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PERSPECTIVE> Rally Spectators Risk Their Lives!

markku alen, wrc, san remo

While searching for some photos of a particular rally car (the awesome GroupB Peugeot 205 T16 Evo 2 to be exact), I came across a great thread on www.specialstage.com called “Those Crazy Rally Spectators” by forum member “Autohabit.” I felt I had to show the MotorMavens readers a selection of the photos and give a little insight into some of them.

Timo Salonen 205 T16

The rally spectator is, most definitely, a special individual – often described as an anorak who is able to list off the registration plates of rally cars and point out the actual meanings of the letters to the bemusement of any normal or moderately sane individual. They are also a hardy bunch who are faced with all varieties of inclement weather conditions and spend hours walking to (and waiting at) those all important, must-see, kinks, jumps and hairpins that are ready to swallow up any rally crew that either runs out of grip or talent! By the standards of the 1980s and early 1990s, today’s rally spectators are a bunch of “wet blankets” or “big girls blouses,” because back then they were not just standing watching the stage – they were part of it!

Ari Vatanen Rothmans Escort

Towards the end of the 1970s, the World Rally Championship was extremely popular and, as you will see throughout this article, the craziest spectators are almost exclusively the Latin spectators. Ari Vatanen in the Rothmans Ford Escort is in his typical flat-out eleven/tenths style as he makes his way through this corner. You can see the spectators on the outside with arms up, trying to shield themselves from the showering of stones, rocks and mud they are receiving. As you can plainly see, Ari is merely a few feet from the spectators on the inside of the corner.

Markku Alen 037 Rallye

When the World Rally Championship hit the early to mid 1980s, the sport entered what many still believe, including this writer, the sport’s “Golden era.” Piloting the Martini Lancia 037 Rallye here is Markku Alen on the 1982 San Remo rally. Markku is obviously pushing very hard in this corner. You can see someone’s bag is about to get up close and personal with the Lancia.

Markku Alen Lancia 037

You can see here just how close Markku is to the spectators. The car is right off the proper line for the corner, riding on the grass verge.

Markku Alen Lancia 037 Rallye

Now, the entire left hand side of the car is on the grass verge and Markku must be literally grazing spectators with the rear quarter of the Lancia 037. Apart from the position of the car in this sequence the most striking thing is Markku’s posture in the car. You can see him leaning away from the spectators in a bid not to hit them. Such a fantastic sequence of photos!

Henri Toivonen Opel Manta

One year later at San Remo we see Henri Toivonen in the Rothmans Opel Manta 400 negotiating a hairpin right. You can see in the middle of the photo, a kid right on the apex of the corner. It really beggars belief how these rally crews drove these stages knowing spectators were literally feet from their cars and if they made a mistake they would actually hit people. I have so much admiration for these guys!

Ari Vatanen Rothmans Manta 400

Another Rothmans car, Another bunch of spectators getting showered with stones on the outside of a corner, and yet again Ari Vatanen at eleven/tenths on the 1983 San Remo Rally.

Timo Salonen 205 T16

This photo encapsulates the madness of rally spectators. You can see four layers of spectators in the tree but there is only one level. The guy at the top has obviously lost it completely, the second guy is only at his position because the first guy got to the top of the tree first and that goes for the third and the fourth guy, and so on, all the way to the bottom! Be guaranteed there was a race to get to the top of that tree! This would have been a common sight along the entire stage in Portugal for Timo Salonen in the Peugeot 205 T16. Salonen once reported having almost hit a spectator. The truth was that, in fact, he had, as the unfortunate soul’s finger was found by a Peugeot Sport mechanic lodged in the grill of the T16.

Walter Rohrl Quattro Sport

You can see the attitude of Audi driver Walter Rohrl in this photo. Walter can see the spectator on the road but he has the nose of the Audi Sport Quattro in the air and the rear is planted in the ground under hard acceleration. By 1985, the sport was extremely popular in continental Europe. GroupB was such a massive spectacle because the cars had reached almost Formula 1 levels of power and they certainly looked the part too. Fans from Italy on the San Remo rally were getting wilder with each year that passed. As you can see, the side of the road was no longer enough as some spectators are playing chicken with the cars.

Quattro Sport Monte Carlo

1986 was a year in the World Rally Championship that will be remembered forever as the year the sport reached its peak. The championship was decided in the courts after Peugeot were unfairly thrown out of Corsica and Lancia’s Markku Alen had to hand back his title to Peugeot’s Juha Kankkunen.

