“As we’ve seen, in WRC it has become more and more necessary to drive as if you’re on a racetrack, every corner has to be perfect and if you’re left-foot braking it probably means you haven’t done the perfect corner. So it’s all going in the same direction as it has been for years anyway.”
Tom Fowler was answering a journalist’s question recently about whether left-foot braking would be erased from a World Rally Championship driver’s repertoire because of the way the hybrid boost will work in the Rally1 era.
But his comparison between rallying and circuit racing was telling – as was the tone in which he said it. And it’s a viewpoint shared by Fowler’s Toyota colleague, team principal Jari-Matti Latvala.
“It’s been going towards circuit racing,” Latvala, addressing rallying as a whole, told DirtFish in 2020 when he was still a driver.
“I remember when there were no onboards [available]. You had onboards of some stages but not always.
“So basically if you had done something really, really well, nobody could know how you did it, but now there are no secrets anymore.”
DTM legend and 2016 World Rallycross Champion Mattias Ekström contested his first WRC event in 15 years last season, and said he had noticed a similar trend.
“The only thing I can sniff and feel is the efforts in terms of pacenotes, the video recce; that has changed a bit I felt,” said Ekström. “People have more of a circuit-racing mentality when it comes to data analyzing and all that.
“If it is for the better, I’m not sure really what to say but at least it has changed.”
It’s difficult to argue against the thesis. Several current drivers such as Esapekka Lappi, Takamoto Katsuta and even Craig Breen were racing karts or cars before they were rallying and, if nothing else, the fact that both famous Formula 1 venues Spa-Francorchamps and Monza welcomed WRC action in 2021 – with the latter hosting a two-thirds of an event at the track – indicates there’s a growing synergy between the two motorsport disciplines.
Perhaps then it’s an inescapable truth that rallying is slowly picking up trends from circuit racing. Oliver Solberg doesn’t necessarily agree.
“In a way, maybe,” he tells DirtFish. “We are preparing for events much more with videos and analyzing, especially now with the electric [hybrid introduction] there will be more strategy.
“In a different way [things are changing], but definitely not like racing – it’s still rallying. But I think there’s a lot more preparation for everything around what you can do much better before the event.”
That doesn’t mean the ideology hasn’t shifted to being more precise though, as Solberg explains.
“With pacenotes these days, you need to have them on a detailed level to keep up on new events,” he says.
“You can really see the difference between people coming to new events and I believe I have a good set of notes, and I think that’s very important. I think preparations with the notes, with the videos, trying new things, it’s much more than before.”
Realistically, none of the above is likely to come as a surprise to anybody. It’s certainly no secret that rallying – whether by design or merely as a consequence of an evolving world – has changed quite dramatically over the generations.
Comparing the 1972 Monte Carlo Rally to the 2022 running that begins in a couple of weeks is, for instance, a fairly pointless exercise given how different the event, vehicles, and regulations 50 years ago were to what the participants are preparing for now.
But that doesn’t make all comparisons invalid when investigating how rallying has slowly become more like circuit racing. Looking at how the WRC was 20 years ago at the turn of the 21st century gives a good idea of what’s changed – and what hasn’t – in recent history.
And for that task there’s really nobody better to ask than the Solberg family, given Oliver is readying himself for this year’s Monte with Hyundai and, two decades ago, his father Petter took the start for Subaru.
Technology has developed greatly, and driver profile – with the advent of social media – and safety has progressed too, as neither HANS devices nor fireproof underwear were mandated on all rallies 20 years ago, but the key talking point is the difference in the format of events.
While by the early 2000s WRC events resembled modern rallies with three legs split across a weekend, the composition of the stages wasn’t quite so formulaic. Nowadays events tend to feature a traditional cloverleaf format with a pair of stages followed by a service or regroup, which is then likely repeated in the second half of that day.
Two decades ago years ago, however, itineraries were far more mixed and individual to each event. While on some rallies the structure would mirror what’s closely in place today, on others some stages would barely be repeated at all.
And then of course there’s the length of the events. Although the time period in which they span is broadly similar, the competitive distance on offer has greatly reduced over the past couple of decades.
Let’s refer back to the 2002 and 2022 Montes for a moment. This year’s rally will provide drivers with 183.95 miles of competitive rallying, but 20 years ago the previous generation were getting their teeth stuck into 241.33 stage miles. That’s effectively like adding a fourth leg to this year’s event.
The difference is more stark on other events too. Take the Safari for example, where in 2002 the event was 433 miles longer than its return in 2021 – more than double the length of the most recent Safari.
The ultimate knock-on effect of all this is that each corner on a rally has become more important, simply because there are fewer of them. And the extensive archive of online material now available – chiefly on WRC+, which features onboards from every stage of every rally since 2014 – means pre-event homework has changed.
Now, drivers will spend days glued to their laptop trying to glean as much information as they can from the stages they will face on the rally. Oliver is no exception, although he does this considerably less than some of his peers.
“I definitely try to concentrate on some small preparations but it’s mainly [about] doing the recce well,” he says. “Get an overview of the event before the recce, do the recce very well and I don’t tend to look at so many videos. I trust the notes I have and just prepare myself properly with that.”
Petter never had the resources available to make such a decision. The internet did exist in his heyday, but it was a far less powerful tool than it is today. Instead, any pre-event learning he could do was done via a different medium.
“We were looking at the rallies on the TV, trying to evaluate the driving style from that side,” the 2003 World Rally Champion explains.
