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Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

May 8, 2020

As everyone knows, those words mean "The more things change, the more they remain the same". The French journalist Ambrose Karr would not have been writing about cars when he coined the phrase back in 1849 (because Gottlieb Daimler didn't sell his first car until 1892) but it certainly applies to my observations on rallying after a few decades away from the game.

Here are some of the changes.

Timing to the second
Back in the day timing of competitive stages was done to the forward minute, with competitors set a target time for the stage and being penalised a point for every minute or part thereof over the target time. To make this work, target times were usually set so that the average speed over the stage would be as close to 80 kilometres per hour as arithmetic would allow. If a car arrived early they could nominate their purported arrival time and lose no points. There were always arguments about the accuracy of various clocks, and aggressive navigators were known to attempt to browbeat control officials into recording times showing a loss of fewer points. (I was on a control in the Southern Cross Rally one night when a navigator kept pointing to a time written on a piece of paper which would have had his car cleaning the stage with no loss of points. He spoke only in Japanese and gave a good impression of someone who could not understand a word I was saying. I remained unmoved and recorded the actual time that the car arrived. I stood next to the navigator in Rally Headquarters the next day and he was speaking perfect unaccented English. But I couldn't fault him for trying.)

Timing now is elapsed time in seconds (or even fractions of a second) and the score for the entire event is the total time taken to complete all the stages. All controls use digital clocks provided by the event organisers which are synchronised to each other, and the time shown on the clock is recorded by control officials and no argument is accepted. (This doesn't mean that competitors don't argue, because arguing and complaining are part of the game, but it generally doesn't change anything.)

Much shorter stages and events
Timing to the minute meant that stages had to be long enough to produce a spread of times, even at 80km/h targets. It was quite normal to have stages of many tens of kilometres and it still needed a lot of overall competitive distance to produce an unambiguous result for an event. When moving house I found the documentation for a rally that I co-directed in 1978 based on Oberon where I now live. Total competitive distance was 280 kilometres. The first rally I ever went in had close to 300 kilometres of competitive stages (and we still had to drive over all the transport stages).

Second timing allows much shorter stages to be set because all that matters is how long a competitor takes to get from start to finish and there is obviously no such thing as getting in early and losing no points. Manned intermediate control points are used to make sure that competitors don't shortcut the course, but that also applied in timing to the minute days.

As well as shorter stages, events can have a much shorter running time in order to get a result. It is not uncommon to see events with only a couple of hours competitive running time over maybe a total of 120 kilometres. (There is a class of events called Rallysprints which might have a total distance of less than 20 kilometres, but apart from the "rally" part of the name they are a different kind of event.)

Repetition of stages
Every event now seems to use all the stages at least twice and sometimes three times. This has big advantages for organisers as it means that a much shorter amount of road has to be surveyed when setting the event, the area encompassing the event can be much smaller, often only a single place has to be set aside as a service park (with refuelling generally the only service activity outside the park) which also suits service crews as they don't have to move all their gear around, and fewer control officials are required (and the officials get to see the cars more than once). The 1978 rally I mentioned above had no roads used more than once in the 280 kilometres, with the only repetition being on roads used to get to and from stages and meal and service breaks. We had to survey and route chart the whole thing.

Repeating stages raises a small anomaly. Many events ban pace notes and the only tool allowed for getting around the course is the official road book. It is very hard to police the taking of notes on the first pass over a stage which can be used to make the second pass work better, and I'm sure smart codrivers know how to make annotations to the road book that get around the restrictions. Rule bending is another fine tradition that has survived from the olden days.

Apart from timing to the second, the biggest change in rallying over the years has been a greater emphasis on safety. Here are some of the changes that have made the sport much safer for everyone – competitors, officials and spectators.

  • Manned road closures – as well as controlling spectator access to the course using webbing, ribbons and trestles, there are manned controls at intervals along the route that make sure that nobody can get onto the course unless they have a reason to be there. These controls do double duty by recording the passage of cars (to avoid shortcutting) and using radio communication to report problems on the course and cars which have gone missing. Official spectator points are always at manned road closures.
  • Ambulances and medical staff – most events now have an ambulance on standby near where the action is happening. Rather strangely, the only event that I have attended in the last five years in which a competitor was injured enough for hospitalisation was also the only one without an ambulance in attendance. There was one there at the next event organised by the same club.
  • Mandatory roll cages – I had a full roll cage in my rally car but they were not compulsory. Some people only had a half cage behind the crew, some didn't bother at all. I mention below that I was once eliminated from an event by hitting something. It was a wall and the roll cage bars above the doors and front windscreen prevented the car from folding onto the occupants. Without those bars the navigator would certainly have been trapped in the wreckage (and maybe seriously injured) and I would have had a lot of difficulty getting out of the driver's seat (and the car would have been a total writeoff). Money well spent and people stopped asking me why I had a full cage. It is worth mentioning that the cage I had would not meet today's specifications and would not pass scrutineering.
  • Helmets – helmets are now compulsory in all events. Most people seem to use ones with built-in intercom speakers and microphone but that isn't necessary. (I have my old helmet on a shelf as a souvenir – it has a square of Velcro on the left hand side where the intercom microphone was attached.)
  • Head restraints – in events above a certain level it is mandatory to have something in place to restrict head movement. The most common way is the use of a HANS device (the simplest type is shown in the picture) which is held in place by the harness belts and attaches to the helmet. (In the accident in my car that I keep mentioning, my navigator suffered whiplash which put him off work for some time.)
  • Fire extinguishers – these have always been required but now for events above a certain level there must be a plumbed automatic fire extinguishing system fitted to the car
  • Radios – I mention this below in the section on communication.
  • RallySafe – this is another system which is mandatory in events above a certain level. It is a device fitted to the car which continually transmits the car's position (using GPS) so that the location of every car can be known at all times (the locations can be seen on a web site). All cars are required to have the appropriate wiring, antenna etc fitted to pass scrutineering and the devices must be operational for the entire event. The RallySafe devices themselves are rented and have to be returned at the end of the rally.
  • Attitude – I can remember people whingeing when the Australian Standard for helmets changed and we all had to buy new ones and I can remember people getting very upset when our club insisted on roll bars in open cars but nobody seems to have any real issue with safety requirements these days. It is undeniable that rallying can be a dangerous game, particularly now in the days of turbocharged AWD rockets, but it always was. (I had many more frights on race tracks than I ever did in rallies, but I had that roll cage and I replaced both harnesses after we hit something hard despite people asking me "Why?" about both things.)

