STAGE RALLYINGSAVED? A
ri Vatanen, Stig Blomqvist, Colin Mcrae. What do these drivers have in common? They’re all British Rally champions. Now, close your eyes, and picture the scene.
Stage rallying in the UK is banned. No Rothmans-liveried Legacy sideways on the Manx; no black beauty Shell Oils Escort and no Audi Sport quattro with a crazy Swede at the wheel. No smell of fuel and gravel in the forests. Nothing.
With a chain of events starting with the Snowman Rally in 2013, in the last three years, stage rallying has not just been under threat, it’s been a whisker from annihilation.
The spectator fatalities on the Snowman, and the Jim Clark Rally in 2014, led to the governing body in the UK, the Motor Sports Association, having to respond to its stakeholders.
After the Jim Clark incident, the Scottish Government called for a review, which became known as the Motorsport Event Safety Review (MESR), and simultaneously the Scottish police embarked on the investigation which continues into a 19th month with no sign of a concludimg date. It’s the biggest police investigation ever undertaken after a rally in Scotland. Bar none.
The review issued a report in January, and as it moved to implement the recommendations, the MSA came in for some very harsh criticism from the rallying fraternity. However, far more was at stake.
MSA chief executive Rob Jones says: “Almost immediately I was happy to commit the MSA to the implementation of the 29 recommendations arising from the report. There were many people who thought we were overreacting, that the sport was safe enough, that the governing body was meddling in things that should be left to the organisers of events. In short, that we didn’t need to be as responsive as I felt we should. What they didn’t know however, is that our stakeholders, in particular the Forestry Commission and our insurers, were very, very concerned indeed.”
It was made clear over a series of meetings that unless the MSA committed to implementing the recommendations, the use of the forests would be withdrawn.
Jones continues: “We met with key executives at the Forestry Commission with around 20 delegates in attendance. I was left in no doubt whatsoever that unless we were able to show a commitment to the report, that quite frankly we would not be going back in the forests. This was particularly worrying because they would have found that very easy as the master agreement was in its last year, so they wouldn’t have to break any binding agreements. They were able to say ‘thank you and goodbye’. This wasn’t an empty threat, they were represented at both senior executive and senior health and safety executive levels.”
Let’s get one thing straight here. The Forestry Commission isn’t a group of big bad wolves trying to end stage rallying. They’ve worked very closely with the MSA in developing the new 2016 safety regulations and should be credited for their openness and forward thinking. But who could argue with their reaction to the prospect of people dying in the forests? We’re not talking about trouble- causers climbing trees here. We’re discussing the loss of human life.
Another key element the MSA had to consider was insurance, as Jones explains.
“We have a very good safety record [as a governing body] and because of that we do have a very good relationship with our insurers and because of that our public liability insurance premium – I think – is not unreasonable. Accidents can jeopardise that. In a meeting with the insurers – which will remain private – it was again made clear to me that there were significant expectations on their behalf and they had to be met.
“It wasn’t as simple as just listening to what the sport wanted anymore, we had to listen to the stakeholders otherwise we wouldn’t be able to afford competitions [because of a high insurance premium] and we wouldn’t have anywhere to have them either [with the loss of the forests]. It was perfect storm in many ways for rallying.”
The MESR issued 29 recommendations following its investigation in January, and up to now the MSA has already implemented 21. They focus on the encouragement of spectator safety, marshal and media accreditation and the introduction of a safety delegate with the power to end stages for safety reasons to name a few.
The full implementation is scheduled to be completed by January 1 2017 and the MSA has also developed its own methods to improve safety, such as changes to the running order on rallies.
“When I saw Motorsport News [after the Wyedean Rally in February 2015] , I saw a picture in the Readers’ Photographs section – I saw a picture and thought. ‘what is that man standing there for?’,” explained Jones. “It was only when I looked in more detail that there was someone lying lengthways on the floor prone at the edge of a corner. It’s not fair on anybody for people to be irresponsible to the point where our sport could be lost forever. Once it’s gone, you don’t get it back. We’ve seen this in countries where there have been horrific accidents. Once the familiarity, ethos of something is lost it’s very difficult to get it back. Try having five years off and then trying to persuade the Forestry Commission and the insurers to let us back in the forests, I can tell you what their answer would be: forget it.
“One of the consequences of what I saw on the Wyedean was that we asked ourselves why did this happen? The answer we were given is the spectators arrived later in the event as they weren’t as interested in seeing the slower cars at the beginning of the event. I think that’s very disrespectful to those crews as they should be supported equally, but recognising that from a safety point of view it meant the general regulation that fastest first needed to be reiterated and refreshed.
“There has been a reaction to that – category 1 Historics [previously allowed to run at the front to protect their cars from ruts and damage] has effectively failed as a form of stage rallying as a result [of the reiterated fastest first regulation] and I can understand that but we have to look at the big picture. I’m very pleased to see in 2016 there will be a Tarmac championship for those cars, which is great.”
There’s no doubt that in places rallying has suffered from the new regulations. Events are under greater scrutiny and under greater financial burdens to make sure they run properly. But the MSA continues to give back to the sport in a way many sporting bodies wouldn’t dream.
“In 2014 we gave back a percentage of permit and insurance fees totalling £580,000,” said Jones. “In 2015 we gave a percentage of the insurance fees back again totalling £575,000. Over two years, that’s over a million pounds which the MSA has given back to clubs organising events to help with the added expectations of the new regulations.”
The MSA also offers help through the Club Development Fund, which can assist with costs. Details can be found on its website.
The governing body has made a huge commitment to stage rallying. Now everybody involved in the sport needs to play their part. The criticism of the MSA for its stringent approach is unjust, safety is a moving goalpost and until everyone shares the attitude necessary to continue stage rallying, our sport will always be at risk. ■ ● You can view the MESR recommendations and the MSA’S new regulations on the MSA’S website; Msauk.org/rallyfuture.