Grey area over safety calls has led to a re­think from WRC Pro­moter and FIA

Motor Sport News - - Rally News - By David Evans Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­

FIA rally di­rec­tor Jarmo Ma­ho­nen will im­ple­ment a new hard­line ap­proach to safety in the World Rally Cham­pi­onship – but de­liv­er­ing it in a cost-ef­fec­tive fash­ion will be the sport’s big­gest chal­lenge.

At the fore­front of his new pol­icy is lim­it­ing in­put into de­ci­sion mak­ing on the sport­ing aspects of run­ning ral­lies from WRC Pro­moter. Ma­ho­nen is seek­ing to re­draw lines to make it clear where the re­spon­si­bil­ity for the FIA and the pro­moter lie.

At the heart of the dis­quiet are de­ci­sions made dur­ing last year’s Rally Ar­gentina, when it is al­leged the pro­moter in­structed event of­fi­cials to con­tinue send­ing cars into the El Con­dor pow­er­stage af­ter first An­dreas Mikkelsen and then Thierry Neuville had crashed near the start.

Ma­ho­nen told MN: “When I watched this on tele­vi­sion last year, I was say­ing: ‘What is go­ing on?’ We have had a few cases, and I’m be­ing open and hon­est here, like last year in Ar­gentina when they let [Dani] Sordo start the stage af­ter there had been an ac­ci­dent; be­cause the TV guys were there. This will never hap­pen again. This is num­ber one: if an ac­ci­dent takes place, it [the stage] will be stopped. The TV guys don’t have any au­thor­ity. The TV peo­ple are talk­ing live with the peo­ple at the stage, but you don’t leave them to de­cide [on safety de­ci­sions].”

The fu­ture for both Rally Ar­gentina and Rally Poland hangs in the bal­ance this year, with the events both run­ning un­der yel­low cards af­ter safety in­fringe­ments last sea­son. A yel­low card is is­sued by the FIA on re­ceipt of a less than sat­is­fac­tory re­port on safety from the on-event stew­ards.

Be­yond the way the El Con­dor crashes were dealt with, Hay­den Paddon’s ac­ci­dent in an area known to be bad for spectators was of even more con­cern.

Rally fans were left trapped be­neath the New Zealan­der’s Hyundai in the ac­ci­dent on the crowded Capilla del Monte test.

“If we have the same is­sues in Ar­gentina, then it’s a red card and you are not in the cal­en­dar in the fu­ture,” added Ma­ho­nen.

WRC safety del­e­gate Michele Mou­ton has al­ready met with Rally Ar­gentina of­fi­cials and will travel to Cor­doba to meet with them again later this week.

“For us,” Ma­ho­nen con­tin­ued, “Ar­gentina is a very im­por­tant event in the cal­en­dar, it’s the show­case for all of South Amer­ica. It seems they are very keen to work with us and our safety depart­ment, so we have to im­ple­ment it. The prob­lem is that we can look at the safety plan and ev­ery­body can make re­ally good pa­pers, but when the rally is run­ning, if they are not im­ple­ment­ing, then what’s the point? They have to now come with enough mar­shals and po­lice to put ev­ery­thing to­gether.”

The Rally of Por­tu­gal showed last year what can be achieved, when it re­turned to the city of Porto and the na­tion’s north­ern heart­land of rally fans. Many pre­dicted a disas­ter, fear­ing stages would be can­celled and crowds out of con­trol, but the event ran with­out fault cour­tesy of a mas­sive po­lice and mar­shal pres­ence.

It’s the fi­nan­cial cost of that crowd con­trol that many worry could kill events in the fu­ture.

Ma­ho­nen added: “The big­gest chal­lenge for us in the fu­ture is how we of­fer af­ford­able ral­ly­ing to the peo­ple with­out jeop­ar­dis­ing safety.”

Ma­ho­nen is now tak­ing a more day-to-day role in the WRC. He has re­placed Mou­ton as WRC man­ager, with the French lady mov­ing over to the job of safety del­e­gate.

“Michele has the ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Ma­ho­nen. “She has driven th­ese stages from be­hind the wind­screen. When we got the ap­pli­ca­tions for that [safety del­e­gate] job, they were good peo­ple, but to teach them how to work it would have been an­other year and we have been al­ready late enough with this change. It’s true.”

On the sub­ject of changes to his own job, he added: “My role is to look at the sport­ing side: we stepped in in Swe­den to help them make the de­ci­sions – how we could run Swe­den with­out jeop­ar­dis­ing the safety. It’s like in the army, when you pro­pose some­thing – in the end you have to do it by your­self.”

One of the tasks he is fac­ing right now is the po­ten­tial im­ple­men­ta­tion of a WRC Driv­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion.