Daylight running
Running in daylight instead of at night time helps to make the sport safer. (Some events might have nighttime stages, but most of the activity still happens when the sun is up.) There are two reasons why this increases safety.

Better visibility. Even with the best and most powerful driving lights you can see less than in daylight. Daylight running lets competitors see hazards well before arriving at them. Also, there is less likelihood of coming across wildlife in the daytime. Wombats are nocturnal and hitting one at speed can do extensive damage to a car (as well as to the wombat, of course). The best lights in the world won't tell you that there is a 40 kilogram immovable object in the middle of the road just around the next corner. Kangaroos can come out in the daytime (as the drivers in practice for the 2020 LiqiMoly 12 Hour Race at Mount Panorama found out) but they are far more likely to be on the road when it's dark.

Less tiredness. We used to leave Saturday morning, drive or tow the car a few hundred kilometres to the start of the event, drive at high speed until the early hours of Sunday, sleep for a few hours and then bring the car home. Even if we could drive up the day before, competing still happened when our normal body rhythms said we should be asleep. Control officials were also expected to stay up all night. Daylight running doesn't increase costs much (if the event is far enough away to require more than one night's accommodation it probably did for nighttime events at the same places anyway).

From a purely pragmatic position, as someone who takes a lot of photos at rallies I'd much prefer to be taking the pics in daylight when I can use continuous shooting to get the one-out-of-many good photos rather than the single shot of each car possible before waiting for the flash to recharge itself. Need I mention that I also like the large capacity SD card in my camera which lets me take thousands of photos to make a selection from rather than the desperate rush to change film after 36 shots before the next car comes along (after waiting for the dust to clear before opening the back of the camera)?

This is another aspect of increased safety these days.

I only once hit anything in a rally hard enough to put me out of the event. We were running near the tail of the field and I told the couple of cars that stopped that we were not hurt and would wait for the sweep and recovery cars to come along and get us back to the service park at rally headquarters. Neither the sweep nor the recovery vehicle ever got to where we were, so we had to do a temporary repair and drive 97 kilometres back to the finish in a car with little fore-aft restraint on the left front wheel and more toe-out than a ballerina adopting first position. When we finally got the car back home we found that the service crew (which included our spouses) were more than a little worried because we were obviously very late but nobody had told them where we were or if we were injured (or even worse).

Not all rallies use Rallysafe, but even without it communication is a lot better now. Today, all control points are connected by UHF radio and there is an immediate alert if a car enters a stage but doesn't come out. Most if not all of the cars also have UHF radios to report car problems or issues with road conditions (and to talk to their service crews). I'm not a competitor but I carry a small UHF handset both for my own safety (I'm not always right near a control) and to monitor the conversations between controls, cars and rally headquarters.

Rally car registration
Every year I had to put the bumper bars back onto my rally car (fitting the front bar required removal of the driving lights and refitting the front number plate), replace enough of the exhaust system to make it a lot quieter (it was technically legal even with the competition system, but making it quieter avoided arguments), remove the high-powered reversing light (which wasn't illegal but again caused arguments) and a few other fiddles. If I couldn't get to my regular mechanic for an inspection I had to be prepared to argue that full harness belts meeting Australian Standards were a legal replacement for the original lap/sash seat belts and to convince someone that bonnet locking pins weren't a hazard to pedestrians and I didn't need a rear seat. There were other things but I can't remember them now.

Now cars can be registered specifically for rally competition. There are all sorts of quite reasonable restrictions on how, where and when the cars can be driven, but the rules recognise that rally cars aren't everyday transportation. You can see the regulations for NSW here.

But what hasn't changed?
The skills needed to compete and the fun that can be had from the sport. These are the most important things about the game anyway.

Copyright © 2016- Peter Bowditch

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