The biggest losers in the Rally of Portugal stewards’ room last weekend? The stewards themselves. That’s the opinion of one corner of the service park.
That opinion is formed on the back of two decisions: Oliver Solberg on Saturday night and Thierry Neuville almost 24 hours later. It’s an opinion that’s hard to argue with.
Looking at both cases, it’s black and white: Solberg and Neuville dodged a bullet each in Matosinhos.
For the Toksport Škoda driver, he contravened a regulation which stated a minimum penalty of five minutes. The stewards added just 60 seconds to his total time.
Hyundai man Neuville had no business at the finish. He had retired after SS17 and should have taken no further part in proceedings.
Again, not my opinion – it’s in the FIA’s own sporting regulations for the 2023 World Rally Championship. Head to Article 19.3.3 and read for yourself how the absence of a time card empowers the clerk of the course to add the competitor to the list of retirements.
It’s all there. In black and white.
And, of course, we live in black and white world, don’t we?
Actually, we don’t.
Firstly, I’d like to thank round five stewards Edoardo Delleani, Andrew Kellitt and Luis Tourais de Matos for the job they were doing at the weekend. Like thousands of others out there on a weekly basis, they’re volunteers. They give up their time to give us the chance to enjoy our sport. Between the three of them, they will have decades’ experience in rallying. They’ve seen it all before. It’s why they’re there.
Did they get both decisions wrong? In my opinion, yes. But I think we need to dive deeper and examine a framework which allowed those decision to be made.
Oliver Solberg and his co-driver Elliott Edmondson should have known exhibition driving was a no-no. Regardless of how wide open and inviting the space between the flying finish and the stop-line at the end of the Lousada was, yanking the handbrake and booting their Monster Energy-colored Škoda into a spin was not allowed. Not. Allowed.
Bang to rights, five-minute penalty. It says so in the Rally of Portugal supplementary regulations. No need to mitigate, mollify or divide by five.
But… did they make 50,000 people smile and remember the World Rally Championship just that little bit more fondly? Yes (even if they were, by Solberg family standards – and Oliver’s own admission – fairly shonky donuts).
Ahead of the event, Neuville laid bare his feelings about the need for the WRC to take a step on in terms of how it promotes and entertains fans. Donuts are route one here. They’re the easiest of easy wins. But they’re not allowed. Unless they are.
Sébastien Ogier smoked some Pirelli in celebration of a superb win in Spain last year. A few years earlier, Elfyn Evans did the same thing on the back of a brilliant home success in Wales. Both times, the crowd went bananas. They loved it. Rally organizers held their breath and watched from behind their hands.
The prospect of a car going out of control would mean an end to rallying in so many countries. We have to – and we have to be seen to – be a responsible discipline. We have to evolve to fit into a world of risk assessments, health and safety. Only by doing that can we maintain the essence of the sport, namely what goes on between the start and flying finish of a stage.
Exhibition driving outside a designated area is totally unacceptable and should – and now forever will – be punished by a minimum five-minute penalty.
All agreed? Good. That’s clear.
Let’s move forwards and shift the emphasis of this debate: it’s imperative every WRC organizer sources and supplies a designated area for donuts.
I know doing that is far more complex than I’m making it sound, but it’s also entirely doable. So let’s get it done.
That section of Lousada was concrete lined and perfect for a revolution or two, so there’s no reason why 50,000 fans shouldn’t enjoy an even greater spectacle next season, is there?
Maybe we need to take this one step further and turn the rule around.
Time to step up here, FIA.
Let’s make the default a yes to entertainment and force organizers into a waiver if they’re unable to find a suitable space
Firstly, an odd one: while the WRC Commission voted on the no exhibition rule last December, it wasn’t written into the WRC sporting regulations. Why not?
The WRC regulations still contain the section (34.1.3) which dictates exhibition driving is only permitted by the supplementary regulations. That leaves it to the events to answer the donut question.
Monte, and to an extent México, aside, it’s been a universal no.
Here’s a plan. Let’s build a line into the 2024 sporting regs placing the onus on events to designate a safe place for exhibition driving. Let’s make the default a yes to entertainment and force organizers into a waiver if they’re unable to find a suitable space.
That said, the FIA wants to maintain the integrity of the WRC regulations it has written and waivers are far less popular these days than they were a few years ago.
Perhaps this one comes under the auspices of promotion and it’s on WRC Promoter to make it happen in the same way the autograph sessions are timetabled out of Munich.
Either way, it needs to happen.
Solberg’s a chip off the old block when it comes to rallying. It’s his life. His love, his passion, it’s everything to him. And like Petter, he’s a born entertainer. What he did on Saturday evening risked his transmission and possibly his whole rally. But he put a smile on 50,000 faces and, hopefully, he’s shone a bright light on a regulation that needs changing. And now.
In the case of Martijn Wydaeghe forgetting to hand over his timecard, it was apparently difficult to ‘retire’ him when he said, at the time, he was sure he had handed it over. The incident then had to be investigated retrospectively.
When it turned out he hadn’t, the stewards went down the road of a €10,000 fine. That’s a chunk of cash, but it’s a price worth paying when you equate it to €1000 per point for the 10 Neuville picked up in Portugal.
Understandably, the Hyundai team sought mitigation via a cauldron of competition further complicated by significant mechanical issues aboard the #11 i20. Wydaeghe was taking a photo of the dash to send to the team while he should have been sorting the time card.
Sorry. Not good enough.
Neuville and Wydaeghe are the ultimate professionals. The elite. The absolute best of the best. They’re also humans and humans make mistakes.
In allowing them to continue in the rally – or by not excluding them post-event – when they didn’t conform to the regulations, precedence has been set.
You could argue that Sébastien Ogier set that precedence when Julien Ingrassia left his time card at a stop-line in Sardinia five years ago (Ott Tänak and Martin Järveoja brought it to him). That resulted in a similar fine.
I’m still conflicted by this one. Rules, clearly, are rules.
If we want to reflect and learn from this, it’s worth the FIA considering updating the slightly antiquated system that is the timecard. Let’s not forget, through COVID times, the crews were told not to hand anything over to marshals.
I like Wydaeghe. I’ll be honest and admit I feared for him when he stepped up to sit alongside Neuville a few years ago, but he’s shown himself to be one of the world’s very best co-drivers.
And one thing is absolutely sure: he won’t make the same mistake again.
The stewards were lenient in both cases, they found mitigation in both cases. My feeling is that the wriggle room which benefitted Solberg and Neuville shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Conversely, a world of fixed penalties with no leniency may seem attractive, but sooner or later we would be presented with an incident which made a nonsense of applying a draconian penalty. The stewards (and clerk of the course) would be left with no room for manoeuvre within the regulations.
Do that and it won’t be long before you’re reading a piece in this same corner of cyberspace castigating a ‘ridiculously rigid and inflexible FIA’.
Lessons can, and should, be learned from last weekend. And that learning has to be top-down.
At the same time, let’s give room for the shades of grey.