Even those who struggle to stifle a yawn when watching the endless laps of IndyCar or NASCAR will find the pure excitement of rally racing hard to resist. Most people have at least some idea about this most exhilarating of racing disciplines – here, we answer the question, what is rally racing?
Rally Racing Definition
Let’s start by discussing what rally racing is in basic terms. Essentially, rally racing involves driving cars from point A to point B along regular roads that have been closed to the public.
The cars used are modified road cars rather than the highly specialized machines we see in formats such as F1 or IndyCar and are raced one at a time “against the clock” rather than head to head or against a field of other cars simultaneously.
Races are broken down into shorter stages that are driven over several days rather than taking place all in one go, unlike IndyCar, NASCAR and so on.
How does rally racing differ from other forms of motorsport?
Rally racing is unique in the world of motorsports for several reasons. One of the most obvious of these is that a driver does not have the opportunity for a practice run on the track and may even only ever drive a particular course once in their career.
Instead, unlike almost any other motorsports, a rally car contains a co-driver as well as the driver. The co-driver is equipped with what is known as “pace notes” to read to the driver throughout the race, telling the driver what to expect around the next turn or over the next hill.
Since the driver has probably never driver the course before and couldn’t possibly remember each bend or blind spot anyway, the driver must rely on the instructions coming from the co-driver.
This allows the driver to push the car harder and to drive faster than would otherwise be possible, but this means having complete confidence in the instructions being received.
At the same time, pace notes can never anticipate every hazard that may be encountered. These may include sections that have become muddy or iced up, boulders that have fallen onto the road or even animals that have wandered onto the track out of the forest.
This means that the ability to react and control the vehicle when the unexpected happens is vital in rally racing. It has been suggested that rally racers are the most skillful and complete drivers in motorsport.
The World Rally Championship
At the top of rally racing is the World Rally Championship (WRC) – this is the Formula One of the rally world, the pinnacle of the sport.
The WRC competition takes place throughout almost the whole year, from January to November. The calendar contains 13 rounds, each held in different countries.
Each round takes place over three days (known as “legs”), generally Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and is divided into between 15 and 25 stages of up to around 15 miles. This means that multiple stages need to be completed each day.
One particular rule, and one that also applies at many other levels of competition, is that the cars need to be driven from the end of one stage to the start of the next over public roads. This means the vehicles used in the races must also be legal road vehicles, an important aspect of the sport.
Other stages known as “power stages” with higher points scoring and “super special stages” held in arenas are also incorporated into the competition.
What makes rally racing so exciting?
It’s hard not to be captivated by the thrill of rally racing, and the reasons are easy to understand.
While for the specialist, the mechanical perfection of F1 cars or the sublime skill of their drivers might have their appeal, rally racing seems so much more raw and intense.
There is a well-known saying that goes, “circuit racers see ten turns 1,000 times while rally drivers see 1,000 turns one time”, and this captures the essence of the sport perfectly.
Rally racing can see cars hurtling along narrow forest roads at speeds in excess of 100mph. The driver has no idea what lies around the next bend and must rely entirely on instructions from the co-driver to help negotiate whatever lies ahead.
This kind of driving requires immense concentration, great reserves of endurance, lightning reactions and near-superhuman levels of skill.
At the same time, there is always an inherent level of danger, and despite whatever measures are put into place by organizers, accidents do happen – and sometimes fatalities do occur.
While nobody ever wants to see anyone get hurt, the fact that the danger is real and the knowledge that the competitors are putting their lives on the line only adds to the buzz of the occasion.
Other types of rallying
Rallying has been around for as long as the automobile, with the first events taking place in Europe at the end of the 19th century. For many of the early years, part of the appeal was the accessibility of rallying, since anybody with a car could take part.
The value of the top WRC cars is now in excess of $1million, and some feel that this has moved the sport too far from its origins.
However, there are still many other forms of rallying that exist that allow amateurs to take part. These may involve competitions where outright speed is not the primary objective but rather sticking to a pre-planned time schedule while driving on public roads.
Another form involves using classic cars as a way of respecting the spirit of a bygone era while driving vehicles from the sport’s golden age of the post-war years.
The closest thing to pure car racing
Although of course rally cars are now a long way removed from regular road cars, they are still the closest thing to what we drive every day. The courses are also the closest to the roads we are used to driving on, and for these reasons, many consider rally racing the purest form of car racing.