Organisers defend decision to let stage run despite accident and fire
Rally of Portugal officials have defended their decision to send competitors into a stage while Hayden Paddon’s Hyundai burned – a decision that was only reversed when Ott Tanak’s Ford crashed and landed in the fire.
Paddon’s Hyundai i20 WRC was lost in a fifth-stage inferno and only quick thinking from Tanak saved his Ford Fiesta RS WRC from being taken by the fire as well ( see story, right).
Paddon, whose car caught fire when the hot exhaust ignited the dry grass on which it came to rest, said: “It was a flat, fourth-gear corner. I was flat through there in the morning, but a big hole had developed on the entry to the corner. The hole was hidden behind vegetation and I couldn’t see it until I was committed. When I hit it, it kicked the car off into the bank on the right. We hit a big rock in the bank, that took the front wheel off and spun us around, then we went down the bank backwards.
“For me it’s frustrating because it doesn’t feel like a driving mistake. I was caught out by an obstacle on the road, one I wasn’t expecting and the consequences are much too harsh.”
Asked if he was aware of the anger at the decision to continue sending cars into a stage which ran passed a burning car and forest, Rally of Portugal clerk of the course Pedro Almeida told MN: “I don’t think that way. We are investigating now the causes for this accident and, from my knowledge I would say, well I cannot prove it and I don’t want to, but it looks like a driver’s mistake.
“My position is this: you stop the stage under one of two conditions, the road is blocked or you need to send urgent medical assistance to anybody. If the road is clear and no assistance is necessary, from my point of view there is no reason to stop the stage.
“What I’m going to say is not politically correct, but this is rally. This is not a circuit. You must be prepared, as a driver – and I’ve been a co-driver for 10 years – for unexpected things. If you know everything, like on a Playstation… rally is not like this. Accidents may happen. I don’t see any reason to stop the stage.
“Every time you stop the stage, you have to allocate times and then they argue about that.”
Asked why he didn’t warn Tanak and the following cars, Paddon said: “The marshals and police were being very restrictive of where we could go. We were told it was a radio point and that the stage had been stopped. When you’re 13km [eight miles] into the stage, obviously there are active cars in the stage. We weren’t allowed to go and put the [warning] triangle out.
“We had pushed the ‘OK’ button because, when I stopped, I didn’t know anything about the fire. When I got out of the car it was on fire; the fire was beyond control after 10 seconds. I couldn’t go back and change [the button to SOS] when it was on fire.”
Approximately 10 minutes after Paddon’s crash, Tanak went off the road at the same point.
“There was no information, no marshals, no flags nothing,” said the Estonian. “We went off the road and landed straight into the middle of the fire. It wasn’t just Paddon’s car that was on fire – it was the whole forest.”
Having rolled into a lake in Mexico last season, Tanak is accustomed to dealing with extreme situations. He told MN: “I can tell you, fire is definitely worse than water! This was not well organised. There were helicopters around – how were the rally organisers not told?”
Both drivers were frustrated at an accident they felt could have been avoided if FIA safety delegate Michele Mouton had driven the stage between the first and second pass. All drivers reported a moment in the corner and Jari-matti Latvala damaged his car at that point.
Tanak said: “In Sweden we had Mouton driving in front of the zero cars because the conditions were changing, but they are changing here also. Mouton is the FIA security person and there is no point in having her in the service park – her work is definitely out on the stages to do something for safety, check the stages for our safety. Definitely, she would have seen this problem on the stage, that is sure. She could not drive past here without a massive hit.”
Mouton said: “Sweden was another story, we were looking for snow – this is absolutely not the same. Can you believe if I have to go before them and then in between the stage? I am not in the rally car, it’s impossible to do this job I am not the gravel crew – basically that’s what they are asking.”
The stage was stopped following Tanak’s accident, meaning Martin Prokop was the 11th and final car into the stage. Kris Meeke drove the stage at road speed and disagreed with Tanak, saying: “It would have been difficult for Michele to pick that point up, there’s so much bedrock in that stage – you’d need to be quite committed in driving the line to find that [hole]. The question I would like answering is, how Tanak was allowed to crash there? Why was nobody slowing him down? Why was the stage running?”
Rally of Portugal clerk of the course Pedro Almeida talks MN through the SS5 incident in his own words.
“The crash was less than 100 metres before a radio point. Immediately we knew about the accident and we knew the drivers were safe, the car was in flames and around there was a lot of fire. The situation for the car was critical and there was nothing we could do about it.
“From the FIA, the requirement is for one big fire-fighting truck at the beginning of the stage and a light vehicle at the stop [line], one vehicle with the fire extinguishers.
“We have two eye-in-the-sky helicopters. One was following the first cars – we send our helicopter to the place of the accident. The camera showed immediately, less than one minute after the accident we had the footage. It was clear we could do nothing about the car, because of the location, humidity and the tracks and the fire was restricted to a certain area: the rally track was always clear.
“So, I decided, because my last intention was to interfere with the classification, I will not leave [allow to start] any WRC2 car, but I will leave the P1s [World Rally Cars] to all run through the stage. That decision was taken here [in rally control]. All the people from the FIA came, I explained them what was happened – they could see the track was totally clear, no spectators, nothing, so I continue starting the cars until car 12 has a similar accident and then I said: ‘OK it’s too much’. I stopped the stage immediately after car 21 [Prokop].
“We had two cars in that situation and the spectators were helping car 12 [Tanak], towing the car. The first thing I did after car 21 was to send the big fire engine into the stage. Immediately after this, I restarted the cars, but not under rally conditions to respect the schedule of the rally.
“We co-ordinate with civil defence, they send some vehicles using the access road and they extinguish the fire before our big truck arrives.
“My intention was to send all of the [World Rally] cars through the stage.”