It is known as the true test of the art of driving and is considered to be one of the toughest forms of motorsport in the world. Although not as prestigious as Formula One, the World Rally Championships are definitely near the top and offer a fantastic array of on- and off-road racing on all kinds of surfaces such as dirt, gravel, snow, ice and asphalt. With brilliant locations and mind-blowing speeds on narrow tracks, the World Rally Championships is definitely one of the toughest forms of racing.
The World Rally Championships were originally organized under a different name, the International Championships for Manufacturers in 1970. After two more years, in 1973, the World Rally Championships began with the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. The first edition had 13 races and the first ever title was won by Alpine-Renault. The Driver’s title didn’t come into existence until 1979 although there had been an FIA Drivers’ Cup that was created in 1977 and 1978.
Bjorn Waldegard became the first ever winner of the World Rally Championship Drivers’ title after beating Hannu Mikkola by just one point.
In the 1980s began, what is known as, the Group B Era. Group 2 and Group 4 cars were replaced by a more powerful version known as Group B cars. These cars were 4-wheel drive and were initially thought to be a poor choice of weapons however, Audi came out all guns blazing with Mikkola behind the wheels of a Quattro and things were never the same. In 1982, the Group B regulations were applicable for the first time and Audi took the title. They would dominate for the next 3 years, either in the Drivers’ title race or in the manufacturers or, as in 1984, in both.
But more power meant harder to control, and that led to the demise of three spectators in Portugal after Juaquim Santos lost control of his Ford RS200. At the very next race, Toivonen and Sergio Cresto, favourites for the title, plunged down a cliff and died in a fireball. Hours after the crash, Group B cars were banned from the coming 1987 World Rally Championship series. Group B and S went out of the window as Group A regulations took over the blocks until 1997. Between 1987 to 1992, it was Lancia who took to the new regulations faster than the others and had 6 successive titles to its name. Soon Toyota, Mitsubishi and Subaru were catching up on Lancia and shared the titles amongst themselves before a certain Tommi Makinen in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution took four consecutive drivers’ titles between 1996 to 1999.
Amidst his title run, the world of Rallying had undergone another change. No longer was Group A the chosen regulation for the cars. A new set of regulations known as the World Rally Car regulations were introduced in 1997. Mitsubishi continued to run their older version of vehicle until 2001 and soon came out with a WRC version for their Lancer Evolution. After a win for Peugeot in 2001, Subaru won it with Petter Solberg in 2002. What followed then were 6 mind-blowing years of dominance by a certain Sebastien Loeb in a Citroen. His challenge has been unbeatable and has amassed over 50 rally wins in his short career so far.
Each rally consists of around 15 - 25 special stages which vary in length. The stages can be on any type of surface depending on the weather conditions in the region at that time of the year. The rally actually begins mid-week, on a Tuesday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, driving teams go out on a reconnaissance of the entire track and in the process, take record their pace notes. Normally, on the first day, teams prefer to take the preliminary notes and on the second, refine or fine-tune them.
By Thursday, teams get ready for a Shakedown. This is a stage where the teams test their vehicle setups for the rally. Finally on Friday, thee rally begins. Between each leg of the race, teams are allowed to carry out time-bound repairs to their cars. At the end of the race, the time taken to complete each stage is added up and the driver taking the least time is the winner.
All WRC cars are based on production cars and have turbocharged 2.0 L engines with four-wheel drive. The cars are limited to just 300 bhp and have scaled new heights in terms of reliability and power. The manufacturers most prominent in the series are Ford, Citroen and Subaru. Besides the factory team, there are other teams which run different cars, although most of them are from these manufacturers, just older models.
The World Rally Championship is the pinnacle of rally driving but to get there, the progression is through a number of levels. The two most prominent levels are that of the Junior World Rally Championships (J-WRC) and the Production World Rally Championships (PWRC).
The J-WRC was conceived with the idea of providing a platform to drivers looking to get into the World Rally Championships. The age limit of the drivers in the J-WRC is set at a maximum of 28 and the cars are limited to 1.6 L and have just front wheel drive.
The PWRC is driven on the same stages as the WRC but the only difference is in the machinery used by the teams. The cars are production-based Group N or Super 2000 cars that are 2.0 L without any turbochargers.