The World Rally Championship, or WRC, is not for the faint of heart. That goes for those who drive in it and the people who turn up to watch, too. What began back in 1973 as the premier rallying series has today become a proving ground for some of the world’s top automobile manufacturers, running their (roughly) million-dollar cars in various types of terrain, most of which do not qualify for the term ‘road’. It takes a special breed of people to run such a show, and meeting one of the very best of the kind can only be described as ‘eye opening’. But more on that later.
What matters right now is that there is a bright yellow helicopter buzzing dangerously close to the tops of the trees we’re shivering under. “I didn’t travel to another continent to walk through a narrow, cold and damp forest trail only to be dismembered by a crashing chopper. That’d just ruin my day,” goes my brain, good cheer being the last of its concerns after having been woken up early. But then, even the spray of leaves descending on our heads doesn’t distract me from noticing that the forested hills are now alive with the sound of an approaching WRC car. I can’t see it yet, but the wave of sound builds the crowd’s collective anticipation, which finally erupts into an impassioned roar that drowns out even the chopper’s blades.
The car, the WRC version of the Volkswagen Polo, roars into view, a vision of crackling downshifts and screeching tyres; it drifts around the tightening-radius right-hander in one fast and fluid motion, and disappears into the foliage up the road, leaving behind a wall of noise that is a mix of internal combustion and zealous vocal chords. This scene repeats itself a few dozen times, until every car has gone by. It’s difficult to remain unaffected by such a display of driving prowess and love for motorsport. And that infernal helicopter, of course.
I’ve always thought that these WRC guys were nuts, barrelling around countrysides around the world, doing things that the rest of us can only do in video games. Also, I’ve always believed that series like WRC are the ones with actual ‘real cars’, with a direct visual connection with the cars we buy from showrooms. F1 ‘cars’ are, to me, the most sophisticated go-karts in the world. And you rarely see an F1 machine several feet off the ground, unless it’s cartwheeling itself into smithereens.
Anyway, the event I’m attending, the Rallye de France Alsace, has its base in Strasbourg, a city in the Alsace region, which happens to be on the Franco-German border. It’s one of the few tarmac-based events in the WRC calendar, which makes it relatively more accessible, as against the other events that are mapped through more unforgiving terrain. Even so, you have to hand it to the fans for making the trip into the forest on their own, seeing as I’m there only because I’ve scored an invite.
There was a good chance VW driver (Frenchman and 2013 WRC champion) Sebastien Ogier would wrap up the driver’s title at the very event I was attending. Alas, a mistake in one of the early stages left him over 8 minutes behind rally leader and team-mate, the Finn Jari-Matti Latvala. Nonetheless, the loudest cheers are still reserved for Ogier, and I have a feeling the chopper pilot is a bit startled by the roar that rises from the crowd.
If the actual driving part wasn’t enough, the ambience at the WRC event is simply amazing. Fans mingle with their heroes, without the slightest bit of self-importance being thrust into their faces. It’s a dusty and happy environment, where the dust and happiness are shared by fans and drivers alike. Why aren’t these drivers antagonistic towards each other off the road (or in the case of WRC, the lack of it)? Because they don’t face off against each other in a head to head fight. Their race is against the clock – and their fight is with the same trees, rocks, jumps and ditches. Perhaps that’s what unites them when they’re not behind their wheels.
The highlight, for me, is meeting Luis Moya, co-driver of Carlos Sainz, the legendary Argentine rally driver who won the WRC title in 1990 and 1992, makes a highly inappropriate (yet completely true) statement about touching himself, and the fact that all of us do it. It is a mark of a rallyist—fearless honesty. They’ve been through too much to be bothered with the conventions of polite nonsense.
WRC essentially seems to be one big party (which is what it eventually turns into, when VW invites all of the teams over for a night of merrymaking), and there’s no dreary exchange of business cards or the presentation of endless Powerpoint slides. It’s just good cheer and many warm hugs all around. It’s not the million-dollar cars that are the focus, it’s the people in and around them. Just how it should be, then.