to the team whose vehicle best embodied the “[being] easy to operate for the competitors without any danger and not too expensive to run.”
As with most things from the period, the two world wars interrupted the progress of rallying, though the discipline still developed enough in the intervening years such that the 1950s were ripe for a new phase in the sport’s evolution. Different championships began cropping up in the wake of WWII, most notably the first European Rally Championship, held in 1953 for the first time. At this stage, industry was again broadly focused on the wants of consumers as opposed to the requirements of war, and the automobile sector saw a rising production of compact and affordable and sometimes sporty products, many of which would enter competition from the likes of privateer rally teams and factory efforts alike. Manufacturer support was never very strong though, and it waned considerably as the city to city races became increasingly dangerous at increasingly faster speeds. This attitude washed over most of continental Europe, and the sport was banned in many countries in the ‘50s and ‘60s as a result of sustained accidents; sending streams of racers down public roads through cities unfamiliar to them turns out to have its consequences. The sport survived in Scandinavia though, and northern Europe would soon become the hub of modern rallying, and the long enduro-rallies like the East Africa Safari were still seeing strong competition as well.
The nearly yearlong covering of snow and slush made countries like Finland fertile ground for the creation of rally champions (look through any season’s results and you’ll find plenty of -sons and -sens and Sébastiens in the top spots), and the long scribbles of logging roads and other unpopulated routes through the countryside made it the perfect location for the genesis of the sport in its premiere form: the WRC. In 1973, the World Rally Championship was officially held for the first time, and it is then that we begin seeing the cars that are now embedded in rallying lore. Cars like the Mini, the Volvo PVs and 122s, and the Saab 96 were very popular of course, but moving into the meat of the ‘70s brought about a new breed of exotic and purpose-built cars like the incomparable Lancia Stratos.
Notable years from this period are 1979, which saw the addition of a driver’s championship in addition the constructor’s title, and more importantly 1981, which would be the first year that all-wheel drive Audis would appear in the WRC lineup. Hannu Mikkola would put the Audi Quattro on a few podiums in its debut season, and if these performances didn’t prove the effectiveness of all-wheel drive to the initial skeptics, the 1982 season surely did.
After just one year of the Audi Quattro, the writing was clearly on the wall even if the car didn’t win right away: you needed to drive all four wheels to stay competitive in the future (unless of course you had an 037, which stayed competitive long after most rear-wheel drives). 1982 was the first year that the rules adopted the now-infamous Group B regulations, and the short span from ’82 to ’86 would witness a surge of engineering advancement the pace of which hasn’t been seen since. Driving sideways through the woods was never the safest way to race, but the progress in forced induction and all-wheel drivetrains invoked a degree of speed and subsequent risk that was just unsustainable. We’ve all seen the videos of muddy Sport Quattros parting crowds into rows of reaching hands as they split the middle in a display of chirping wastegates and expelled flames, and in hindsight it’s actually kind of remarkable that the rules allowed this for as long as they did.
Group B rallying would bring with it some of the best competition in addition to the spectacle of the individual cars, and teams like Lancia, Audi, and Peugeot spent piles of money trying to make their odd-looking and extremely augmented hatchbacks ever faster than their rivals. Though arguably Lancia was the most successful of the teams, all contributed to the development of the sport, all were competitive, and each of the seriously committed manufacturers racked up their fair share of points. The few moneyed members of the public who could afford such things were also given some bizarre but brilliant options in terms of homologated road cars like the Lancia 037 and S4, the Audi Sport Quattro, the MG 6R4, and the Peugeot 205 T16. All in all it was a period of indulgence and rapid evolution.
As you know, the tragic passing of Henri Toivenen, his co-driver Sergio Cresto, and three spectators following an accident during 1986’s Rally Portugal would spell the end for Group B, and 1987 would see a taming of conditions. This gave rise to Group A as the premiere competitors in the WRC in 1987 (the group had been established as a separate classification the year prior), and the new cars were markedly slower than those from the previous Group B. That’s in relative terms though, and the 1987 crop still provided some exciting moments all the same. In the early years of this new rulebook, Lancia and Martini were the dominant force with the Delta HF variants, winning the title every year from ’87 to ’92. With the 1990s came the Japanese contingent though, and the likes of Subaru, Toyota, and Mitsubishi would enjoy their own period of dominance near the end of Group A and through to the World Rally Car rulebook that followed.
This new stage was not nearly the drastic shift that Group B to Group A was, and the cars changed little as a result. The most noticeable departure from the previous set of rules was on the topic of homologation, and the production necessities for campaigning race variants of civilian cars were relaxed in the new World Rally Car format. Though this meant the homologation specials would more or less cease to exist, it allowed for easier entry into the sport for manufacturers, and by the early 2000’s the European constructors came back to the front of the pack in force. If the ‘90s were dominated by cars like the Subaru Impreza, Mitsubishi Lancer, and the Toyota Celica with names on their doors like Colin McRae, Tommi Mäkinen, and Carlos Sainz respectively, then the ‘00s can be summed up much more succinctly: all you need to know is Citroën and Sébastien Loeb. The Frenchman would become rallying’s most successful driver of all time, winning the driver’s championship an unheard of nine times in a row from 2004 to 2012, and giving his countrymen at Citroën seven constructor’s championships during the same period.
Another Sébastien is leading the sport now, with Sébastien Ogier winning the past four seasons of the WRC in his Volkswagen Polo. Rule changes put into practice this year have made the cars faster and more capable than the mostly static level of performance that existed in the recent past, and the WRC still enjoys international popularity in its globetrotting calendar of events.
