Cast your mind back to Friday morning on last month’s Rally Japan.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Most likely, it’s the torrential rain that wreaked havoc on the first loop of proper stages at the World Rally Championship season finale. In just a matter of minutes, the course of the event had been set.
Three Rally1 cars went off at the same corner on SS2, with two of them – Adrien Fourmaux’s Ford Puma and Dani Sordo’s Hyundai i20 N – out of the rally for good.
The remaining drivers simply battled to survive in the atrocious conditions, with Toyota’s Elfyn Evans making the best guess at the question of how fast to drive and emerging with a 26-second lead over Thierry Neuville before SS4 was canceled and the field headed back to service to wait out the weather.
A few hours later, after Neuville’s crash on SS6, the Rally1 car count was down to just six, and although the Belgian would restart on Saturday, the battle for the win on Rally Japan was all but over with more than two full days of competition remaining.
It was a great shame for both the fans on the ground and at home. But was the situation just bad luck, with an unfortunately timed downpour proving just enough to catch out several of the world’s best drivers? Or could – and should – something have been done to prevent the motorized carnage?
Hyundai team principal Cyril Abiteboul is torn on this one.
“I have myself a shared view about that,” he told DirtFish after Friday’s dramatic scenes. “On one side I like the idea and the narrative in relation to rally that is basically the man against any type of circumstance, any type of condition, being able to drive cars to the extreme.
“I like that, but at the same time I think we need to reflect about the situation of the championship.
“It’s a championship with a very limited number of cars, limited number of manufacturers (three), excessive cost… it costs a lot of effort in engineering, but also money, in very simple terms, to come here [to the WRC].
“[There are] lots of fans here in Japan to see the few cars that we have out there in Rally1.”
Stopping short of declaring that Friday’s action should have been curtailed sooner, the former Formula 1 team boss does feel that a forum should exist in the WRC where such potential decisions could be debated and decided upon with the input of the sport’s key stakeholders.
Abiteboul said: “What I regret is that we don’t have the structure of discussion to talk these things through, and being able to share and express opinions, and being able to form a consensus.
“We don’t have that [in WRC], but in Formula 1 we do have that. We’ve got lots of opportunities to talk to the FIA, the promoter. We may agree, disagree, and get to some sort of conclusion. We try things out, sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. But at least it’s a moving thing.
“And in my opinion, one thing in rally is that we might be a bit too static in what the DNA of rally is, and should be and should stay.
“I’m too young in the sport to take a definite position about that. But I’m just saying that we do miss that opportunity of talking those things through.”
Asked why he thinks such open discussions aren’t taking place, Abiteboul blamed a collective “fear of doing the wrong thing” among the WRC’s major parties, including the teams themselves.
“I think we all get a feeling that we are playing or working on very thin ice,” he expanded, “and if we make the wrong move we are maybe getting the whole thing to collapse.
“But actually it’s maybe the opposite. It’s maybe if you don’t move, then you collapse. So I think we need to find the right balance between being progressive and being true to our roots.”
The Hyundai team principal reflected on the specific situation from that day in Japan as the perfect proof of his point.
“We want to see beautiful cars in extreme conditions,” he said. “But we would like to [actually] see them. Because frankly this morning (Friday) there was not much to see, the [live video] coverage was not excellent, there were not that many cameras around the road. I think that was poor.
“The time of the day was [also] awful,” Abiteboul added, laughing to himself. “So, the last rally of the year was decided and determined at 8.30 on Friday morning, on the other end of the world?
“OK, we’ve been true to the DNA of rally, but have we done the right thing collectively?
“I’m not sure.”