Watching WRC Cars Take On Wales Is A Bloody (And Muddy) Good Time
Photography by Will Broadhead
North Wales is famous for its miles of sandy beaches and the kind of weather that makes sunbathing on them out of the question. True to form earlier this month, the rain battered the landscape and I kept the windshield wipers set to max speed as I crawled along in a slow-moving line of race weekend traffic. Suddenly, the note of a high-strung, high-performance engine cut through the patter of rain, and I was made aware of some extra bright lights piercing the murk of the late afternoon sky as Craig Breen’s battered Hyundai overtook me and the rest of the civilians I was stuck behind. Just a casual drive in the countryside, mixing in with WRC cars on the road.
Anywhere else and that experience would have you pinching yourself and questioning whether you should have had that extra Friday night drink, but during the recent Wales Rally GB you could very well find yourself sharing the road with the likes of Ogier, Loeb, and Neuville.
Wales Rally GB is the current incarnation of what began as a regularity rally way back in 1932. After the war the event began the morph into its current form, and it was most widely known as the RAC Rally. This latest edition celebrated the 75th year of the rally in one form or another, and seeing that it’s one of the most historic, most beloved, and toughest events to win in the current WRC calendar, it’s worth the soggy socks.
These days—as it was in the 1960s when Jack Kemsley first persuaded the forestry commission to open up its woodland roads to the rally—the event’s special stages are heavily based around fast and wild gravel tracks that wind their way through the dense woodland of the area. The surfaces are rough and uncompromising, as you would expect from tracks that normally play host to logging trucks and that took on a deluge of rain right before this year’s rally. In other words, they were even trickier than usual.
Rock-flecked rooster tails of mud behind cars entering turns almost perpendicularly makes for a tremendous spectacle, and while modern safety standards mean that the sights of spectators encroaching onto the track to touch the cars are now a thing of the distant past, there still aren’t many forms of motorsport where you can get this close to the action. I often hear people lamenting the demise of the Group B days, particularly as a lot of my work see’s me involved with classic rallying, but as spectacular as those machines were, the modern incarnations of top-spec WRC cars are far faster along the stages.
The crowd numbers seem to back this up as well, with record numbers lining the stages in Wales for this year’s anniversary event, and the packed spectator points and woodlands have a party atmosphere that I’ve not experienced in modern motorsport outside of 24-hour endurance races. There are people from all over the world, mingling and mixing as one cold and damp but happy mob, enjoying the experience for what it is. The on-track action, the camaraderie with fellow spectators, and embracing the less than pleasant weather with a smile and shrug rather than a frown and a complaint. Events like this are a complete departure from my experiences at circuit races, and as we all got showered with pebbles and other debris from a passing car for the umpteenth time, we collectively laugh, cheer, and clap as loudly as we did with all the mud showers before.
Coupled with sharing the roads with the stars of the show in between the stages, this world championship event feels extremely accessible, and still something that is connected to those supporters that follow it all over the world. Sadly home hero Elfyn Evans could not give the Welsh fans a repeat of his 2017 victory, but the driver did put on a show and epitomized the unpredictable nature of the Wales Rally, as he clawed his way back from suspension damage on day two and thundered up the leader board from twelfth to fifth. Sitting at the top of the pile after four days of flat out racing would be Ott Tanak, giving Toyota Gazoo racing a first manufacturer success in Britain since 1996, and extending the team’s successes in the championship this year.
Regardless of results, the performances from all those involved (including in the support classes and national rally that runs alongside the main WRC event) were incredibly entertaining, and still seemed true to the roots of old school rallying. The spectator involvement is akin to that of motorcycle road racing, and the apparent bond between competitors and those watching feels similar too. Whilst circuit racing seems to be on a continuous cycle of pushing people back (that includes the photographers as well, by the way), the weekend in Wales struck a fine balance between spectator and competitor safety—being so close to the action you could literally feel it is a rare treat. It is something that I hope will be preserved for the next 25 years, at which point I hope to be in the Welsh woodlands to celebrate the rally’s centenary.