So, that’s a condensed history of rallying in its top form, and though the WRC has remained mostly the same in terms of drivers and cars for a while now, the sport is still evolving in its other series. In particular, rallycross. It’s not like this is a new idea, as the Scandinavians have been hosting mixed-surface circuit-based rallying events at local and regional levels since the 1950s and likely in less-official capacities before that (the first European Rallycross Championship was held in 1973, and Group B even moved to rallycross for a short time), but it’s become more prevalent lately. Just last weekend, I attended the season finale of the Red Bull Global Rallycross series to get a taste of the stadium-style racing, and even with high expectations I was surprised at how engaging it can be to watch rally cars jostling for position lap after fully-visible lap.
I’ve hiked through miles of woods to get fleeting views of stage-based rallies, eaten plenty of dirt and dust in their wake, and have spent full days just to see a few minutes of combined action. I’ve been the traditional rallying spectator, but I’d never seen a rallycross event that wasn’t coming through a TV screen until now. It turns out this sport is one of the few where being there in person affords a better view than the broadcast, and through the fumes of high-octane and the mist of kicked-up grit I was smiling the whole time.
Scott Speed cinched the championship in the top-tier Supercar division (the other is called GRC Lites, featuring cars with less power and stricter suspension geometry requirements), but even the qualifying heats in the beginning of the day were incredibly entertaining to watch. The course was roughly two-thirds tarmac and one-third dirt, and if the photos don’t show it, just imagine what it might be like to take motocross, swap in rally cars, and keep the jumps and side by side sideways racing. There is plenty of rubbing, lots of paint and decals being swapped, and just generally ferocious competition. Only in NASCAR have I seen such a constant jockeying for position, and it makes for a great spectacle, especially when you don’t even need a jumbotron to follow the battles through the race’s entirety.
Red Bull was kind enough to let a few journalists experience an at-speed lap of the course the day prior, and I was among that bright-eyed and bushy-tailed group. With my Hans device clipped in, the harness squeezing me into the rigid passenger seat, and a membrane of perspiration building with my anticipation underneath increasingly hot Nomex suit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Our turn finally came though, and Oliver Eriksson (I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to have my first in-car rallying experience provided by a bonafide Swede!) pointed the most atypical Civic I’ve ever seen toward the course at the waterfront the Port of Los Angeles. Making our way along the water, we are passing the big spools and massive eyelets and other dressings of the stereotypical industrial harbor, and the view of a Space X rocket and the gray mass of the SS Lane Victory does nothing to normalize the experience.
Parked on the starting line, we get a hand signal I don’t see, and the unmistakable gunfire sound of the two-step clutch takes over. Another signal comes and it feels like a train has hit us from behind; I thought the belts were pressing me as far into the seat as skeletally possible, but clearly I was naive. With a 0-60mph time that dips below two seconds at times, the feeling of being launched in a GRC car is more comparable to the initial thrust of a rollercoaster than anything automotive. Gear changes offer no respite from the organ-flattening acceleration, and before I can do anything but make an inaudible combination of a grunt and a “f*ck yeah,” we’re into the first turn and the G-forces haven’t let up as much as they’ve switched their vectors. Watching the apex come towards you from the side window is a trip. Feeling the traction come back and the linear snap of acceleration that follows is too. And is being airborne in a car with “Civic” painted on it while you catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.
Beyond the simple and pure fun of the thing, the first thought I had after shakily exiting the Supercar was about how constant the whole thing was. There is never a moment of just brake, just throttle, or just steering, it’s all together and all the way to the limit. That’s corny, “to the limit,” but it’s exactly what it’s like. You feel the car on the edge the whole time, and save for the jump the steering wheel was never pointed straight and never not moving. It’s an overwhelming experience just riding along, from the cacophonous mix of pinging gravel, tortured rubber, whining transmission, and the rude bark of the turbo four-cylinder, to the constantly sweeping blur of the environment that your eyes are failing to keep up with outside the windshield, to the pungent mix of race fuel and earthy dirt and salty sea, it’s impossible to process it coherently until long after the fact.
So now that we’ve looked at the genesis of rallying and it’s premiere organization in the form of the WRC, what does the future look like for the sport at large, and where does rallycross fit in? The WRC is still undeniably the pinnacle of the sport’s engineering efforts and it has the best drivers competing no doubt, but events like those in the Red Bull Global Rallycross season offer an alternative way to enjoy the sport that is in fact a whole lot more fun than waiting around in the woods for a car to pass by for a few seconds every few minutes. The idea of a fully-visible, condensed rally circuit offers a way for the sport to reach new fans who might not have the patience and dedication to go on a hike to get to their “seats,” and so from the perspective of the rallying in total, rallycross functions as an accessible, spectator-centric way to enjoy rally cars. It’s not here to replace the stage-based rallying of the WRC, but instead provide a gateway form of the sport that only adds to the allure of rallying as a whole.
Historical photo sources:
1930 Rallye Monte Carlo: rallyemontecarlo1930.unblog.fr
Monte Carlo Mini: sportscardigest.com
’50s-’70s rally cars: wikimedia commons, pinterest, volvoadventures.com, Jaguar Heritage
Stratos: Rosario Liberti for Petrolicious
Early Audi Quattros: VW Motorsport, wikimedia commons,
Group B: Máté Boér for Petrolicious, Audi, Lancia 037 rear by Martin Spain
Group A/WRC: lancerregister.com, carthrottle, turbocelica.nl, Carlos Sainz, supercars.net, wikimedia commons, evo