The World Rally Championship started off, as always, on the Monte Carlo Rally and we were given a taste of things to come – things that would plague the sport throughout the 1986 season. As a photographer I can appreciate wanting to get that all-important awesome shot, but standing in front of a 500bhp fire-spitting Audi on an icy road is a crazy.

Kankkunen 205 T16

This is Juha Kankkunen in the Peugeot 205 T16 Evo2 on the Monte Carlo piloting his way on a road covered in slushy snow and ice with spectators again lining the stage and seemingly having no thought for their own personal safety. Notice the spectators on the left getting covered in slush. Some spectators wore the dirt, snow, gravel and dust like a badge of honor, as if to say “I was there, I was involved!”.

Tony Pond Portugal 6R4

Tony Pond is at full flight in the ComputerVision MG Metro 6R4 on the 1986 Portuguese rally. The attitude of the spectators here is very interesting. A 400bhp rally car is approaching and, as one would expect, people in the middle foreground are all waiting expectantly – but notice the girl and the man in the bottom left, nonchalantly standing or walking off to the edge of the road with mere seconds before the 6R4 blasts past with its normally aspirated v6 singing! Astounding! Also notice the shadows cast onto the tarmac. As I wrote in the introduction, spectators were no longer just spectators they were part of the stage!

The GroupB cars had basically grown out of control and were far beyond the stock versions of any of the cars they were based upon. They were producing staggering levels of horsepower for that era. It was not only the cars that had grown out of control but the spectators also had become more reckless and it was inevitable that an accident was going to happen – all the drivers and teams could feel it but they just didn’t want to be the ones it would happen to.

Joaquim Santos RS200 Portugal

The Ford RS200 of Portuguese privateer Joaquim Santos (above) lost control after coming over a crest to find spectators in the road. Three spectators were killed and thirty were injured in the accident. Ford Motorsport pulled all the factory cars out of the rally instantly and several drivers including Tony Pond said they would not continue the rally due to what had happened. Malcolm Wilson, Pond’s teammate at the time and now M-sport boss, described one incident where he had gotten into a four wheel drift and as he drifted towards the spectators they just stepped back casually as he glided by. In the interviews I have on old VHS tapes, you can see all the drivers were visibly upset and troubled by the spectator safety issues. On the Coriscan rally Henri Toivonen was killed along with his co-driver Sergio Cresto when the Lancia Delta S4 they were in left the road and burst into flames. FISA, the sports governing body, froze the development of the GroupB class and banned the cars outright from the 1987 season.

San remo celica st165 1988

The sport was headed by the GroupA class which was, in comparison, a very watered down class. The cars had half the power and were closely based on the road cars that inspired them. With the loss of the spectacle, some of the madness of the spectators had gone too and spectator safety had improved. Looking back to the first photo of the Audi Sport Quattro, compare it to the photo of the Toyota Celica ST165 on the 1988 San Remo Rally. You can see that five years later things had changed somewhat – spectators were not allowed to stand on the left hand side except a few of those pesky photographers. You’ll also notice there are no police or security personnel in the later photograph.

Philippe Bugalski Delta Intergrale Monte 1992

In the early 1990s the sport, although nowhere near the heady days of the mid 80s, was gaining momentum and spectators still liked to get up close and personal, as you can see with this spectator getting in the way of Phillipe Bugalski in his Lancia Delta Integrale Evo on the 1992 Monte Carlo rally. It looks like the spectator has nowhere to go as often groups of spectators stand in a very confined space so that when a rally driver gets into a situation there is nowhere for the spectators to go. Phillipe is hard on the accelerator here as you can see the snow spinning off the right front wheel. Notice the Meerkat-like spectators in the background straining to see what is happening on the hairpin.

McRae Legacy 555 subaru

Here’s Colin McRae and Derek Ringer in the GrpA Subaru Legacy on the 1993 Tour de Corse. Spectators still believed they would be impervious to the the dangers of an out of control rally car. Colin is obviously in control here though. Notice the spectators in the background running across to the other side of the road to try to catch a glimpse of Colin and the Subaru heading away from the hairpin.

