The underrated skill of a WRC driver compared to Formula 1

Managing a lead looks simple, but it's anything but for rally drivers - unlike their F1 counterparts

Ott Tänak

In this day and age, it’s not unusual for a driver to completely control a rally and go on to win having driven with a measured approach to stay ahead of their rivals.

It’s already happened this year in the World Rally Championship on both the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally and Rally of Portugal.

It would have no doubt happened too in Rally Italy Sardinia had Sébastien Ogier not crashed out on the Saturday.

But while it’s not uncommon to see a driver control a rally from the front, it’s also something that’s been taken for granted. It’s often forgotten just how difficult that is to do, especially in the world of rallying.

Munster Grégoire

Now for a general motorsport fan, witnessing a driver control their pace is nothing new, particularly in Formula 1.

This year Max Verstappen has dominated F1 and often has so much of an advantage over the rest of the field that he slows down and controls his pace to ensure he doesn’t place any undue stress on his car.

Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä have done the same this year, measuring and judging their pace to ensure they get to the end of a rally without issue. But there’s a stark difference in what they need to do compared to their F1 colleagues.

And it all comes down to data and settings.

In F1, drivers have data coming at them from all angles. Whether it’s through the steering wheel or via their engineer on the radio, they know what they need to be doing to manage their pace.

Of course, in this day and age coaching isn’t allowed from the pitwall, but drivers can still get delta times to pace themselves to.

And thanks to their steering wheel, on any given lap they can see what their pace is compared to the lap time they need to set, while they can also get feedback from their engineer.

F1 Grand Prix of Spain

They can also receive immediate information about the pace their rivals are traveling at and can adapt their own speed accordingly.

It goes further than that, too. It’s not just about being given a time to help set the pace. They also have an option to change engine modes, which instantly reduces the power output no matter how hard the driver hits the throttle pedal.

It’s a failsafe. Even if that foot goes right to the floor, the car will not go any faster in a straight line.

There’s no doubt plenty of skill involved in getting all of this right, but there’s still a lot of automation and software at play helping the driver manage their car as best as possible.

In rallying, it’s completely different.

Thierry Neuville

There’s no engineer getting on the blower midway through a stage to tell the driver they need to cool their pace or push a little harder. There’s no delta time appearing on the steering wheel anywhere.

They’re in the dark, clueless. It’s all about guesswork, not knowing what pace their rivals are traveling at.

Many people wondered how Ogier was able to throw away a strong lead on Sardinia; was he pushing unnecessarily hard?

But that’s the point. There’s no way for a WRC driver to know what their rivals are doing, and on a rally with stages where it was possible to have a huge time loss or gain depending how you tackled it, it made the situation even more complicated.

I think we underestimate how hard it is to balance your lead in the rally Tom Fowler

And it’s something that Toyota technical director Tom Fowler believes people don’t appreciate enough.

“I think we underestimate how hard it is to balance your lead in the rally, you don’t want to lose two or three seconds driving slowly but equally if you go too fast you might lose your whole day,” he told DirtFish.

“So I think it’s a much more difficult situation to control than the everyday driving that they do.

“What pace do they go through all the corners, they know how to manage?”

The other factor that makes it so tricky to control a lead in rallying is due to the very nature of the event.

In F1 drivers are doing the same three miles or so over and over again. They know every inch of a track inside-out having repeated every corner more than 50 times on average during the length of a grand prix.

F1 Grand Prix of Spain

In rallying there’s no such level of repetition. The stages are usually repeated once, but even then the conditions often change – either due to the weather or simply the road surface after the entire field has tackled the road once – meaning a whole new approach is required.

And rhythm comes into it as well. If you go too slow, you can drop your rhythm and it therefore becomes easier to make a mistake.

Even when you’re backing off, you still need to be pushing to ensure the concentration remains at the required level to make it through a test unscathed.

It’s relentless, it’s tiring and it shows why it doesn’t always pan out.

The difficulty in managing pace is something that was highlighted on the final stage in Sweden this year when Craig Breen had to ensure he didn’t beat Thierry Neuville on the powerstage, who had moved into second thanks to an orchestrated Hyundai move.

Thierry Neuville

Breen drove at a pace he felt was right – not too quick to pressure Neuville, but not too slow to let Rovanperä’s Toyota past. But Neuville subsequently made a mistake and ended up falling back behind Breen, as neither driver knew what sort of speed the other was traveling at.

It’s massively difficult to get right, but that helps make it one of the most impressive elements of a rally driver’s armory.

There’s no outside assistance, it’s down to a driver using their gut and trying to second guess what their opponents are doing. It’s the motorsport version of poker in many ways.

Of course it’s a gamble. Plenty of drivers have shown in the past that pushing too hard while leading can cause mistakes that send you from hero to zero, and that also the same thing can happen if you don’t drive fast enough.

But get it right, and you’re a master magician.

Being able to perfectly judge the pace transcends these drivers way above their F1 counterparts. Luck may play a part, there’s a lot of skill that goes into getting it right, and in no way is it easy.

It’s tough, it’s relentless and it’s also brilliant. It’s just a shame this element of driving rally cars isn’t always appreciated.

It really is one of the greatest, almost forgotten, skills.

Words:Rob Hansford