With new regulations for 2017, we take a look at the history behind the changes coming to the world’s Special Stages.
On Sunday the 12th of February, 2017 Finnish driver Jari-Matti Latvala won his 17th rally in a Toyota Yaris WRC — the first for the marque since it left the series seventeen years ago. Latvala’s Yaris however shares few similarities with the car it’s built on; it is a rear-winged, four-wheel drive prototype with an active centre differential and turbo-charged four-cylinder engine, forming part of a brave new era. This year rallying gets a boost to the system and as a result the series to look out for in 2017 is not Formula One or the World Endurance Championship but, in fact, the World Rally Championship.
This year the WRC regulations have undergone dramatic changes, not only to make the cars safer and easier to drive but faster as well. Engine power is up to 380 horsepower and the increase in size of the diffuser, alongside greater aerodynamic freedom, means that this year’s cars (run by Citroen, Toyota, Hyundai and M-Sport) will be covering ground one second per kilometre faster than the Group B monsters of the 1980s.
Group B in fact is the reason these regulations have been created. In the early 1980s the regulations allowed unlimited development by manufacturers so long as they produced just two hundred road-going examples. This resulted in machines such as the Lancia Delta S4, Peugeot T16 and Audi Quattro S1 which though thrilling to watch and audibly biblical, were extraordinarily rapid with drivers struggling to keep up with the cars as they blasted through each stage.
Group B though became a ticking time bomb as speeds increased but safety didn’t. The deaths of driver Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto on the 1986 Corsica Rally alongside the 1985 Portugal tragedy, in which three spectators were killed when Joaquim Santos’ RS200 ran off the road, convinced the FIA that something had to change. At the end of the 1986 season, Group B was banned and the much slower Group A cars were introduced from 1987 onwards.
Though the Group A cars would soon equal and exceed Group B stage times through better cornering and technological development, the WRC has long been afraid to really turn up the wick on its rally cars. Unlike in other forms of motor racing where you can modify the circuit to make it safer, you cannot do the same in rallying. You cannot make a tree more energy absorbing than it is; likewise, the cars may get safer each year but the stages remain the same.
It is for this reason that the 2017 season is as important for the organisers and fans as it is for the drivers competing for the title. The WRC has been living in the shadow of Group B for thirty years and the fans, as well as sponsors, have been longing for the WRC to give them more excitement in light of falling viewing figures and lowered media exposure. The fans and sponsors want to rekindle some of that spark that made the WRC as popular, if not more, as Formula One in the mid-1980s.
It is this spark that, at least from the evidence of Monte Carlo and Sweden, appears to have returned. The cars are visually more exciting, audibly more aggressive and have got almost every rally fan, watching stage-side or online, off their feet astounded at the speeds being achieved. Our only hope is that it lasts. As such, with the goodwill of the FIA and the fans’ sound judgement to keep out of dangerous spots, 2017 could be the start of a great new era for the World Rally Championship.