The asphalt is clear. The buzz of insects intersperses the idle chatter of a crowd patiently awaiting the main event. They, and I, have gone to great lengths to see what we are about to see.
A drive of hours through past vineyards and corn fields followed by a hike up a hill bordering on mountain-esque, with people flanking us carrying step-ladders, camping chairs and most importantly, slabs of Kronenbourg.
Then comes the jostling for space and a clear view of the grey strip of road along which we are crowded, like a sequence of prison inmates clinging to the bars and leering at the new arrival.
Our strip encompasses about 60 metres of surface and one slight left turn, enough road to glimpse a blur of colour, motion and deafening sound for perhaps all of four seconds a pop. A glimpse of a World Championship Rally car.
Then in the distance we hear it. A whistle. The signature air-horn off in the trees. The distant but ever-growing growl and pop of the vehicle hustling up the road: a Citroen ‘zero’ car, rally parlance for the pace car.
There’s something strange here though. Pace cars are only supposed to go at six-tenths as they sweep the road and check that all is a-ok. This one is pushing much harder than that.
It’s a thrill to see it swoop in, slide the tail and cut a corner fine. Too fine. The wheel catches a divet, and right before my eyes chaos ensues.
A cacophony of noise and violence. Scarcely can we blink before the smell of fuel fills the air and an upside-down Citroen fills the next embankment. This. Never. Happens. Not a zero car. The driver is shaken but fine. And likely out of a job.
This unpredictability is rally at its best. The marshals commence pushing the totalled car down a slip road, placing it next to an even more damaged Group N Renault Clio that had flipped earlier that day. Gendarmes flanking both, the crowd buzzes and prepares for a stage cancellation.
It never comes, and their patience is rewarded. This is racing at its least predictable, cars not against each other but the clock — an unbending and unflappable foe. The results can be spectacular, and our experience may just take the cake.
Alright, let’s step back so I can give you some context.
Earlier this month, on the tail end of the Paris motor show, I made a quick trip to the far eastern French town of Strasbourg to attend the Rallye de France.
The World Rally Championship (WRC) has been through the wringer of late. Periods of contraction and intensified focus on Europe, seasons with just two car-makers in the running, and nine consecutive years of domination and championship from Sebastien Loeb and Citroen.
In this way, the WRC has been to me a shadow of its former self, a time in the 1990s when names such as Gronholm, Makinen, McRae, Solberg, Sainz and Burns were of the household variety, and brands Subaru, Peugeot, Mitsubishi and Toyota still had a presence.
Of course, that era in turn was considered by many to be a shadow of the kamikaze Group B cars of the 1980s, a time when crowds were almost as on-the-edge as the drivers.
Today, the reigning champion is Sebastien Ogier — another Sebastien! — and the brand he represents is Volkswagen (we attended the event with VW). In Australia, I’d hazard to guess, few people outside of aficionados would know this.
Am I the only one who left the WRC behind in recent years?
I remember being a kid in country Western Australia visiting the dense Jarrah forests where the mythic rally legends from far away would ply their trade, and the special stage running along the Swan river. Broad days.
I remember obsessing over the results from overseas, hero-worshipping the drivers and memorising their career records, and devouring hour upon hour of Colin McRae Rally on Playstation. But somewhere along the way, the WRC seemed to diminish from my radar.
Was it the controversial the move to Coffs Harbour that did it? The domination of Loeb? The lack of brands taking part (at one point it was only Ford and Citroen, with the GFC throwing doubt into many car-makers and causing them to cut the motorsport on their roster)?
Paddock insiders will say all of the above. One person who feels this way is Luis Moya, the colourful and legendary Spaniard who served for 15 years as co-driver for famed driver Carlos Sainz and is now involved with Volkswagen Motorsport.
But spending some time with Moya may have also been just the ticket to get me fired up about rally once again. As he said: “things are on the way up,” pointing out that the number of brands taking part is now four, and Toyota is speculated to be set on making it five next year.
That said, the WRC is not without its problems. It has a disproportionate number of rounds in Europe — 10 rounds out of 13 — with Australia, Argentina and Mexico the exceptions.
This may change. It may not. But what my visit to Rallye de France reminded me of was the things that make rally special. And the unique aspects that set WRC apart.
It goes without saying that WRC drivers are pretty remarkable. Few other drivers have to drive on gravel, snow, tarmac and mud, with all the variables of nature thrown into the mix.
But what is even more special is the dedication of the fans we saw in France’s Alsace region, on the cusp of the German border. At one point, I travelled in a convoy for 90 minutes, jostled for space among a throng of viewers and at last attained a view of perhaps 200 metres of tarmac.
If you extrapolate this, I saw and heard each car for perhaps 10 seconds — tops — and lingered for 10 cars to flash by. All that for 100 seconds, less than two minutes, and then a long trundle back to the van to do it all over again.
And yet the fans are obsessed. And why not? It’s free in the country stages. You’re in nature — some spectacular forest in the sunshine — there are BBQs blazing and beer for the drinking. Elsewhere are families enjoying a day on the road following the convoy.
When the WRC cars return to the makeshift pits, the fans can get up close. Even the sport’s biggest superstars make themselves available for photos and signatures, within reason. It’s a sport that seems grounded, perhaps not by choice.
I probably only saw about 5 minutes of actual race cars in the day. Yet I had a great time. WRC is doing something right…
Have you fallen out of love with WRC? Do you wish it was more prominent here in Australia?
See our previous video with WRC star Chris Atkinson here.