All WRC cars must adhere to strict FIA technical guidelines. Cars must be homologated to these regulations to compete in the WRC. A team of FIA technical officials carry out thorough checks of competing vehicles before, during and after each event. This scrutineering process is to ensure all cars meet the regulations and match their homologated specification. Severe penalties, or even disqualification, can be given teams whose cars do not conform.
Rallying is the purest test of man and machine, in which drivers and their co-drivers fight for victory on all kinds of terrain. The FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) is the undisputed pinnacle of the sport. The world’s best drivers and co-drivers compete individually in short, timed stages with the aim of recording the fastest time.
First run in 1973, the competition continues to attract the world’s leading automotive manufacturers, like Hyundai, to this day. Fans flock to the events to see the cars and drivers in action, while many more millions follow the rallies on TV, radio and online – a testament to the continued popularity of the challenge the WRC poses.
Acting as the official opening of a WRC event, the ceremonial start offers attending fans and spectators the chance to see all crews and cars up close. Typically hosted in city centres against the backdrop of a well-known landmark, all crews drive their car over a start ramp to formally begin their campaign. These events are typically held on the Thursday evening before a rally, with accompanying autograph sessions or entertainment.
At the end of each day of competition, cars are kept in the so-called Parc Fermé, which literally means ‘closed park’ in French. It is an area controlled strictly by Championship and event organisers to ensure that cars are secure. No work or repairs are permitted to cars while in Parc Fermé conditions, unless with express permission. It’s an area where only authorised officials and stewards are granted access.
Service is when the mechanics are allowed to work on the cars. Tasks could include changes to the set-up, fixing damage sustained in an earlier stage, or simply getting the car ready for the next loop of stages. Service usually has specific time slots on each day but can sometimes be flexible during a longer time period. Only a certain number of people are allowed to work on a car in service; a special armband denotes those who are permitted.
The companion series to WRC, the WRC2 is run on the same stages as the main category and is open to four-wheel-drive cars from R5, R4, S2000 and N4 classes. Crews compete in exactly the same way as their WRC counterparts, scoring Championship points and fighting for the WRC2 title. Manufacturers may field their own cars as a factory team or customer teams may purchase vehicles to run independently.
Each rally has designated refuelling zones where teams are permitted to add fuel to their competing vehicles. The refuel could take place at the event’s service park, or be classified as a remote refuel zone, in between special stages. It is the team’s responsibility to add as much fuel to each of its cars as necessary to complete not only the forthcoming stages but also the liaison distance in between.
Time is of the essence within the WRC. While crews will do all they can during a stage to set the quickest time possible, they must also take care not to lose time through penalties. These can be accrued for various reasons, for example spending too much time in the Service Park, reaching checkpoints too early or too late, or for re-starting under Rally 2 following an accident. Penalties are added to the crews’ total time for the rally.
Championship points are awarded to the top-ten finishers, distributed on a 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 basis. There are additional points for the top-five drivers in the ‘Power Stage’ (PS), issued on a 5-4-3-2-1 scale. Since 2021, Power Stage points are also awarded to manufacturers for its two highest placed drivers in the fastest five. The driver who scores the most points over a complete season is crowned Champion. There is also a Championship for co-drivers and for manufacturers where the two best-placed cars from one constructor receive points.
Despite all the latest technology, drivers and co-drivers still rely on traditional pen and paper when it comes to preparing pace notes. These instructions, read out during the stage by the co-driver, are like a second set of eyes for the driver. They provide all the precise details of the road ahead, such as the severity of an upcoming corner, jump or dip on the road. Pace notes enable the driver to know exactly what is coming.
Every driver in the WRC is on a permanent quest to fine-tune the car to its optimum state. Vehicle and engine settings can vary widely from rally to rally, and each tiny adjustment can have a huge effect on vital areas such as handling and top speed. This is where the shakedown comes in. It is a preliminary stage, run several times before the start of each rally to enable each team and driver to refine their set-up.
Short for reconnaissance, a recce takes place at the venue of the rally during the week before the WRC event. Crews drive through the special stages at slow speed in order to make pace notes describing the road in meticulous detail. Cars are standard road-going models although they are equipped with a roll cage for safety as well as sump guards and off-road tyres to cope with rough terrain. It’s a crucial part of rally preparation.
The end of one special stage does not signal the start of the next. After each stage has been completed, drivers must make their way to the next part of the rally. Unlike special stages, the road sections are run on public roads that are also open to normal traffic, so drivers must adhere to the normal rules of the road in that country. For this reason, WRC cars must be fully road-legal and carry number plates and mandatory safety equipment.
At each rally there are typically a few of these short, spectator-friendly stages that serve as an entirely different proposition to both the driving crews and audiences. They are often held in a variety of locations including town centres, local landmarks or even tourist venues. Other examples see stages held in sports stadiums and purpose-built venues with two parallel tracks and two crews racing each other against the clock.
This is the final stage of a rally. It is run over a shorter distance than the other stages, thus making it suitable for television coverage. These stages carry added importance, as there are additional points on offer for the five quickest drivers (5-4-3-2-1), heightening the tension in this dramatic final sprint. Starting from the 2021 season, manufacturers can also score Power Stage points with its two best placed drivers in the top-five.
Rallies are divided up into special stages, timed runs over closed sections of road, which drivers aim to complete as quickly as possible. Their format can vary greatly, ranging from sprint-like stages over a couple of kilometres to longer stages measuring up to 80 km. The number of stages also differs from one event to the next. Several stages are organised on each competition day, with cars making their way between each one on regular roads.
In the WRC, the action doesn’t just take place over a couple of hours – rallies are traditionally held over several days covering hundreds or even thousands of kilometres. Usually a day is known as a leg, and consists of numerous timed special stages and untimed road sections. After each leg, the cars and drivers then return to their team base in the service park.
Rallies are like home away from home so it’s important to have an efficient on-event team. In total around 80 people work on-site during each WRC event. Factory teams like ours consist of many different roles, including team management, engineers, mechanics, logistics, recce crew, marketing & PR and hospitality. Long days and evenings can be tough, but the rewards of a podium finish – or even a victory – make it all worthwhile.
The latest generation of WRC cars may be based on road-going models, but beneath the bodywork they are highly tuned machines built to endure the toughest conditions. Not only do the cars weigh significantly less, they also have additional components to maximise safety and performance. Full harness seat belts, increased energy absorbing foam padding around seats and door area, as well as a very strong roll cage help to protect the crew.
The driver may be the one wrestling the 200 km/h rally cars around the perilous roads of a rally stage, but the co-driver plays an equally important role. They are responsible for preparing and reading pace notes, helping out if any repairs are needed and always ensuring that the car arrives on time at key checkpoints. An in-car radio link makes sure that driver and co-driver are always able to stay in constant contact.
Each crew consists of a driver and co-driver, whose responsibility it is to get the best performance out of the car during a rally event. They will often have worked together for many years, and have built up a harmonious relationship in- and outside of the car. It is absolutely essential for a crew to communicate effectively at all times, co-operating in unison in pursuit of the fastest stage times possible.
Service Parks are designated areas which teams make their home for each WRC event. Usually, there is one Service Park for each rally, located in a strategically accessible town or city. From this temporary base, teams can carry out maintenance on their cars at specific times, conduct media work and offer guest hospitality. Crowds also gather to see their driving heroes in end-of-day press conferences, or simply to enjoy watching the cars in service.