The WRC (World Rally Championship) is a motorsport that tests the performance and durability of rally cars to the limit, not only on asphalt and off-road but also on water, snow, and ice. It is one of the world’s top motorsports and has been won twice by Hyundai in the manufacturers’ championship. However, it is not well-known in Korea, and there is no Korean broadcasting channel who covers it. Those who want to watch WRC news must search through foreign channels. However, understanding them requires some background knowledge, which will allow much more joy. So here are some trivial but important pieces of rally-related info.
The most distinctive aspect of rally is that two drivers get in a car together. Watching WRC broadcasts or videos, you can see the co-driver sitting in the passenger seat, constantly reading something. During rallies, drivers run hundreds of kilometers on unfamiliar roads for three to four days. Even if they have photographic memory, they cannot remember every single road. So, the co-driver reads pacenotes that he’s already made, allowing the driver to freely push the car to the limit even in corners where they can’t see ahead. To achieve good results, accurate navigation must work in harmony with the performance of the rally car and the drivers’ skills.
For example, before the start of the 2021 season, Martijn Wydaeghe joined Hyundai Motorsport GmbH as Thierry Neuville’s new co-driver. Although Neuville and Wydaeghe are both Belgians, there was a slight communication problem due to the subtle differences in French pronunciation. Neuville is from the south of France and speaks German and French, while Wydaeghe primarily uses Flemish, a language spoken mainly in the northwest of Belgium. Therefore, Wydaeghe took French course to correct his pronunciation, and Neuville-Wydaeghe won four victories and stood on the podium 12 times in the past two years, including the first place finish.
Co-drivers perform various roles, such as navigation, emergency repairs, tire changes, and schedule checks. According to the regulation, co-drivers are also considered drivers, hence need driver’s license. In an emergency, such as when the driver is injured, they sometimes sit in the driver’s seat.
GPS navigation is common these days, so reading pacenotes may seem very primitive; however, there is a reason for this. No matter how sophisticated a machine is, detailed road conditions and obstacles must be checked directly by a person. Therefore, co-drivers drive the course in advance to make pacenotes. Reading them in a loud and clear voice during the race is the most effective way.
The role of the co-driver is very important as mistakes at a crossroads can waste time, or jumping mistakes can lead to accidents. All pacenotes are different, depending on each taker. For example, L/R indicates the direction of the corner, or the angle of the corner is indicated by a number from 1 to 9, and sometimes there are exclamation points (!, !!, !!!) for extra attention.
Driving the course in advance for pacenotes is called reconnaissance, or recce. This is usually done between Monday and Wednesday in the week of the race, using a regular car, not the rally car. The cars cannot be driven at racing speeds. In addition, driving on any day other than previously scheduled is strictly forbidden.
In rally racing, records are measured on Special Stages (SS), which are created by blocking off public roads. SS can range from short distances of 2-3km to long distances exceeding 50km. Sometimes, special courses are created in city squares, parks, or parking lots with two rally cars starting side by side for an exciting show, and these are called Super Special Stages (SSS). In the Acropolis Rally in Greece, an SSS was created inside the Olympic Main Stadium. SSS near the city center are also easily accessible.
In rally racing, rankings are determined by adding up the records of each stage. After the race, the top 10 drivers earn 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 points. Of course, there are additional scoring opportunities, namely the Power Stage. This is usually the last SS, and the top 5 drivers are given separate points of 1 to 5. For this reason, even retired drivers pour all their energy into the Power Stage on the final day. On the other hand, drivers who are likely to stand on the podium sometimes ease off and drive cautiously to avoid accidents or tire punctures. Unlike the general stage, which measures up to 1/100th of a second, the Power Stage is measured of 1/1,000th of a second for much more precision.
Just as any race, the championship title is given after adding up the scores at all rallies in the season. Note that the manufacturer’s championship adds up the total scores of the affiliated drivers. In the current 1st class, Rally 1, up to three rally cars can be in each team’s entry, and the scores of the two highest-ranking cars are added up.
The Special Stages (SS) where the race is held are scattered far away. Therefore, after completing one stage, the driver must drive his own rally car to the next starting point. This section is called a liaison or road section. Because it runs on the general road with other cars, it is necessary to comply with the traffic laws of each country, and a valid driver’s license is required. The liaison refers to the road book - a map created by the organizers and distributed to participants. For reference, Kalle Rovanpera, born in 2000, made his WRC debut (WRC2) in the 2017 Rally England. He was 17 at the time, but he was issued a driver’s license a year earlier through a special screening and was able to compete.
The biggest factor that determines the characteristics of a rally is the road surface. Unpaved roads are called gravel roads, while paved roads are called tarmac roads. Even on the same gravel courses, roads in Finland and Estonia are smooth and moist, allowing for fast driving. On the other hand, roads in Italy, Turkey, Chile, and other countries have rough surfaces and generate a lot of dust during the race. As tarmac rallies are held on regular asphalt, the chassis is lowered and the dampers are set harder than gravel settings. The Monte Carlo Rally is held on paved roads but is classified as ‘mixed’, due to the heavy snow and ice. As a result, tire strategy has a significant impact on the record at Monte Carlo Rally. In snow rallies, studded tires with metal spikes on the surface are used.
The rally starts out similar to alpine skiing. Rally cars don’t get tangled up because they start separately, usually at three-minute intervals, measure individual records, and then add them up. What is surprisingly important here is the running order. In particular, in an unpaved gravel rally, the player who starts first has to clean dirt and gravel on the road, which is quite disadvantageous. On the early Thursdays and Fridays of the WRC, the drivers with the most championship points start first, then later in reverse order. Tarmac Rally on paved roads has relatively fewer pros and cons; Depending on the running order, some drivers benefit from extreme weather.
