Most of the world's top forms of motorsport have little to do with what we drive on the street. A Formula One car literally has more in common with an airliner than with whatever's sitting in your driveway and, while Nascar machines look a bit more familiar, peek under the skin and you'll see the truth.
Rallying is different. Yes, the cars at the pinnacle of the sport, the World Rally Championship, are so heavily modified that they're very distant cousins of production cars. But, crucially, the Volkswagens and Hyundais and Fords that compete in the WRC are built on the same chassis sold to you and I. They also run small, turbocharged engines that deliver the kind of power you'd expect from a modern car.
But, perhaps most crucially, WRC events don't take place on boutique race circuits with billiard table-smooth surfaces. They're run on normal, public roads -- ribbons of pavement and gravel and dirt and everything in between.
Rallying is real cars on real roads driven at really extreme rates of speed. If you're not already a fan, read on to see why you should be.
The history of rallying is the history of motoring. Rallying is, basically, getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, and early events were little more than excuses to go for a long drive. The sport of rallying formally begins with the Monte Carlo Rally, held in January of 1911. The rules were quite a bit different back then -- points awarded for vehicle elegance and appearance upon arrival -- but it set the template for what would become one of the most historic races in the world.
The World Rally Championship itself was founded in 1973, collecting together many of the best individual rally events from around the world, starting with the Monte in January of that year. Each WRC event features multiple, shorter stages where drivers race against the clock, a few minutes gap between each car to (usually) ensure that one doesn't catch the next. Cumulative times for each driver across all stages added up to determine the winner.
In this modern era, Scandanavian drivers have tended to dominate the sport, racers who learned to drive on twisty country roads often covered in snow and ice. But they've not held an exclusive lock. Spain's Carlos Sainz won two championships in the '90s and, since the early 2000s, French superstars Sebastian Loeb and Sebastien Ogier have been utterly dominant.
But, in rallying, to talk only about the drivers is to only tell half of the story. Racing across long stretches of unfamiliar roads demands some assistance, and so there are two people in every car: driver and co-driver. The co-driver's primary job is to call out the direction and severity of every corner, verbally sketching out the road ahead. Championship-winning co-drivers like Luis Moya, Nicky Grist, Daniel Elenea and Julien Ingrassia have become global superstars in their own right.
The driver and the co-driver work as a team, driving each stage together before the races to create a series of pace notes. These written marks note the severity of every corner, every rise, every dip, every jump and every major hazard. Pace notes take so long to prepare that, in the rare occasions when a car catches fire, you'll often see the co-driver reaching for his notebook before he grabs the fire extinguisher.
It's a bit of an anachronism in these GPS-infested times.
The "World" in World Rally Championship isn't a euphemism. WRC events happen all over the globe, starting each year at the historic Monte, going from there to Sweden before visiting Mexico, Argentina, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Finland, Germany, China, France, Spain, Great Britan and, finally, Australia. "We have to get the rally to the people," says Luis Moya, two-time Championship-winning co-driver with Carlos Sainz. "It is the World Rally Championship."
Swinging across both hemispheres throughout the course of the year means events run in four seasons. Sweden is historically a snow rally, where the teams run skinny tires laced with tungsten studs to dig through the snow to the harder, grippier ice beneath. In places like Finland and Australia, the cars run at top-speed over smooth, flowing gravel roads.
And then there are the asphalt events, running over (mostly) paved surfaces. The speeds increase along with the grip, but here too nothing can be taken for granted. The Monte Carlo Rally, for example, features a mixture of dry pavement and icy snow, a unique and treacherous combination.
The teams run the same cars across all these surfaces, a testament to their versatility. On a fast, asphalt event, they'll be outfitted with large wheels, sticky tires and lowered suspension. Head to the gravel stages of Mexico, however, and you'll see cars situated much higher on softer suspension better suited to the bumps and jumps.
Durability is key. WRC cars take an incredible beating over the course of a weekend's rally, and the dampers and springs must be able to cope. Whether landing hard after a big jump or keeping the body controlled through a fast turn, the suspension needs to be able to handle it all.
