Qualifying and the World Rally Championship aren’t two phrases that usually collide; but for two years the circuit-racing concept was married to rallying’s world championship.
The qualifying stage was first introduced into the WRC in 2012 and was present for a total of 26 rallies before it was shelved ahead of the 2014 season.
Unlike in circuit racing where the fastest driver in qualifying would automatically earn themselves a starting position of first, the rallying version allowed the fastest driver to choose their position on the road, as often first isn’t the sought after place as it leaves the drivers with a loose line of rocks to clear on gravel events.
The qualifying stage is still used today in the European Rally Championship, but should it also be reintroduced to the world series?
This week’s Ypres Rally seems like a good time to reopen the debate given the strong road-order debate here, linked to the pollution that is expected to be sprayed across the road as the leading cars cut corners.
The theory is that, unlike the norm, those running at the head of the field will actually seek to gain an advantage as they will face a cleaner racing line than those behind. It remains to be seen how much of an effect this could have, but it’s clear to see that it’ll be a topic of hot discussion.
Even when the rally organizer elected to remove Ypres from the ERC calendar in 2017, the qualifying stage format still remained part of the event’s itinerary – suggesting that it clearly has its merits, here in particular. This year will be the first in a long while that qualifying hasn’t dictated the first day’s running order in Ypres because it’s now part of the WRC.
The level between the drivers and cars is so level just now that they deserve to fight on an even keel at every available opportunityLuke Barry
In my opinion, qualifying should be restored. I’m not the first person to call for it either. Toyota’s technical director Tom Fowler mooted before Estonia last year that the concept could be worth revisiting while the debate was also ignited two years earlier in 2018 following controversial tactics by Sébastien Ogier ahead of the powerstage in Sweden. The then championship leader checked in late to the final test in order to salvage some points from his weekend that was wrecked by running first on the road.
The current system in place, which mandates that the cars begin the first leg in championship order, does make some sense as it prevents the series leader from constantly dominating rallies with favorable conditions all the time. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why the qualifying rules were scrapped for 2014 off the back of Ogier and Volkswagen’s dominant 2013 season in which the partnership won nigh on 70% of the events.
But it isn’t 2013 anymore. Ogier might still be the cream of the crop, but he’s no longer winning rallies at a canter. The competition is incredibly close, and doesn’t really need any artificial management and handicaps stifling it.
While we’re far from the harsh regulations that forced the championship leader to open the road on both Friday and Saturday in 2015 and ’16 (a move Ogier strongly feels was targeted and unfair, and who can blame him?), it feels a tad unjust to peg the championship leader back in this modern era when they’ve had to work incredibly hard to earn that position. The level between the drivers and cars is so level just now that they deserve to fight on an even keel at every available opportunity.
Welcoming qualifying back would not only address that imbalance but also inject new life into the early phases of a rally weekend, as if we’re honest, there’s not a lot to get excited about on shakedown. There certainly isn’t on the DirtFish newsdesk as we wait two to three hours for all the times to be posted.
Adding a competitive element would solve that. Shakedown would matter. The feeling and set-up from the pre-event test would matter more. Those that can get their head into the game early and set a good time in qualifying would reap the rewards on the rally.
And don’t forget, qualifying provides the driver with a choice. It therefore wouldn’t be as straightforward as the drivers that go quickest getting what turned out to be the best road position. In some cases it may be, but a tactical gamble can be made.
Remember when Jari-Matti Latvala won qualifying on Rally Italy, 2012 yet decided to go first to avoid being caught in the expected dust? It’s a decision that looked to be working before his bid was ruined by a puncture. Qualifying allows the strategic games to start early.
You can’t help but wonder what might have arisen had we had a qualifying stage this week in Ypres. The decision is never as simple as it seems. Having enjoyed the contest on this classic rally over the years, it’s an unfortunate element that is missing from the 2021 edition.
Hopefully qualifying will be, at the very least, considered for 2022. While there were reasons for getting rid of the idea seven years ago, there were equally reasons for implementing it in the first place. It certainly feels like the pros list is heavily outweighing the cons at this present moment.