Millener feels sorry for Rally Japan organizer

The M-Sport team principal thinks the first full day of the rally was one of the toughest in years


M-Sport Ford team principal Richard Millener sympathizes with the organizer of Rally Japan, feeling it had to deal with “one of the toughest mornings I think we’ve had in years” on Friday.

None of the three planned stages ran without hitch as the first, Isegami’s Tunnel, was red flagged following Dani Sordo’s fire, Inabu Dam was canceled due to the delays caused by that blaze and Shitara Town R was red flagged after a civilian car made its way onto the stage.

The FIA has launched a full investigation into the events of SS4, but a stewards hearing has already declared the organizer ‘negligent’ in allowing a member of the public to drive onto a live rally stage in the opposite direction to the competitors.

But there was also concern, not least from Sordo himself, about the fact it took over an hour for the emergency services to arrive at the scene of Sordo’s burning Hyundai earlier in the morning.

“In terms of saving the car, honestly if it’s an hour vs five minutes, at the point we saw it on the TV you’re in the worst-case scenario anyway,” Millener told DirtFish.

“But a concern is obviously Dani was quite lucky in where he stopped the car and I think he used some of his experience over the years to stop it somewhere. If we’re in a hotter environment, drier conditions like a Sardinia or somewhere in the forest, then 1hr10mins is a big problem because you could have a real big issue with the surrounding countryside.

“I think there’ll be a full investigation after this to see what we did right and what we did wrong. I don’t think, before people jump to conclusions, that the fire is anything to do with the hybrid from what I’m hearing, but obviously there’s the impact of the hybrid going up.

“This is the first unit we will have properly lost, Oliver [Solberg’s in Croatia] got put out in time. There’s certainly some things we need to improve on.

Dani Sordo

“But I would like to put on record that I think, before people jump to conclusions about the issues the organizers have had this morning, I think it’s a very, very special set of circumstances we’ve been under and I feel sorry for them because they’ve put in all this effort to have the event on and then they’ve had one of the toughest mornings I think we’ve had in years really in organizing a WRC event.”

Although Millener didn’t field any specific questions about the traffic car entering a rally stage, he did tweet on Saturday to defend the organizer when somebody suggested Japan should be removed from the calendar immediately on safety grounds.

Millener reiterated his stance and said “the organizers coped well in very difficult situations yesterday”.

He did admit that he had heard reports that some water was used to put out Sordo’s fire “which we need to not repeat” for hybrid cars, but he did caveat that with the fact he didn’t have any facts to hand, just reports.

“It’s very difficult,” Millener said, “you see any kind of emergency situation when you get there, people act in very different ways even after training unfortunately and there’s a lot of these programs and things about motorway police and accidents and I find it very interesting how people can react under pressure when they’re in an environment that’s dangerous.

“Training can sometimes go out the window and this is the first year of hybrid in WRC, first time we’ve come to Japan, we’re teaching all the marshals and everything the protocols going forward.

“Maybe the local fire services aren’t used to hybrid and we lean on them heavily to help us in the stages, so I think to sum it up in some ways it’s very good that there’s been no injuries or no-one’s affected.”

Millener’s counterpart at Toyota, Jari-Matti Latvala, agreed that the organizer didn’t fail in how it dealt with Sordo’s fire.

Dani Sordo

“The roads are very technical, they are very slow speed so with the big, high vehicles for sure it will take time,” Latvala told DirtFish.

“It’s not with rally cars, if you drive 90-100kph as average speed probably the truck will go 30-40kph average speed so it will take time.

“And OK of course I don’t know the other things what is happening there, but that is the fact in motorsport that when we are going in the mountains, this is just the fact that it will always take time.

“Thanks that Dani and his co-driver are fine, that’s the thing. And yes, we have to learn what went wrong, why the car went on fire, and of course we don’t want to see that kind of fire happening in the future.

“That’s the important thing safety-wise that we can learn and what we can improve.”

FIA rally director Andrew Wheatley said he is confident Friday’s situation was a one-off.

“It’s a very difficult situation for the organizers,” Wheatley told DirtFish. “They have done a very good job in their pre-event preparation, an excellent job in their pre-event preparation, certainly world class no question, and we’re very lucky with what we’ve got at the moment.

“We go around the world and generally we have organizers that are putting in 110% effort everywhere in the world. All of the events operate within very strict guidelines and protocols and they operate in those protocols.

“The situation that we had on Friday morning was a very, very difficult situation but I’m confident that it’s an isolated incident, it’s not endemic of… there’s no question the organizing team understands the severity of that – absolutely.

“I have to say 99.8% of yesterday [Friday] was run to a good level. I think today [Saturday] they’ve run it to a higher level, but yesterday was run to a good level.”