This year’s Rally Finland was an epic affair as Elfyn Evans stormed to a triumphant victory and the stages took on a fresh look with the rally being held in October for the very first time.
Since the World Rally Championship’s high-speed adventure in Jyväskylä last weekend, talk has understandably shifted to 2022 with a flurry of driver announcements from all three teams giving WRC fans and media alike plenty to digest – there’s plenty on this corner of the internet to keep you occupied!
But another debate has arisen in the DirtFish online newsroom, centered on the events of Rally Finland. Are WRC drivers currently being penalized enough for any breaches of the regulations?
Sébastien Ogier was fined €800 [$928] and 60 seconds were added to his overall rally time for a second helmet-strap breach of the season – it had come undone during the stage like it had on the Monte Carlo Rally in January.
And Ott Tänak was also penalized – somewhat under the radar – for driving at 62mph in a 25mph zone on a road section on Wednesday evening before the event. He was fined €7000 [$8091].
Do these punishments fit the crime? Are drivers facing strict enough penalties, or are they getting off lightly – given these two Finland cases are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of various offences this season.
Our writers present the arguments for and against in this opinion debate:
Tougher punishments will change nothing
I’m struggling to get my head around this one, really. Tougher punishments for drivers committing offences – what’s the expected outcome here? Less offences?
Don’t count on it.
Take ‘helmetstrapgate’ as an example. No driver in their right mind leaves their lid unfastened on a special stage intentionally. It is a rules breach that brings no benefit to anyone – least of all the culprit themselves.
The primary cause of such offences is merely forgetfulness, as explained by both Ogier and Carlos del Barrio earlier this year.
Does ramping up the fines for breaches of this nature remove the fallibility of a human’s memory recall?
Deployment of fines and the banhammer require nuance and context. And, as fashionable as it is to bash the FIA and event stewards for mucking up decisions, there has been a lot of common sense applied in calls made on the punishments front lately.
I see little evidence to suggest that suspended sentences – a favorite tool of stewards for first-time offenders – aren’t working as intended.
Hyundai duo Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville are currently driving under the cloud of suspended bans for different offences – in Tänak’s case, driving on a wheel that was down to the rim in Monte-Carlo and for Neuville it was excessive speeding in Estonia.
Perhaps then the decision to only fine Tänak for his speeding offence – he was doing 62mph in a 25mph zone – and to not also dole out a suspended ban for his troubles is the only questionable choice from Finland’s deliberations.
Neuville had been doing 118mph in a 56mph zone and got a suspended ban for his trouble. While Tänak’s top speed was slower he was still more than double the speed limit – so why a bigger fine but no suspended ban?
Neuville’s punishment was sufficiently tough; he’s not been nabbed breaking the speeding rules again since. It’s the inconsistency that’s the issue here.
And then there’s a wider scope to consider. There is more to rallying than the WRC manufacturer bubble.
For a driver that earns a seven-figure salary per season, a five-grand fine is a drop in the ocean. But for the vast majority of competitors it can be the difference between turning up to the next rally or not.
As one World Rally Champion pointed out to me the last time I ended up debating this subject, draconian fines for rules breaches regarding minor non-compliance issues risk being a deterrent for drivers to keep coming back and competing. An honest mistake and deliberate rule–breaking should not be treated as one and the same when it comes to deciding the severity of punishments.
And if you want to talk about tough, look what happens to anyone that breaches the technical regulations. While the sporting regs provide leeway to stewards, falling out with the letter of the technical law earns you an on-the-spot exclusion. No excuses allowed.
How the Finns deal with speeding fines on public roads sets a good example for doling out punishments.
Fines are scaled to the perpetrator’s means, leading to the rich coughing up eye-watering fines as high as $103,000 (as one Nokia executive found to his cost back in 2002), while the less well-off pay a rather more reasonable rate.
There’s already evidence of this in action in rallying. Robert Virves and Toni Herranen committed the same offence of not hitting the ‘OK’ button after crashes on Rally Estonia this year where both crews were unharmed and did not need emergency assistance. As an FIA Priority 4 driver competing in Junior WRC, Vivres got a €1000 [$1115] fine. Herranen, a non-priority driver in a privateer Fiesta, only had to stump up €250 [$289].
