WRC STARS CLAIM LACK OF VOICE ON SAFETY FEARS

World rally stars will re­peat calls to skip stages if safety threats are ig­nored

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - By David Evans

Lead­ing driv­ers in the World Rally Cham­pi­onship re­main ready to boy­cott stages on any round of the se­ries if they feel their safety is be­ing un­der­mined.

A stage strike was nar­rowly avoided on last week’s Rally Swe­den, af­ter the ma­jor­ity of driv­ers felt they were not suf­fi­ciently con­sulted on the com­pro­mised weather con­di­tions.

The crews called a meet­ing be­tween them­selves at 0600hrs on Fri­day, be­fore the start of the open­ing leg, and de­cided to drive di­rectly to the day’s se­cond test, by­pass­ing the Torsby stage by way of protest. The move was foiled when Hyundai fac­tory driver Hay­den Paddon re­fused.

The driv­ers will meet again be­fore round three starts in Mex­ico on March 3 and FIA of­fi­cials are ready to work with them to avoid the threat of sim­i­lar ac­tion on fu­ture events.

Last week’s se­cond round of the World Rally Cham­pi­onship came close to be­ing can­celled af­ter warm weather melted the snow and left the stages free from the vi­tal ice layer re­quired to make the stud­ded tyres work.

Fol­low­ing the recce, world cham­pion Se­bastien Ogier said the only work­able roads were in Nor­way – and called for the gravel-based roads in Swe­den to be scrubbed from the itin­er­ary.

Ogier and North­ern Ir­ish­man Kris Meeke pushed for the driv­ers’ voices to be heard in a se­ries of meet­ings lead­ing up to the start and when they were ig­nored, they sought to take ac­tion fur­ther by not driv­ing the first stage.

Ogier told MN: “We think it’s not nor­mal we are not con­sulted on such things. We have to meet each other again in the fu­ture and make sure that we have the place to take part of th­ese dis­cus­sions, with at least one driver tak­ing our views to th­ese meet­ings.”

Rally Swe­den’s re­vised and short­ened itin­er­ary ran with­out is­sue, but Meeke said the driv­ers stood firm on their ac­tions.

“We need to do this [driv­ers’ group] in a proper way,” Meeke told MN. “If we’re not happy then we need to be in a po­si­tion where we can call the shots – or at least have an in­put into the call­ing of the shots. We don’t want it to get to an em­bar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tion where we’re head­ing out on a road sec­tion and go­ing against the grain of the rally. But, we’re ready to look at this kind of ac­tion again [if we have to].”

Some of the driv­ers’ frus­tra­tion goes back to Rally Aus­tralia last year, where there was a feel­ing that driv­ing dusty, gravel stages in the dark was un­safe.

Meeke added: “I talked [to the FIA] in Swe­den and I was told we have to com­mu­ni­cate th­ese con­cerns be­fore the event – be­fore Aus­tralia, there were about 25 emails in the three months since the itin­er­ary came out and noth­ing hap­pened. We were all pissed off about that dur­ing the rally and when we leave the place, we’re told: ‘When you come back next year, you’ll be do­ing three night stages…’ At that point we need to go and park up.”

Meeke feels the com­mer­cial side of run­ning ral­lies has taken prece­dent over the sport­ing

as­pect. “Ten years ago,” he said, “this rally would have been can­celled and the rea­son it wasn’t can­celled this time is be­cause of the money – money’s start­ing to dic­tate now. No­body un­der­stands that when you drive on th­ese tyres with no studs, it’s a to­tal night­mare. The speeds we’re do­ing here, you just can’t do it.

“De­ci­sions are be­ing in­flu­enced and eco­nom­ics are com­ing over safety. We’re be­com­ing pup­pets be­ing sent out be­cause they need to make tele­vi­sion to make money. If they had tried to run the stages on full gravel, it would have made a mock­ery of the sport. It’s time to have some re­spect for our sport. Some­body needs to grow a pair and ad­mit that our sport’s big­ger than this sort of thing. If Swe­den can’t de­liver a win­ter rally, we don’t come back.”

FIA rally di­rec­tor Jarmo Ma­ho­nen re­futed al­le­ga­tions that safety was be­ing com­pro­mised.

