So, after decades of serving maybe the longest apprenticeship in the history of the World Rally Championship, Ypres Rally has at long last earned its stripes and graduated to the big boys league. But that really doesn’t tell the whole story, does it?
It’s hardly as if the event has been battering the door of the WRC Promoter down over the years demanding to be let in. Ypres is perhaps one of the biggest success stories in European rallying and much like the Monte Carlo Rally, has earned that success by very much plowing its own furrow.
The format of the event is perhaps its major selling point. Based around the Grote Markt, the town’s historic and imposing central square, the near-WRC length event is run over thirty-odd frantic hours from Friday evening until the very early hours of Sunday morning. It is a feast of rally action and atmosphere for everyone concerned and a format that I’ve always thought of as a potential template for WRC events.
We’ve heard FIA president Jean Todt in the past talking about the need to reintroduce the long lost challenge of endurance back into rallying. The conventional thinkers have always assumed that means longer events. But more days of what we currently have is a long way short of endurance. Dare I say it, that would probably be just a little bit boring.
Endurance is a relative thing. And I think 300 kilometers over 30 hours is as near to endurance as rallying is going to get any time soon.
It’s a fabulously well-run event that does everything right and its late substitution into the WRC calendar is one of the bright spots and genuinely exciting things to have happened in what otherwise has been a depressingly dismal year.
But here’s the thing. There’s something else that’s very different about this year’s event. Normally it runs in early summer and more often than not the weather is fine, dry, and predictable. This year it runs in late November. And as if the event wasn’t going to be hard enough for our top WRC crews, this alone could be the event’s biggest challenge.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Monteberg rally the other week, a one-day event with two short-ish stages looped four times. Why is this relevant? Well, for two reasons actually.
One, the stages were very much run in Ypres territory just to the south of Poperinge. One of them, Dikkebus, will in all likelihood feature in November’s event. And reason two, the weather; it was awful!
So what we got at the Monteberg Rally was a little taste of what we might expect to see when the WRC circus rolls into town for the first time later in the year.
From an entertainment point of view, it was fabulous. From a driver’s point of view, it was a bit of a nightmare. These stages are all run through fertile and productive agricultural land and the legendary Flanders cuts that can quite literally swallow a rally car whole were very much in evidence. But the cuts this time were different, the ground was sodden and what resulted resembled more of a muddy hell than an asphalt rally. And that is exactly what we are going to see come November – only worse!
The roads that make up the Ypres Rally are in the main rural, agricultural roads. And in November, when the farmers are in and out of their sodden fields preparing the ground in their mighty mud making machines, a whole lot more of that messy stuff ends up on what is normally clean asphalt.
In Monteberg the drivers were just about able to deal with what was a combination of treacherous mud, and dry and wet asphalt because the regulations allowed for a wide choice of tires and the option to cut. How will the WRC wet asphalt tire cope? Well, as far as I can see, with great difficulty.
And there’s more! On the way out the stages early on Sunday morning our journey was slowed numerous times by completely enveloping banks of rolling fog. My hosts told me that come November, these conditions will be the norm. And of course, we have to factor in here the extra hours of darkness that means early morning starts and late finishes will run in almost complete darkness.
As if Ypres wasn’t challenging enough, come November, it could well be the biggest challenge many of our top WRC crews have experienced. I really can’t wait to see how one of my favorite events measures up in the WRC.
One thing is for sure; it’s going to be a mighty entertaining conclusion to what has been a mighty difficult year for the WRC.