Extinction rebellion was very much in evidence on the opening day of Rally Japan. Standing at the side of the road in Odocho, the Somethingosaurus eyeballed every car and every crew. Then gave them a cheery wave of his two Toyota Gazoo Racing flags before commencing the complicated process of sitting and fitting his dinosaur-sized (and shaped) rear end on a fold-up chair.
It wasn’t easy. DirtFish went to the rescue on more than one occasion to provide a safe landing, thus avoiding the undignified spectacle of our new friend rolling around on his back before the world’s finest rally drivers.
Japan. Welcome home. The World Rally Championship has missed you.
And it really has. I’d forgotten just what a Japanese welcome is all about. You get the warmest, politest and most gracious of greetings. Decorous doesn’t come close.
The fans around Toyota City Stadium and out on the road sections were the best in the world. Yes, Argentina’s always amazing in terms of the sheer number and, México’s Guanajuato without doubt delivers outstanding ceremony.
But nothing comes close to the color, emotion and preparation which goes into watching rally cars in Japan.
Time after time we would arrive at a junction to be greeted by a fan reaching into a box at his feet to find his next crew card. The idea here is that these spectators have cut cardboard boxes up, papered one side, written a message and put the crew’s names, car number and flag (colored in, naturally) alongside.
When the requisite car arrived, the card was pulled from the perfectly filed box, held aloft with one hand, leaving the other hand to push the button on a camcorder on a tripod, followed by a mobile telephone gorilla-gripped to a road sign and finally to grab his main camera and take a still picture or two.
The process was amazing. In 10 seconds, these folk combined massive support for the drivers while generating significant levels of multi-media content for their own consumption. The only thing that spoiled it was a toot on the horn or a wave from the crew – that drew a frantic wave from the hand supposedly on camera duty.
The dedication and commitment from these people was outstanding. They queued without complaint from before six in the morning and into the pouring rain in the hope of catching a glimpse of their heroes. It was truly humbling to watch.
But why so many on the road section?
Simple, the stages were full. OK, technically, not full. Actually, anything but full. At capacity, is a better description.
That capacity was set considerably lower than many expected, in order to avoid any kind of spectator overload which might have caused stages to be canceled. That made sense. Toyota City is a place enormously well versed in making some of the world’s best motor cars, but it’s not a place synonymous with running rallies. Aspects of the organization of the event came under the City’s jurisdiction and the absence of expertise in certain areas sensibly led them to err on the side of caution.
And if you couldn’t get into the stages to see the cars in action, you could always head to service to see them up close. And that’s what folk did, in their thousands.
At a cost of thousands and thousands of Yen. We’re all very well aware that the organizers of this event have had a couple of false starts due to COVID and one when they were dropped from the calendar at the last moment. Each of these three years has come at a cost. Granted, the event hasn’t run, but there are upfront expenses which can’t be avoided.
And need to be recouped.
Last week was about recouping some of that cash. It’s for that reason that everybody over the age of five was made to pay – and a day in the service park was coming in at around $40!
I spoke to plenty of local and national drivers about the situation and to a woman and a man, they were far from pleased. Oddly, none of them were willing to go on the record with their story. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, either way, it’s still a concern.
One told DirtFish: “We like to rally in Japan, we like to drive – but this is not so nice. The price for a family to come and sit in the service park is too much. Too high. The best thing is to stand in the road, stand for free.”
There’s talk of change within the organizational structure – an early decision should be to make the show more family friendly
Arriving ahead of the event, I was sure there would still be plenty of folk in the stages. Looking at the map, there were plenty of access points off the main road. Not a bit of it. Japan is a deeply obedient nation. The people were told there was no room and not to come. So, they didn’t come.
We drove through junction after junction, expecting to see the odd motorbike or car looking to backdoor it, but no. Literally, not a single person.
There’s talk of change within the organizational structure – it would appear an early decision should be to improve stage viewing availability and make the show more fiscally family friendly.
And change the stages. That was the word from a lot of the competitors.
Sébastien Ogier said it best, when he pointed out: “We’re rally drivers, we like to drive fast!”
Some of the stages were too slow. The odd bit of first-gear action’s alright, but there were times when the cars were barely north of second.
One source said: “We had some faster stages, when we made the route, we thought it was quite slow. But the FIA came and we were told the roads were too fast. We have to listen, and we have to do what we are told. We will look to this next year.”
And then we come to the serious stuff.
