Containing the speed of the cars competing in rally racing has been a focal point of the FIA ever since the Group B days of the 1980s. To be fair, dirt tracks, jumps, trees, and people lining the road close to the action means that one false move or one miscalculation could end up with a twisted, mangled ball of metal and another black eye for the sport, and eyes are certainly on the cars of the 2017 season, especially within the FIA. During the recent Rally Sweden, which took place a few days ago, a second stage of the course was cancelled after Ott Tanak’s Ford exceeded the stage speed by five miles an hour…it’s first time out ever.
But what is stage speed and why is that an issue as far as the FIA is concerned? We don’t need to tell you that the current crop of rally cars are blisteringly fast, but that isn’t the issue. Rally speed isn’t a simple maximum mile-per-hour number. Instead, it’s calculated at an average speed for each individual stage, and with a pretty broad degree of leeway, that number has been 130 k/ph (80 MPH). There has been some looseness with the rule to allow for some flexibility, but Tanak’s 85.6 MPH blast through Rally Sweden went past grace and caught the attention of the authorities, who are now looking at stages with scrutiny not previously seen and informing drivers that there will be no more violations of the 130 k/ph rule.
FIA rally director Jarmo Mahonen recently told Motorsport.com: “These cars are quicker than the old cars – but in this stage even last year’s (cars) were going more than 130km/h. These kind of stages teach us one thing: we need to take a more firm grip when organisers want to introduce new stages, we have to be present to check them. If we see a stage time of more than 130km/h then it’s an indicator that we need to be looking at this. From our point of view this was too fast. What we want to do is look at a guideline on this, but maybe we need to think to the regulations.”
That doesn’t mean that Mahonen doesn’t understand the draw of the speed and theatrics rally racing brings, either. In the same interview he said, “We want speeds lower than 130km/h, but I remember when I was an organiser and I didn’t want to use straw bales to make chicanes. I understand that, and the answer is simple: use smaller roads that will be slower. This is what we have to do.”
There has been kickback from drivers who feel that they will be penalized just because they had a long straighaway and got to use it, and that they will have yet another thing to concentrate on while driving…as if racing in the woods with fans trying to touch the car or trying to get a close-up video wasn’t enough. But the FIA isn’t going to go easy…instead, they will be “taking a more active role” in watching rally stages to see if adjustments need to be made so that the cars aren’t too fast for conditions.