Still, parts fail, and that's why a team's service crew is so important. After consecutive timed stages, the cars are allowed to go to what's called the service park. Here, up to four mechanics from the team have a limited amount of time (ranging from 15 to 45 minutes) to replace broken components, make any changes necessary to setup and to clean the cars -- that last part a vital part of keeping the sponsors happy.
Teams are also limited in what they can replace. Engines, transmissions and sets of suspension are all available in limited quantities, even tires, with each car only able to use just 39 over a race weekend. These rules are in place to help teams keep costs down, and are a big change from the big-budget, halcyon days of rallying 20 years ago. "When Carlos and I came here in 1990 with Toyota," said Moya, "our team came with 1,000 tires per car!"
With limited time and limited personnel, speed is of the essence, and the service stages become competitions in their own right. Two mechanics can replace a gearbox in less than 11 minutes or swap out a busted damper in just two or three, despite working in a tent with basic hand tools. For your average shade-tree mechanic, that's a weekend's work.
If something breaks on the stage, or between stages, only the driver or co-driver are allowed to fix it, and only using what is carried within the car. So, all cars carry at least a simple tool kit, some extra hoses and belts plus one or two spare wheels and tires. Nothing else can be picked up along the way. "The driver and co-driver are not even allowed to stop at a gas station to buy a sandwich!" says Moya.
Cars are all powered by 1.6-liter engines that use restrictors to keep power down. "The idea was to make the cars have 300 horsepower, but that is not realistic," says Moya. "We have 320." All cars have all-wheel drive.
However, perhaps most important detail of all is that every one of these competition cars are still road-legal. In fact, the cars often must cover hundreds of miles of public roads just to get to get from one timed stage to the next. WRC may be the only professional motorsport in which you're likely to get passed on the way home by the cars you just saw competing.
As with most forms of motorsport, points are tallied at every event for both driver and team. The winning driver earns 25, second place 18, then on down the order with 10th place earning a single point. Additionally, there is a single "Power Stage" where an additional 3, 2 and 1 point are given out to the top three finishers, respectively. This stage is often a short, fast section broadcast live for the world to see.
The world's biggest manufacturers have used the WRC to show off their road cars for decades, and in 2016 Volkswagen Motorsport looks set to dominate as they have for the past few years. 2015 World Champion Sebastien Ogier is VW's lead driver. Hyundai Motorsport is expected to be VW's main competition this year, though the Ford-powered M-Sport World Rally Team has already posted a number of strong showings, and Ott Tanak of the DMACK World Rally Team is worth watching. Independent teams are also competing in cars sourced from Citroen and Mini.
Yes, that's an admittedly limited selection, but things are poised to make a big boost in 2017, when regulations will allow more power, more aerodynamics and, hopefully, better competition. We'll see Toyota return to the sport next year, and Citroen is expected as well. Sadly, longtime rivals Subaru and Mitsubishi will remain absent.
How to watch
In most parts of the world, WRC events are covered with daily recaps or, in some cases, live broadcasts. In the United States, it's a little bit trickier. In 2016, no American broadcasters (online or otherwise) are covering WRC.
Thankfully, there's an app for that. The official WRC+ app offers loads of video, enabling you to even select two different drivers and watch an entire stage split-screen. Video quality isn't always the best, but it's one of the few ways to (legally) get footage wherever you are. Cost is €4.99 per month (about $5.50) or €49.99 ($55) for the full year.
And then there's the option of going to watch a rally yourself. That too is a challenge if you're in the United States. The closest option is Rally Mexico, held in Guanajuato from March 4 to March 6. It's one of the best rallies of the year, featuring a series of challenging stages all just outside of town.
That said, like with most motorsports, attending a rally isn't necessarily the best way to keep track of what's going on. You may find yourself driving and walking and standing for hours just for the privilege of seeing a handful of cars go hurtling by once. Still, being surrounded by thousands of cheering, screaming fans makes everything more interesting. Add alcohol to the mix and sometimes the atmosphere in the crowds begins to match the entertainment value provided by the cars.
And there's nothing like the anticipation of hearing that first car approaching, watching it go sailing past and then filling your ears with the sound of a highly strung engine barking and crackling through the woods. In all the world of racing, there's nothing else like it.