In a rally where you have to run fast from dawn to night, timing is essential. Participants receive confirmation of their arrival and transit time on a ‘time card’ at the ‘time control’ installed at each start point, finish point, and entrance to the service area. Drivers who arrive too late or too early will be penalized.
In a rally where the cars are pushed to the limit on rough roads, a problem-free day is almost impossible. In addition, service parks where rally cars can be serviced are far away, and outside help is often unavailable outside of designated hours. Therefore, drivers often have to repair their cars themselves during rallies. The driver and his co-driver must be familiar with the car’s anatomy and sometimes emergencies. Sometimes they get team advice over the phone. The rally car is loaded with basic equipment, including various tools, duct tape, and a jack to lift the car.
In the 2014 Mexico Rally, Thierry Neuville’s rally car from Hyundai suffered radiator damage in the final power stage. Even though he finished the race in third place, he could not return to the team because his engine was overheated. He managed to fill the hole, but still had no coolant. Fortunately, Neuville was able to return by pouring his Corona beer in the trunk into the radiator. The beer was given by a sponsor for the ceremony.
All the maintenance and repairs, including car settings, are called “service” in rally. Except for the driver and co-driver, the rest of the team crew can only stay in the service park. The service park is located near the rally headquarter. There is also remote service available for simple repairs when the distance is too far. This service is only available for certain amount of time - 15 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes at lunchtime, and 45 minutes in the evening. The rally cars after the service are stored in a “parc fermé” and cannot be accessed until the next day.
In most motorsports, external assistance during the race is strictly prohibited. However, in rallies, when accidents or problems occur, spectators who are nearby often come to help. When the driver falls into a ditch or his car is rolled over, he calls for help from the people around, and they come to work together to move the car as if they were waiting for it. This fun is a privilege enjoyed only by those who watch rallies in person.
When a rally car is damaged beyond repair or the driver is injured and gives up the race, it is called retirement. However, WRC, which lasts three to four days, can start again the next day after repair in the event of a mild breakdown. This is called a day retire. With 10 minutes added for each stage a driver couldn’t cover, the odds of getting into the lead group are slimmed down, but lucky drivers can score points or earn extra points on power stages.
Winning the WRC requires the efforts of various team members. For example, the safety crew is an uncommon but necessary hidden hero in rallies. Depending on the situation, they are also called Gravel Knot Crew or Ice Knot Crew, and they drive and collect road surface information right before the course is closed for the race. Recce for writing pacenotes is usually held Tuesday-Wednesday, and races are held Thursday-Sunday, so road conditions may change in between. Rally car settings, tire selection and even pacenotes may need to be modified. The information gathered by the safety crew controls for these variables. Naturally, a former driver with a lot of experience becomes the safety crew.
Before the race, “Zero Car,” which means a car that runs ahead of car number one, is used to check the safety of the courses. The car marked as 000 or 00 drives slowly to check the safety, while the car with the number 0 is driven by a veteran driver at a fast pace, anticipating various problems that can occur during the actual race. When the Zero Car appears, it means that the race is about to start.
Rally regulations have changed countless times over the years. In the early 1980s during the Group B era, there were many ‘monster’ rally cars with four-wheel drive, composite body materials, or midship layouts that could be certified with only 200 limited production units per year. However, as accidents increased, the Group A regulation was introduced in 1987 to lower the performance of rally cars. Since Group A required mass-produced cars with the annual production of more than 2,500 units, automakers without high-performance compact models with four-wheel drive could not easily join the race.
The World Rally Car regulations introduced in 1997 aimed to enable various manufacturers to participate. Thanks to this, many automakers such as Hyundai, Citroen, Peugeot, Volkswagen, Toyota, and SEAT rushed to the WRC because it allowed the use of front-wheel-drive compact cars to get converted into rally cars. The Accent WRC (Verna), which Hyundai used in 2000, also housed a 2.0L turbo engine and 4WD system that were not available in the mass-produced version.
The biggest feature of Rally 1, which was introduced in 2022, is the use of hybrid powertrain. While maintaining the current 1.6L turbo engine, a hybrid unit consisting of a motor, battery, and controller was added to increase output from 380 horsepower to 500 horsepower. Meanwhile, to save costs, the center active differential was banned, the gearbox was changed (from 6-speed to 5-speed), and the suspension and aerodynamic design were simplified. Unlike the world rally cars that used reinforced mass-produced car chassis, teams built the backbone with a tubular frame and added an outer shell to complete the body of the rally cars.
Below the highest WRC Rally 1 class, there are sub-classes such as WRC2 and WRC3. Here, drivers who have lost their seats in Rally 1 or newly rising stars compete fiercely. Although they are held according to the WRC calendar, the drivers only need to participate in seven out of thirteen races, and the season champion is determined by the top six results among them.
These are under the Rally 1, used to be called R5. Compared to Rally 1 cars that use hybrid powertrains, Rally 2 cars are relatively simple and inexpensive, and they are used in WRC2, European Rally Championship (ERC), or the highest classes of national championships around the world. They are equipped with a 1.6L turbo engine and four-wheel drive system, like the i20 N Rally 2, one of the main models of Hyundai Customer Racing.
A manufacturer team is a team operated directly by an automaker such as Hyundai or Toyota. They are also called works teams or factory teams. A private team, however, is the opposite. Since it is operated by individuals, its development of rally cars, technical support, or budget is inevitably inferior to that of manufacturers. Manufacturers sometimes establish their own teams, but they also collaborate with other teams, like M-Sport Ford. A satellite team is a small team that gets support from a large team like a manufacturer team. For example, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT NG, where Takamoto Katsuta was last year, is a satellite team of Toyota. In F1, Alfa Romeo is a satellite team of Red Bull.
By Sujin Lee, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. After becoming an editor and the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.
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