Improving the WRC’s spectacle without harming competition

DirtFish's Alasdair Lindsay believes exhibition driving must become an element of WRC itineraries


The real rally starts tomorrow.

No phrase is uttered more often on the opening day of a World Rally Championship event than this one.

Opening-stage superspecials are often seen by dyed-in-the-wool rally fans as a box-ticking exercise aimed at Joe Public. They’d be right. But it doesn’t mean they don’t have a role to play. It’s vital to keep pushing easily accessible real-world engagement of the WRC’s offering to help grow a series in need of a popularity boost. That means taking rally to the people, rather than convincing people to come to the rally as a starting point.

We must begrudgingly accept that the spectator-friendly superspecial is a key component of this strategy. But last week’s Rally Portugal revealed a flaw: you can’t expect drivers to put on a proper show if they have to worry about tire wear that they’ll carry over into the proper stages the next day.


Rovanperä and co were more reserved than they'd like to have been for the Portuguese crowds

Championship leader Thierry Neuville pointed out this flaw after Portugal’s opening Figueira da Foz superspecial: “I don’t want to be the one who brings down the great atmosphere which we have here,” said Neuville. “But a stage like this with only donuts ahead of 70 kilometers of stages tomorrow with the same tires is absolute nonsense. We have said it many times but nobody listens.”

Well, Thierry, I’ve been listening. And to the other drivers too. Kalle Rovanperä had chimed in with something similar after his run on the asphalt superspecial: “We love to drive for the fans but so many donuts with the same tires as we use tomorrow is not nice,” pointed out the reigning world champion.

It might seem like a small thing. I don’t agree. Growing rallying is a vital objective. Catching a glimpse of a rally car doing crazy things is the first small step towards full-on fandom. But the drivers are having to maintain restraint due to the rules around tire use.

Route one would be to allow a dedicated set of tires. Is that practical? No. In WRC itineraries where no overnight service features, because the superspecial is a long distance from the service park, it’s not practical. Nor should we be encouraging wasteful use of fresh sets of rubber.


Gus Greensmith still gave the fans an eyeful of tire smoke

Eight-time world champion Sébastien Ogier has done more of these stages than most. He makes a good point: “This kind of stage has to be at the end of a loop; then we can come here, we kill the gravel tires, we make a show and the fans love it.”

But what happens if that isn’t practical when the overall itinerary and liaisons are taken into consideration? Here’s one idea: Thursday night superspecials should share their tire allocation with shakedown, not with the following morning’s action. That, as Ogier suggested, effectively means leveraging tires already part-worn and more likely to be binned afterwards anyway.

Or perhaps it’s time to look beyond the superspecial as a device to encourage new fan participation. Let’s be bluntly honest here: does the average newcomer care if Thierry Neuville takes half a second out of Elfyn Evans on the first stage of the rally, or vice versa? No. The drivers treat the stage as a gimmick when contrasted to the stage mileage that’s to come when “the real rally starts tomorrow,” so why bother timing it at all?

Rewind a year to the Lousada superspecial in 2023. Oliver Solberg gets slapped with a one-minute penalty for indulging in some donuts to please the fans, breaking a rule on “exhibition driving”. By the book, that punishment was merited. A rule was broken. And that rule is there for good reason. Here’s the problem: it was still ridiculous anyway.

Motor Show Bologna, Italy 13-14 12 2008- Memorial Bettega

Nobody does spontaneous exuberance better than a Solberg - even if it means losing your car

Look at it from the average fan’s point of view and it was health and safety gone mad. Where’s the common sense? Why is fun illegal? Why are we punishing those who deliver the most joy to the fans, the very people who can simply stop the entire show if they turn their backs on the WRC in large enough numbers?

Nothing was done after a flaw was exposed. Then, when asked to deliver entertainment within the framework of a permissible superspecial, the drivers’ hands were tied. A fix is overdue.

But let’s go rewind for a minute. To deploy a fix, the problem it is solving must be understood. And we need to be crystal clear on what exactly that problem is.

The rules against exhibition driving? It’s not that. Those are fine. The FIA has a road safety mission it must promote and prioritize. Motorsport can only exist if the general public is willing to tolerate it; we cannot be prideful and assume we cannot be legislated out of existence. Our sport must protect itself by actively promoting safe driving to the masses. There can be no bone to pick with the Rally Portugal stewards either; they did their job.

If the rule must stay and the stewards are obliged to act on that rule being broken, what’s the workaround?

wales rally 2005

Rally GB brought its superspecial 'indoors' under the Millennium Stadium's roof in 2005; two decades later, more innovation is needed

Simple. Exhibition driving must be woven deep into the fabric of WRC itineraries, in the same manner as services, tire fitting zones, and refueling.

A recent roundtable with the WRC Promoter raised some interesting points around storytelling. There has historically been a fixation on telling the story of the timed stages. We shoehorned flamboyant driving into that aspect of the narrative. But to hyper-fixate on stage times is to miss the point of why rallying exists. What sets us apart from the rest of the motor racing world is that the competition doesn’t stop once the high-speed driving ends. The clock is always running and it’s not always about the speed of completion but the precision of it.

Boil it down to the reason for their existence and, really, superspecials are a form of exhibition driving. Just look at the Figueira da Foz stage that opened Rally Portugal: it was heavily based around doing donuts to provide said spectacle. That failed somewhat because the drivers had to preserve their tires for use the next morning. But there’s another reason too: over the past two decades, artificial donuts have proliferated superspecials as an attempt at delivering spectacle.

Gilles Panizzi doing a pirouette under a bridge on the Vliadrau stage of Rally Spain in 2002 captured the imagination. And, subsequently, it took a stranglehold of WRC superspecial design. But perhaps we forgot why Panizzi’s showmanship was so mesmerizing: it was optional. It was not a requirement of the road book.

We need to stop trying to shoehorn exuberant driving into the speed element of rally and give it back to the endurance element. Exhibition driving deserves its own zones, built into the itinerary specifically for that purpose. If it’s not good for linear broadcast – who cares? It’s the bedrock of dazzling local fans and would be a treasure trove of raw footage for the world of social media. And, as Ogier suggested, aim to fit these zones into itineraries right before a service or a tire fitting zone, once the tires already on the drivers’ wagons are shot of useful performance and are about to go in the bin anyway.

For the sporting purists who may think the idea of the WRC’s elite mucking about on purpose as sacrilege, consider this: the alternatives are drivers taking it easy through superspecials, or more of these ridiculous one-minute penalties for a brief moment of exuberance when the spectator-friendly stuff is placed at the end of a loop. Which of those options looks more ridiculous to the wider world who are yet to be indoctrinated on the intricacies of rallying?

If one year from now the drivers are still complaining that they can’t push on a superspecial, or another driver gets a penalty for exhibition driving, then it will be time to go after the people who failed to implement the right outlet for it, not the people driving the cars.

When it comes to throwing the cars around for the sake of sheer entertainment, the real rally might start the following day. But let’s make sure the drivers aren’t worrying about tire wear, or the ticking of the clock, when they’re expected to put on a show for the people we’re trying to convince to join our rally community.