“It was quite a big difference when you looked at Juha Kankkunen to Richard Burns to Colin McRae to Carlos Sainz – all of them had very different [driving styles]. But I went in the car with these guys a lot because I went to every test [and] I was hoping to get in the car with them and see how they drove.
“With Colin McRae I was s*** scared every time so I knew his driving style, and then you’re going to Burns or Tommi [Mäkinen] or Carlos and it was different the other way again. So I tried to find the middle thing between the driving styles and that seemed to be working, but it was to understand what and how they did it.
“And of course I didn’t have any management, I didn’t have any people to learn from maybe like a lot of the Finnish drivers who helped each other, so when you are the first one out [from your country] it’s always difficult.
These days any mistake from the driver or any technical issues are not talked about or allowed for, it’s not allowedPetter Solberg
“It takes a little bit of a different mentality but I didn’t know anything else so I just did what I was thinking and what I felt was the right thing.
“It was all about communication again with the engineers, planning the rallies, evaluating the stages, going through everything that happened to other drivers’ cars on different types of stages, and trying to evaluate that before you came to the recce, so that you have some information where you have to be careful.
“And [in the] early days I remember in the meetings we had a discussion, we always had a lot of meetings with everybody and it was discussed the percentage of how many mistakes I could do and how many failures we could have with the car.
“These days it’s not talked about – any mistake from any driver or any technical issues, it’s not allowed. From that point of view it’s quite a big difference compared to the early days.”
On Oliver’s current methods of preparation, Petter adds: “He doesn’t look so much on onboards for a long time beforehand, you need to have all the energy when you’re coming to the races.
“At the same time you also need very good pacenotes so you don’t get lazy by trying to remember the stages. It’s easy to do mistakes if you don’t respect the pacenotes and your co-driver properly enough.
“I don’t think he’s doing the most compared to maybe many others but you have to learn all the other stuff in a very good way and you see also [Kalle] Rovanperä is doing a fantastic job and a lot of young drivers are there now, so it depends what you like.”
Petter’s point about becoming “lazy” and remembering stages is quite pertinent, and is something reigning WRC2 and European Rally Champion Andreas Mikkelsen admitted on one of his YouTube videos last year that he had tried to kick from his system. He had got to the point where he tried to learn stages by heart and was sleep deprived as a result, which negatively impacted his performance.
So just because all the materials are there, it doesn’t mean they need to be abused. But equally, not paying any attention at all will immediately put a driver at a disadvantage.
This is where the racing comparisons firmly creep in, as the old adage of racing drivers doing one corner 1000 times and rally drivers 1000 corners once doesn’t ring so true anymore.
With repeat passes of stages and similar itineraries from year to year, drivers do become familiar with stages – and can now approach each corner with a vague idea of what’s coming even on the recce by watching the route beforehand online.
It must therefore be incredibly hard for any driver to steal a march with so much data available to everyone?
“Well Sébastien Ogier has done something right!” Oliver argues. “But the philosophy is the same as before, in all the years. It’s [about] consistency.
“But these days, the margins are much, much more small. The driving, the level is the same whatever era it is in a different way but it’s just now, these days, a car breaking down is not even a question.
“In the early days they had a percentage of how many times the car breaks and how many times you might retire, these days it’s not even thinkable,” he adds, echoing his father’s thoughts. “The points are much more equal, the times are much more equal so even in a long stage these days it’s just a few seconds [you can find] in between.
The level is maybe faster on every stage but you can’t really make a difference, so it’s good and bad in both waysOliver Solberg
“It’s impossible to find 20 seconds, but the thing is you have to find these small details. In the end if it’s only two seconds it’s two seconds, that’s something still.”
The closeness of the competition is a gripping by-product of the closer attention to detail applied to modern WRC competition. While at the dawn of the WRC rallies were decided by minutes, which later became seconds as the eras wore on, it’s now effectively down to the tenth of a second – just like in racing.
Petter admits nowadays “obviously you need to be a perfectionist” and that spreads to the car as well as the driver.
“You have to look at much more details with the chassis,” he says. “You could have a much bigger window with the cars [in the] early days, now you have to have quite a big performance [window] and an easy car to drive basically so you can go fast on every stage.”
Oliver is more old school than most others of his age – perhaps that’s boosted by the nostalgia and wonder of what his dad, mum Pernilla, and uncle Henning all did in rally cars – so is he happy competing in an era where everything has to be so inch-perfect? Or would he rather rallying was a bit more like it used to be with bigger gaps and less familiarity?
“These days it’s maybe more attack, flat-out on every single stage, being a perfectionist in every single corner compared to the early days – which is very cool, which I like. But again, I still like these long, classic rallies which are fantastic to do, with more different stages where you can make a difference with your notes,” he responds.
“These days they all go twice, they are short, it’s easy to memorize, it’s a bit boring in that way because people with s*** notes or good notes can do quite equally which is a bit boring, because [in the] early days the details were in the notes and the driving and then you could really make the difference in the fog or whatever.
“But unfortunately these days there’s not so much of that. The level is maybe faster on every stage but you can’t really make a difference, so it’s good and bad in both ways.”
Whether it’s for the good or bad of rallying is up for debate, but it’s clear that rally driving and circuit driving have never been as similar as they are today. It would be fascinating to see a modern Formula 1 racer do what Kimi Räikkönen and Robert Kubica did before WRC+ existed and see if their adaptation period would be any easier…