“Of course that is not the case,” he said. “Do they re­ally think we would jeop­ar­dise safety? Of course not. Eighty per cent of the stake­hold­ers costs had been spent just be­fore the start, so can­celling would have had [fi­nan­cial] im­pli­ca­tions, but it’s ridicu­lous to sug­gest we would ever jeop­ar­dise safety for this.

“I un­der­stand the driv­ers’ feel­ings. Af­ter they had done the recce in the worst con­di­tions, I think the driv­ers could only see the rally’s dark side. Per­son­ally speak­ing, maybe they didn’t re­alise the weather could change.”

The fore­cast freez­ing con­di­tions duly ar­rived – along with heavy snow on Fri­day – and only one fur­ther stage (Lesjo­fors on Sun­day) was can­celled once the event started.

“Maybe I am naïve to think the driv­ers talk with their em­ploy­ers,” said Ma­ho­nen. “At ev­ery meet­ing, I asked the team man­agers :’what do your driv­ers think?’ It seems no­body is trust­ing any­body at the mo­ment, there is no faith. This needs to be cleared out, we will have a meet­ing with them in Mex­ico. But we need to know the march­ing or­der. Do we talk to their em­ployer or to them di­rectly?

“We have to lis­ten to them and of course – es­pe­cially where safety is con­cerned – we will lis­ten to them. But, at the same time, we should re­mem­ber there’s no sport where the ac­tors de­cide the reg­u­la­tions. We have to look [at] what we can do to­gether.”

Ma­ho­nen also ques­tioned the mo­tives be­hind the rush to pre­vent the Ram­men stage on Satur­day go­ing ahead.

“It mainly came from Volk­swa­gen,” said Ma­ho­nen, “so they were wor­ried Ogier has to open the road again. So maybe he’s go­ing to lose, so this was be­hind [it] – not safety.”

Volk­swa­gen team prin­ci­pal Jost Capito de­nied any such moves, say­ing: “He knows me good enough that I would never do some­thing like this. If we did that, how could we be trusted in fu­ture dis­cus­sions. We only talk about safety. We never put any com­pet­i­tive move into that. That would be com­pletely wrong.”

Ma­ho­nen said he was happy to con­sider a driv­ers’ briefing which would of­fer all crews the op­por­tu­nity to air con­cerns ahead of the event.

“If they want it and think it’s needed, we have noth­ing against that,” he said. “It’s a good way to com­mu­ni­cate with the driv­ers. We are sup­posed to be on the same side and maybe a driv­ers’ briefing is a good way for­ward – maybe we don’t need it for ev­ery round, but af­ter the recce it’s good to talk with them.”

The FIA’S ral­lies depart­ment has re­cently been re­struc­tured in light of re­quests for a recog­nised driver to pass through the stages to check their con­di­tion. Michele Mou­ton, a four-time world rally win­ner in the 1980s, now works as safety del­e­gate and drove the stages nu­mer­ous times to as­sess their con­di­tion.

She told Mo­tor­sport News: “What’s the rea­son I did this? The rea­son I did this is for the driv­ers. To give them the best in­for­ma­tion and to be sure the road is safe. It’s for this rea­son we can­cel some stages be­fore the start.”

Citroen team prin­ci­pal Yves Mat­ton favoured the es­tab­lish­ment of a driv­ers’ group, but added that it needed to be done in a struc­tured way.

“For me,” Mat­ton said, “it would be nor­mal that they have this as­so­ci­a­tion to be able to speak with the dif­fer­ent stake­hold­ers, but I was con­vinced this meet­ing from Fri­day morn­ing was not some­thing that could achieve any­thing; you can­not make de­ci­sions like this at the start of the com­pe­ti­tion.”

Hyundai ral­ly­ing boss Michel Nan­dan said crew safety re­mained at the top of the list of pri­or­i­ties for the man­u­fac­tur­ers.

He told MN: “We are not com­pletely stupid, if there is a risk for the driver, we will not send them to the stage.”

Meeke be­lieves WRC driv­ers should re­act in uni­son and be in a po­si­tion to take ac­tion

Ogier wants con­sul­ta­tion

Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com

Paddon re­fused to boy­cott the Torsby stage

Ma­ho­nen in­sists FIA wouldn’t jeop­ar­dise safety

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