How did it take more than an hour for a fire truck to reach Dani Sordo’s by-then burned-out Hyundai? Even more concerning is the amount of time it took for rally control to receive the SOS signal to inform them of the incident.
I’m not going into specifics here, but I will offer an explanation of the process.
When the SOS button is deployed, the signal goes from car to helicopter to comms plane to the satellite, to the ground, to another satellite and into rally control. At best, that’s around a four-second process. At its absolute worst, it can be two or three minutes – potentially even more, depending on a multitude of factors.
The weather, the topography, the line of sight and whether or not the helicopter is flying – going to the plane is a longer process. The heli, we’re told, wasn’t in the air on Friday. Now, there is, of course, the live TV pictures which can relay an emergency situation. But the signal for All Live is similarly dependent on helicopters, cloud cover and other variables.
The crews were furious when they found out about the delay in the receipt of the signal. None more so than Sordo himself.
“It’s a good job we weren’t upside down, down there,” said the Spaniard, nodding towards a ditch at the side of the road where his smoldering i20 stood.
Another big question which has to be answered is the deployment of safety protocol. As you’d have seen, DirtFish was on the scene quicker than the emergency services – so we were able to watch aspects of the protocol play out.
The agreed plan is for the e-safety delegate to be on the scene as quickly as possible. They then work with the Technical Intervention Vehicle, which is equipped with kit to blanket off the high-voltage element of the car. Clearly, by the time the TIV was on the scene, the burning i20 was beyond any blanketing off.
In which case, the TIV works with the local marshals to cordon off the car and keep people away.
Our pictures demonstrate there was no cordon – we were able to walk up to the car, breathe in the smell of burning magnesium while taking pictures of the melting lithium battery running down the road.
Thankfully and understandably, a review of the protocol for such incidents is already very much underway within the FIA.
A further review has to be undertaken to understand how a non-competing car made it into stage four and drove the wrong way up the road. And how an old man on a bike got onto the Saturday evening street stage (and was knocked off his bike by the marshals). Not that the bike rider had too much to worry about – the stage was delayed because there were no divers to fish a crew out of the river if they overcooked the fast left over the flying finish.
Sources indicate the local council thought the rally organizer was providing the in-water support, while the rally organizer thought the local council was bringing them. In the end, nobody booked the underwater capability.
But it was the third stage on Friday that truly put the Rally Japan team to the sword.
Craig Breen was the first to go. He crashed into the ARMCO and there was no immediate communication with the car – likely because the helicopter wasn’t flying and there was, what was reckoned at the time, to be an approximate 90-second delay on the system.
Emil Lindholm passed the stricken Ford. He and co-driver Reeta Hämäläinen questioned each other as to whether they had seen either Breen or his co-driver James Fulton. They hadn’t. Hämäläinen instructed Lindholm to stop and hit their SOS button while she ran back up the road to check the car.
Right around the same time, Teemu Suninen had progressed into the stage, only to come across a road car coming towards him. So, he pushed the SOS.
Understandably, there was a degree of confusion in rally control. Firstly, there was Breen’s car with no comms; then Lindholm had stopped a couple of hundred meters down the road and he’d hit the SOS; had he gone off? What was his problem? And then Suninen was just behind them having hit the SOS as well. What was going on?
The organizers did exactly the right thing, they red-flagged the stage. The red flag signal was, of course, delayed coming in the opposite direction back into the cars, but the organizers had deployed the back-up plan of physical red flags at marshal points every five kilometers.
All three incidents happened within one of those five-kilometer windows – so no crew saw a red flag waved.
It really was the perfect storm.
But how did the car get into the stage in the first place? Turned out a marshal had parked his car at the junction, but not blocked it. He had then walked away from the junction, so there was nobody in position to stop the car.
Whether or not the junction was taped over – as it should have been – is part of an ongoing investigation.
Talking to some of the locals on the organizing team, the reason for the nightmare Friday is simple. Isegami’s Tunnel. The spirits in the tunnel were not impressed at the arrival of rally cars.
It’s unlikely an ongoing investigation will make much space for the ghosts of the 1959 Ise Bay Typhoon said to haunt the tunnel. But the investigation is very much required.
The WRC needs Japan, and the Japanese people absolutely deserve their round of the championship. But these issues must be sorted. And this one needs a cross-stakeholder approach. The event needs a yellow card for the organizers and a warning that more of the same will have them ejected from the calendar. What we then need to see is the community – and both the FIA and WRC Promoter – gathering behind Japan to get it right next time.