The mid 1990s saw a lot of interest in the WRC. At this point, the championship boasted several manufacturers from across the globe and a major influx of Japanese manufacturers getting involved such as Subaru, Mitsubishi and Toyota. The Portuguese fans were still crazy but not to the same degree they once had been.

Bettega 037 fafe

In 1984, we can see Attilio Bettega attack the famous Fafe jump on the Portuguese rally with spectators lining the stage and standing on the road but…

Auriol ST205 Fafe Portugal

..fast forward to 1995 on the same jump we can see that now Didier Auriol in his TTE Toyota Celica ST205 can see where he is going, without having to follow a tunnel of spectators. Although spectators were beginning to behave themselves on certain parts of the stages, there was still the same problem on other parts…

McRae 555 Impreza Subaru Portugal 1995

I am beginning to wonder whether each driver had a special pact with the spectators that allowed them to keep going flat out with the understanding that it was up to the spectator to move. Just imagine being faced with what Colin is peering out at from the Impreza 555.

Impreza WRC Tour De Corse Colin

I have included this photo purely because it shows the spectators are getting more sensible by not standing on the road or in the middle of the apex. The expressions of the guys on the wall is just fantastic as they watch McRae in the Impreza WRC on the Tour de Corse in 1998. The WRC had now moved onto the WRC class in 1997 and the sport’s popularity was growing especially with such spectacular rally drivers as Colin McRae.

Armin Scharwz WRC Octavia

This is definitely not one of the better places from which to spectate on the Monte Carlo. Is the spectator falling out of a tree or just jumping up from his vantage point to avoid Armin Scharwz’s Skoda Octavia WRC car hitting him? He is very lucky here.

Marc Blazquez Argentina WRC Cordoba SEAT

I’m unsure of how this particular incident ends but again our Latin brothers are getting closer to the action than most would dare. The Seat Cordoba WRC driven by Marc Blazquez is teetering on the edge of disaster during the 2001 Rally Argentina. One of the spectators seems to have his hands out as if he is going to be able to stop the car coming down on him – a natural reaction to protect oneself.

Burns Impreza P2000 Spain hairpin el Molar

Spectator control has greatly improved at a majority of events and Rally Spain is a very good example. Richard Burns in the Impreza P2000 navigates his way around one of the most spectator congested hairpins on Rally Spain. You can see that the road is clear and the spectators are far enough off the road without losing that intimacy with the cars on the stage. The bridge above is a main road and the spectators line the sidewalk to get their vantage point. You may also recognize this hairpin from when Gilles Panizzi did a “doughnut” during the stage whilst leading the rally – it was just crazy and the Spanish spectators went wild!

Harri Rovanpera WRC Lancer Evo 7 VII Spain

Harri Rovanpera exits the hairpin in his Mitsubishi Lancer WRC with a clear line of sight up to the next corner. The spectators are as eager as ever, but controlled at the same time. Look at the guy on the left in the dark red jumper shouting at Rovanpera, willing him on in what was a very difficult car to drive. You can see spectators leaning out over the barrier to get a better vantage point. You can also spot the marshals in the high-visibility vests helping to control the excitable crowd.

Ypres IRC Belgium s2000 Kopecky

Here’s Jan Kopecky on the 2008 Ypres Rally in Belgium in his Skoda Fabia S2000 during the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Both spectator control and the attitudes of spectators have greatly changed over the years and incidents involving spectators have decreased significantly in recent years. There are still issues in some countries where the sport is new and the dangers are not appreciated as strongly as they should be but Rallying still remains one of those sports where the spectators can get up close and personal with the cars and drivers. Remember when spectating that, although these guys are professionals, things can go wrong and often do. The crews push themselves to the limits and when that limit is passed make sure you’re not standing in the wrong place. Be responsible folks.

:: Patrick McCullagh

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10 Responses

  1. Pingback : PERSPECTIVE> Rally Spectators Risk Their Lives! - Car News

  2. The inability of organizers to control spectators led the FIA to drop that event from the WRC. Here in the U.S., spectators (what few there were) were generally well behaved. Exceptions were the groups of Polish and Irish rally fans who had emigrated to the U.S.

    Once rally spectating became popular at U.S. events, about ten years ago (thanks to the Internet), insurance companies got worried that someone might get injured and put an end to open spectating. Now all spectators are limited to Official Spectator Areas only.

    As a long time rally photographer, I witnessed several very close calls, but will save those for a longer story.

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