Who says stewards lack common sense? Punishment relative to means is smart thinking, reminding competitors of their obligations without seeking to price them out of competing in further events.
Not tough enough? Nonsense. Put that gavel back in the drawer. It’s getting enough use already.
Drivers need to feel more at risk
This topic has already been debated on DirtFish. Check out SPIN, The Rally Pod from after Rally Estonia for the immediate reaction to Neuville’s speeding incident on that event.
Of all the various penalties to be handed out this season, that one has worried me the most. Tänak’s in Finland falls into the same bracket, but it was Neuville’s reasoning for traveling 118mph in a 56mph zone that really bugged me.
Neuville, who had suffered a starter motor problem on the way to the penultimate stage, argued that because he and Martijn Wydaeghe were “fighting for a podium position in the classification they could not avoid overspeeding in order not to be late at TC23”.
I’m not sure that excuse would wash with the local constabulary, so why did Neuville escape with just a €2500 fine [$2890] fine and a suspended ban? It’s utterly baffling. Neuville’s explanation implies that because he’s a rally driver and has a result he wants to protect, he has a reason to be breaking road laws – and the fact he was let away with it essentially scot-free gives off the same impression.
Part of rallying’s very essence is that the cars have to be road legal. It’s why they all have number plates and indicators. Drivers therefore have to obey the laws of the road too. And Neuville’s claim that “at that moment the road was clear of traffic” is incredibly dangerous, as anybody that drives on the roads knows that you never know what can be around the corner.
I don’t want this to appear as if I’m digging out Neuville though; his is just the best example of the point. Tänak’s behavior in Finland was certainly no better, and they aren’t the only drivers to try it either. Arguably drivers should still have a moral conscience, but ultimately the fault lies with the judicial process – not them – as they are ultimately aware that they are afforded one strike before they’re out.
At the moment, it appears as if drivers are facing no jeopardy for any reckless acts. If Neuville knew that speeding that excessively was going to result in a ban, he wouldn’t have done it. He would have opted to take the time penalties for arriving late to the time control and securing at least a result instead of nothing at all. The current system makes a mockery of the FIA’s Action for Road Safety campaign if nothing else.
After three Monte Carlo incidents, DirtFish asked former #WRC co-driver @nickygrist to demonstrate how a rally helmet is secured, and how that makes accidental unfastening impossible: pic.twitter.com/CZHc415zKE
— dirtfishrally (@DirtFishRally) February 6, 2021
Ogier’s helmet-strap case is more unusual. This appears to be some sort of freak thing (see the fastening demonstration above) that has happened twice, but equally the dangers of not having a helmet fastened correctly are obvious should a competing crew have an accident.
Alasdair does have a point in that deliberate rulebreakers don’t deserve to be treated the same way as those accidentally doing so, as would appear to be the case with Ogier, but in then bringing up the technical regulations in that any crew not complying faces rigorous punishment, that argument completely collapses.
Surely if a competitor gets done for an accidental technical infringement, Ogier should have been punished more severely than a small fine and an ultimately meaningless time penalty for his accidental safety infringement? How do the two differ? With the system as it currently is, it’s almost giving off the message that sporting regulations are more important than a competitor’s safety.
There should be no leeway. There should be no opportunity for a free pass. As much as it might have been harsh for Ogier to have been excluded from Finland, it would certainly have set a precedent wouldn’t it.
I’ve competed on a rally before, and fastening a helmet’s D-strap is not a time-consuming task. And I certainly noticed the difference between when it was fastened and when it wasn’t. It can therefore feasibly be argued that Ogier has minimal excuses for what happened – intentional or not. Punishing him for it would ensure all drivers are extra vigilant in the future, and are therefore safer. In the long run, who loses?
And let’s not forget, as much as I argued Mads Østberg’s fine for swearing on live television wasn’t necessarily unjust, it feels strange that the financial penalty there was higher than for Ogier in Finland.