FIA rally director Andrew Wheatley believes that allowing more spectators into the Rally Japan stages would be a positive move for the event’s safety.
In its first edition following a 12-year hiatus, and in a completely new location, the Rally Japan organizer took a conservative approach to the number of spectators on the rally route. With stages running close to a large city in Toyota, there was a fear that allowing large numbers could lead to safety implications.
As it transpired, the rally suffered a number of safety incidents unrelated to spectator volumes and looks set to run under a yellow card next year.
Wheatley suggested that the Rally Japan organizer should embrace the role that spectators play in assisting with safety measures on an event.
“The role of the spectator in managing an event is absolutely vital, and sometimes we’re guilty [of] thinking that spectators are difficult to manage,” he said. “And there’s no question they present their own challenges.
“But they are also quite often very supportive of the event organizers, and they are the 13th man on the field. They are the extra support that requires.
“I’ve stood in Monte Carlo on this stage and it’s the spectators that have managed some unruly spectators and said, ‘if you keep standing there, you’re going to stop the stage for everybody’.
“And this is a very strong part of rally. Rally is a community of everybody, it’s not just organizers, teams and spectators, they all have to interact and work together.”
While Rally Japan generated a huge local interest, the organizer heavily restricted spectator access to the stages. Instead, as well as the superspecial, fans were encouraged to visit the service park and watch the cars pass on road sections. Japanese rally fans were incredibly obedient, and heeded to this instruction.
Wheatley understood – and agreed with – the organizers’ approach for this year’s event. But with no evidence of any intentionally poor behavior – quite the opposite – he believes the rally would benefit from increased spectator numbers in future.
He said: “I think we are located in a city of 150,000 people, the stages are just up the road; they were very concerned at the access [and that the stages] would be overrun with spectators.
“So they very carefully in their first year wanted to make sure that they manage this situation as good as possible. The reality of the situation is that well-behaved spectators, which I think we do have, incredibly well behaved, are an absolute positive.
“Basically they’ve shut the stages, the access roads, from a while out, so you can’t just meander in. They’ve been told spectators are not welcome at this event at this moment.
“They are welcome at places like the stage in town, they’re very welcome in the service park, very specific locations where they’ve been catered for and managed. And I think overall for the first year in this region that’s the right way to go forward.
“Going forward, we have to understand how that balance [can be achieved].”