On Friday morning, the World Rally Championship’s finest drivers knew what was coming. Aside from Kalle Rovanperä, the first driver to set foot into Rally Italy’s Terranova stage, the rest knew they’d be facing thick, unwavering dust clouds.
We’re not talking about the kind of dust that costs you a second or two, the kind that appears at one or two corners as a twisty road double backs on itself. These lingering dust clouds were reducing visibility to zero – so early in the morning, there was little chance they would clear in good time.
Hyundai’s Ott Tänak summed up the peril involved perfectly. This wasn’t a normal sort of risk-taking for rally drivers. It went beyond that.
“The visibility is until the bonnet,” said Tänak. “The road is just a bit of car with trees on the side. These stages are a killer like this. Once you miss it will be a hard stop.”
Time was the issue. Three minutes, to be specific. For time gaps between cars, that sounds like a lot.
Go to a local rally and it’ll be one minute tops, maybe even 30 seconds. But these Rally1 cars need more. Their aero is so good at reducing friction while generating downforce that it kicks up far more dust than the slower, simpler-bodied cars behind.
What bothered the drivers is they were entirely aware this would happen – but nothing had been done. The inevitability of the situation bothered another Hyundai driver – Thierry Neuville this time.
“It was known before, we mentioned it to the FIA, to the organizers,” said Neuville.
“Before the rally we had already dust in the recce with three to four-minute gaps sometimes and nobody wants to listen to us. Obviously, live television, itinerary, everything is too tight. It’s every year the same and it’s a shame because for the driver, it’s really dangerous.”
Conditions improved a little for Terranova’s second pass. It was later in the morning and the dust was being carried away a tad faster. But what had happened at the crack of dawn could not be repeated.
Enter a world champion. A two-time world champion, in fact. Timo Rautiainen, Marcus Grönholm’s former co-driver turned FIA Rally sporting delegate.
Neuville and company’s protestations around the dust problem had been heard. A compromise was found.
On Saturday morning, the Rally1 drivers will get the four-minute gaps they craved on the first loop of the day and its two stages, Tempio Pausania and Erula-Tula.
It’s not only the drivers calling for it. Toyota’s sporting director and substitute man-in-charge Kaj Lindström, who is the face of the championship-leading team in Sardinia with team principal Jari-Matti Latvala racing in Japan this week, was glad his fellow co-driving alum had cooked up a fix.
“Timo Rautiainen came with this proposal and it didn’t take long when we all answered that yeah, we’re happy to do that to get that four-minute interval,” Lindström told DirtFish.
“It is a shame that we didn’t have them [before] because this has happened earlier. We know that these stages early in the morning, seven o’clock in the morning, there’s hardly any wind and the cars behind will suffer from the dust.
“But I know that Timo Rautiainen did everything he can, all the possible calculations and with the itinerary as it is, we couldn’t have done anything.”
That was at first. But Rautiainen hadn’t put the calculator in the drawer and given up.
After running the numbers again, Rautiainen found the time the teams and drivers needed: Saturday’s action will start 10 minutes earlier than originally planned.
“Tomorrow, we all agreed to start the day 10 minutes earlier to get four-minute gaps for the first two stages,” added Lindström. “So less sleep but at least the boys don’t have dust.”