The World Rally Championship is special, and so is the experience of catching a WRC race in Portugal.
RALLY racing is special. For starters, aside from the relative comfort of the service park (rallying’s equivalent of the paddock in circuit-based motorsports), all the spectating has to be done alfresco. If the weather during my time in Porto at the Rally de Portugal was any measure, this meant enduring searing sunshine one moment and icy blasts of mountain-peak wind the next. That said, suff ering the vagaries of nature was all part of the experience. And, really, if I were sipping champagne from the comfort of an air-conditioned lounge kilometres away from the action and having to, ahem, perform needful tasks in fixed facilities, it wouldn’t be in keeping with the spirit of rallying.
Despite Porto throwing up some bipolar weather, I doubt its late-spring climate was hardly the worst that hardcore rally fans go through – the Rally Sweden, for instance, is famed for its snow-covered stages and subzero temperatures. Watching this race is not for the faint of heart or the fancy of dress. And because the stages are held on portions of public road, most places on the route could be your “grandstand”. This means knowing where to go is of paramount importance, especially if you want to avoid watching the action through a pair of binoculars. Then there’s the small matter of actually getting to said “grandstand” and jostling for “seat” space. In Porto, I saw people going up the Portuguese hills in cars, motorbikes, ATVs, bicycles and, if you were a guest of Volkswagen Motorsport as I was, by helicopter.
At the famous Fafe “jump” stage, the rally cars seemed to whiz past even faster than they would on a permanent circuit, possibly down to how the makeshift racetrack was barely wide enough to accommodate a single car, let alone one travelling in excess of 100km/h. So why would anyone want to wake up early and travel to the middle of nowhere, all for the chance to catch fleeting glimpses of rally cars while getting a liberal sprinkling of dust/mud/sand? (I found out some spectators had “choped” their “podium grandstand” spot the night before – the “choping” device in this case being their barbecue grill.) If I had to choose one reason, it’d be the atmosphere, which was, in a word, amazing. What I experienced at the rally was certainly one for the books.
As always, Fafe was one of the best shooting/ spectating spots for the Rally de Portugal
Happy fans roared their approval as each racer slid past with centimetre precision, with the loudest cheers reserved for crowd favourites such as reigning world champion Sebastien Ogier with Volkswagen and ex-Formula One pilot Robert Kubica. Heck, the assembled fans even cheered for the safety cars performing last-minute checks on the route. If this were F1, the safety car would be lucky to elicit an impatient yawn from the spectators. It takes a special kind of fan to cheer the safety car on, because the kind of person who will trek up a secluded hill to watch a race is anything but ordinary. This lack of normalcy also led to a bunch of rally fans forcing beer and what has to be the besttasting grilled pork sandwiches into my hands.
Motorbikes, ATVs and 4x4 sports utility vehicles were popular modes of transport for the rally spectators.
And these complete strangers kept wanting to foist more food on me when they saw I was finished. They didn’t take “nao” for an answer. No doubt their generosity was helped along by the copious amounts of beer and locally produced vinho verde (literally green wine, a light semi-sparkling liquid meant to be consumed within a year of bottling) they’d been imbibing throughout the day, but I like to think it was down to their friendly nature and my winning personality. Clearly, rally fans aren’t your usual motorsport spectators. But rallying isn’t your usual form of motorsport. Unlike relatively coddled F1 pilots, rally drivers are built of far grittier stuff , much like the surfaces they race on.
While there are elaborate service facilities in the service park, if a driver encounters a flat tyre or mechanical problem while out on a rally stage, he has to fix it with his co-driver, with no team intervention allowed. They even have to commute between the service park and the stage itself, which means driving on public roads with regular traffi c. This explains why every rally car wears licence plates and has valid insurance coverage. Those are things you certainly wouldn’t find on an F1 car, or even a GT racecar.
Watching a rally is not for the faint of heart or the fancy of dress.
While on said commute (known as a transport stage), rally drivers have to obey all applicable traffi c rules, which means no doing things the police take a dim view of (for example, powerslides and speeding). Like any motorist, a rally driver will receive a fine and demerit points if he’s caught. The FIA takes an even dimmer view of drivers who flout speed limits. They will incur a 25-euro fine for every km/h over the posted speed limit, on top of whatever ticket the cops have already slapped on them. It was surreal seeing and hearing a full-blown be-liveried racecar doing something as prosaic as driving from point to point, within the speed limit and patiently following slower traffi c (eff ectively everyone else).
And there was still a race going on. Reigning manufacturers’ champion Volkswagen swept the podium in Portugal, with Jari-Matti Latvala leading from day one and claiming his first win of the season. The defending champ, Ogier, had a bad start on the first day, though a storming drive on the last two days saw him finish second overall. Forgive me if my race report is a little cursory, because of the fantastic fans, how close I got to the action (barely metres away in most cases, which justifies the numerous signs exhorting how “motorsports can be dangerous”), the down-to-earth drivers and more helicopter rides in three days than I ever had in my 30-odd years.
The fans at the Rally de Portugal were in a class of their own, offering good beer and extremely delicious pork sandwiches to total strangers.
A motorsport event where the race itself played second fiddle to just about everything else that was going on? Like I said at the beginning, catching a World Rally Championship event is truly a special experience.