Grand Prix Driv­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion chair­man Alex Wurz told MN he’s ready to sit down with WRC crews to talk about a po­ten­tial al­liance be­tween the two groups in the fu­ture.

“We would def­i­nitely wel­come dis­cus­sions with the driv­ers from the World Rally Cham­pi­onship to look at some sort of co-op­er­a­tion be­tween the two bod­ies,” said Wurz. “I’d hap­pily talk to some of the [WRC] driv­ers and then talk to my guys to see what we can do. I think this can be re­ally help­ful for all stake­hold­ers.

“Such a body is very ben­e­fi­cial to the en­tire sys­tem. Some peo­ple can think of this as a union that makes prob­lems and stops things hap­pen­ing, but this is not the case. If you want the sport to be op­ti­mised in any shape or form then hav­ing the driv­ers speak­ing with one voice is so im­por­tant.”

Wurz was quick to rec­om­mend 2001 World Rally cham­pion co-driver and for­mer vice-pres­i­dent of the FIA WRC Com­mis­sion Robert Reid as his op­po­site num­ber in a po­ten­tial WRCDA.

“Robert is a world cham­pion and he’s been enough in­volved to know what’s go­ing on,” added the two-time Le Mans win­ner Wurz. “He un­der­stands the mind­set. When you are still com­pet­ing, you think of ev­ery­thing in terms of the im­me­di­acy of damper set­tings be­ing changed, but when you are work­ing with stake­hold­ers, it can take months to get th­ese changes and you need some­body work­ing with you who un­der­stands that.”

Alex Wurz is a very sen­si­ble chap. He’s won Le Mans twice and fin­ished on the podium of a For­mula 1 race and runs a su­per-suc­cess­ful driver train­ing com­pany. And he’s also the chair­man of the Grand Prix Driv­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion.

I talked him very briefly through the con­cerns the crews cur­rently have in the World Rally Cham­pi­onship and asked for his thoughts on es­tab­lish­ing a WRCDA.

Since Swe­den, there’s been plenty more talk be­hind the scenes that this is some­thing which needs to hap­pen. FIA rally di­rec­tor Jarmo Ma­ho­nen is fully sup­port­ive of such a move, but there are those in po­si­tions of se­nior­ity who ques­tion the need for driv­ers to have a voice at all.

“They are,” one source said, “em­ploy­ees. They do as they’re told or they don’t have a job any more, surely. Like you and me, they’re an­swer­able to a hi­er­ar­chy; even folk like Se­bastien Ogier have a line man­ager… I don’t un­der­stand this con­stant need for in­ter­ven­tion.”

No doubt, Wurz has heard this all be­fore. He cut to the core.

“Some peo­ple can think of this as a union that makes prob­lems and stops things hap­pen­ing,” he ex­plained. “That’s not the case. The driv­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion makes things hap­pen.” Fa­cil­i­ta­tors not ag­i­ta­tors, then. Look­ing at the shock­ing cir­cum­stances out of which the GPDA was born in the early 1960s – where death was al­most a monthly oc­cur­rence in For­mula 1 – it’s per­haps easy to ques­tion the gen­uine need for a WRCDA in to­day’s com­par­a­tively safe sport.

Sixty years ago crash hel­mets were likely still an op­tion in ral­ly­ing; 50 years ago seat belts weren’t ex­actly uni­form; 40 years ago rollcages were laugh­able; 30 years ago, well, that was Group B… and 20 years ago side-im­pact pro­tec­tion was still the work of a sin­gle door­bar. Ten years ago, HANS devices had fi­nally ar­rived and crew safety hit the top of the agenda.

Per­cep­tion and re­al­i­sa­tion of safety has al­tered mas­sively down the decades.

Much of that work – par­tic­u­larly lat­terly – was driver-led. Richard Burns, for ex­am­ple, worked tire­lessly with Pro­fes­sor Sid Watkins on the in­tro­duc­tion of HANS to the WRC. Don’t we owe it to those kind of peo­ple to for­malise a group in ral­ly­ing?

Af­ter a week of ar­gu­ing and de­bat­ing, I’ve come to the con­clu­sion that a driv­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion makes com­plete sense. No­body’s try­ing to say the sport’s any more dan­ger­ous now than it’s ever been. Or that Se­bastien Ogier and Kris Meeke’s need for a voice is any greater than Timo or Tommi Maki­nen’s was.

But the sport is evolv­ing in a very dif­fer­ent land­scape than it ever has and the in­volve­ment of the driv­ers and co-driv­ers to en­sure as safe and ef­fi­cient evo­lu­tion as pos­si­ble can only be a good thing.

In Wurz’ words: it’s about mov­ing for­wards.

Mikkelsen crashed shortly af­ter this in Ar­gentina Mou­ton (r): new safety del­e­gate

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