Reboots. Hollywood loves them – the old franchises are coming back thick and fast. It’s the same story in the World Rally Championship: Kenya, Greece, and soon New Zealand, have all been restored to the WRC sporting universe.
But it’s not the same as the old days. Safari is shorter and more civilized. And the Acropolis? Everyone was surprised last year when it appeared to have turned soft around the edges.
“Last year we came here for Acropolis, first time for a long time, and it was kind of afterwards everyone thought it was a bit too easy maybe,” Tom Fowler, Toyota’s technical director, told DirtFish.
“It wasn’t really the Acropolis everyone was expecting from the old stories and the old days.”
Not this year. The Acropolis organizer took heed of its reputation as a brutal, punishing rally wearing off eroding last year and has made amends. Fowler believes that it will be “actually a lot more difficult than last year” after itinerary tweaks and the addition of brand-new stages.
Friday’s itinerary is a potential car-breaker. There’s no service all day long and no opportunity to change tires until after stage five. Friday’s midday double of SS4–SS5 looks especially punishing: the highest puncture risk of the rally whilst also offering very little grip, according to WRC’s control tire supplier Pirelli.
And where there is solid bedrock and loose rocks littering the stages, punctured radiators, broken oil sumps and steering arms snapping are always a worry.
All the crews face a tough choice heading out of service: which spares to bring and in what quantity? Too little and face being ill-prepared for the consequences, too much and it’s unnecessary weight slowing the car down.
But weight isn’t the only factor, as Fowler explains.
“There’s the weight factor and then there’s what can you physically fit in the time you have,” he explained.
“It’s quite a broad rally in terms of road section; it’s also with a tire fitting zone [on Friday, so] we can only use the tools that we have. We have a mechanic available for the guys but they have to use the tools carried in the car, so really we carry what it’s possible to do and that’s not so much.”
Some things can be dealt with. A holed radiator can be fixed, as Elfyn Evans showed when he crashed into a snowbank in Sweden and repaired it at the roadside (only for the hybrid light to sideline him later). But break the suspension in Greece and it’s likely game over.
“I can tell you that in terms of the suspension parts we don’t have any physical replacement parts, we won’t carry those,” said Fowler.
Rough rallies, the topics are all the same, it's just how far do you go?Tom Fowler
“To change those during the loop would be almost impossible, so the things you’re carrying… fluids and more like the equipment for repairing what they have. So patches, backup plans, little bits and pieces.”
And beyond that, the old-fashioned way of improvised fixes will continue.
“Cable ties, tape and ratchet straps. That’s the rally car fix,” Fowler quips.
There will be no chewing gum repairs for a holed radiator, though. Toyota – and the rest of the teams – have a far more modern solution available: “We’re not carrying chewing gum, at least as part of the spare parts!
“But we have some chemical metal products which are quite good for this kind of thing. I think everyone in motorsport is carrying this and it’s good for various things; radiator fix is one of them.
“And then there’s also some different pipes and bungs and things so they can bypass certain bits. Of course, you have a reduction in performance, a reduction in cooling but there are some options to, let’s say, keep the car running and not dripping so much.”
Just as the crews are limited by what they can carry in the car, the teams are limited by their own pre-rally preparations. And Acropolis has thrown a spanner in the works: it’s tougher than they’d expected. Last year’s edition provided a false sense of security.
But in Toyota’s case, it had contingency plans, just in case such an eventuality came to pass. The days of rally-specific car evolutions died with the reboot of the classics – now it’s just one car adapted on a sliding scale.
“Rough rallies, the topics are all the same, it’s just how far do you go?” Fowler points out. “So increasing the protection of the car underneath and using slightly stronger parts that offer more protection, these are all topics and it’s more like a scale.
“So we’re not at Kenya level, but we’re more than Finland. So it’s never like a set thing, it’s more like how much you do.
“In this case we have come prepared that it might be worse or it might be better, so we have options with us all the time. Of course we scale those options depending on the event, but for sure here we have everything we need to scale it up to what we’ve seen in the recce.”