WRC STARS CLAIM LACK OF VOICE ON SAFETY FEARS
World rally stars will repeat calls to skip stages if safety threats are ignored
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
Paddon refused to boycott the Torsby stage
Mahonen insists FIA wouldn’t jeopardise safety