At the end of a sometimes contentious week for the World Rally Championship, DAVID EVANS gives his personal view on the controversial decision to press on with Rally México
The arrival of the World Rally champion and his World Rally Car is usually enough to distract most folk while they’re sitting waiting for the traffic lights to turn green.
Not this time. Ott Tänak and his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC were good, but the chap playing keepie uppie was the real attraction on the edge of León last week. You’re right. There’s nothing exactly revolutionary about keeping a football in the air with one foot, but this fella was playing it while juggling flaming torches. Now that was impressive. But there was something else… he was sitting several meters up in the air on a unicycle.
Welcome to Mexico.
Of all the countries the WRC visits each season, there’s nothing that quite compares with the colour achieved in Guanajuato. In a country where, out in the hills where horses have a monopoly on transport, watching the reaction to a Toyota Yaris WRC ripping down the middle of the one-street Derramadero village is fascinating.
The contrast is, at times, quite extraordinary.
Sitting waiting for the cars at Friday night’s Autodromo stage outside León was a fairly humbling experience as the local children gathered around the DirtFish hire car. Predictably for a man who’s always got a lot to say, Colin Clark engaged them in conversation. Bemused by his Scottishness, I landed on their wavelength by handing out a few DirtFish stickers. In next to no time, we’d gone through pretty much everything in the car. The rally programme went down a storm, a free Rally México badge was well worth having and even the opening day’s roadbook was destined to be a prized possession – admittedly the tulips did raise a Mexican eyebrow in the style of: “What on earth does this mean?”
Not far from the stage, some of the more enterprising locals were offering secure parking for spectators, the entrance to which was signalled by a yellow rag tied to a stick and waved by an enormously enthusiastic five or six-year-old. Exiting the car park, the full range of goods were on sale, with burritos, steering wheels, and bath mats available in a range of colours and flavours.
These are all part of the reason I love this rally. And they’re part of the reason I was so terribly conflicted about our presence in Guanajuato last week. There’s no doubt the WRC brings millions to the local economy and the WRC cash is spread further and wider than it is in, say, Formula 1.
The churros and coffee we tucked into on the road between San Antonio and El Gigante; the ice creams at the top of Cubilete and the water at the end of Las Minas were all pesos which would have been missed if the WRC had skipped México. And, trust me, that money means plenty to those people.
But at the same time, it was impossible to escape the fact that we were likely carrying the infectious COVID-19 novel coronavirus with us to them.
Dramatic as that might sound, it’s almost certainly true. With much (all, if you listen to the locals) of the COVID-19 testing going on in Mexico City, it was impossible to know how many cases were present in the state of Guanajuato as the WRC landed. As we departed, we can be certain we left the virus as a legacy.
Is that right?
I applaud Sébastien Ogier for turning the spotlight away from the rally and onto a pandemic spreading rapidly around the world. And, with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t help but feel the Toyota driver was absolutely right: we should never have been there in the first place.
Last Friday, FIA president Jean Todt rightly tweeted: ‘Protecting people first’ regarding the postponement of two F1 races. What about the people of Mexico? It genuinely saddened me that our six-time champion Ogier was the only one to stand up and make his voice heard. Sometimes, some things are bigger than business, bigger than sport and certainly bigger than the business of sport.
Ultimately it took the genuine logistical concerns of getting folk back across the Atlantic to their families to bring proceedings to a close. As a sport, we were apparently willing to risk the health of the good people of Guanajuato. But as soon as it was genuinely going to affect us, we were out of there.
Talking to the stakeholders ahead of the rally, it was hard to know where the big decision sat. Yes, ultimately it was the organizers who made the final call to close proceedings, but surely if the FIA or WRC Promoter had made it clear a) there would be no WRC points on offer or b) there would be no television from the event then the manufacturers would have quickly walked away.
We stood alone in the world of motorsport last weekend.
I asked the FIA and promoter why.
FIA rally director Yves Matton said the decision to start the rally was the right one, given the information and the apparent lack of COVID-19 in Mexico ahead of the event.
Matton told DirtFish: “The FIA has been closely monitoring the evolving situation in the weeks prior to Rally México and during the event, while taking into account the recommendations of the World Health Organisation and local governmental decisions.
“The state and municipal authorities of Guanajuato did not put any restrictions as they explained that, given the absence of COVID-19 cases in the state and the low risk in the country, there was no reason to cancel the event, although they were remaining vigilant in face of the virus and had implemented a series of preventive measures.
“They announced on Friday March 13 that all private and public activities, as well as mass events such as the FIA World Rally Championship’s Rally México could continue without any problem.
“The event’s organising committee and Guanajuato’s Department of Health confirmed they were fully aligned with national guidelines, with Health Department medical experts in place to maintain high-level monitoring of the situation throughout the four-day rally.
“The final decision to keep or cancel an event generally belongs to the event organizers but based on the information and recommendations we had, I believe it was the right decision to come to Mexico and do the rally.
“It has then been decided to shorten the event, not because the situation has changed from a sanitary standpoint, but from a logistical standpoint.
“Due to the various travel restrictions being implemented in the different parts of the world , there was a great uncertainty about the return of the WRC teams and the priority was to ensure a safe trip home to the teams and personnel. It’s a fast-evolving situation, we have to monitor it closely and adapt our decisions step after step.”
WRC Promoter managing director Oliver Ciesla offered DirtFish a similar explanation, saying: “The host is the organizer and the organizer in this case is the authorities of region Guanajuato.
“There was zero cases in the region, so for the reality in the region where we were hosting the event, there was no indication for the government to not allow people to come together.
“This is the running authority and it had zero indication from its database to not host events allowing people to come together in the region of Guanajuato and León. This is where we started.
“All the negativity and precaution we brought from Europe was not a sufficient database for a governor to stop people gathering in his region.
“The host city takes the decision. Even me as promoter or the FIA cannot, once the event is organized decide to stop. I can decide not to put up cameras and the FIA could decide to withdraw sporting regulation, but if they [the local organizers] want to continue the event then they continue the event. It’s their house and only they can stop it.”
In terms of the teams, DirtFish understands the three factory squads – Hyundai, M-Sport Ford and Toyota – met on Saturday morning to overcome initial discord over the immediate future of the event. They came together in agreement on the need to alter logistics to get their people back to Europe while airlines were still flying and some borders remained open.
As we look to draw a line under last week, one thing remains to be said and that’s the expression of sympathy for the Mexicans who, like their Australian colleagues in Melbourne, had spent months planning a frontline, top-drawer global motorsport event only to have it ending prematurely through no fault of their own.
This would also seem like a good opportunity to thank Rally México director Patrick Suberville, his staff and the people of Guanajuato for, once again and as always, opening their arms to us.
I look forward to seeing you all again next year, hopefully under a very different set of circumstances.