MAHONEN: WRC SAFETY CHANGES IMMINENT
Grey area over safety calls has led to a rethink from WRC Promoter and FIA
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.