So there you are, deep in the woods of some European country, huddled around a crackling fire, cradling a warm beverage to stave off the frostbite in your fingertips. Spots of ice keep you from wandering too far, as does the cheery atmosphere of the locals. Murmurs of several different dialects mix with the floating wood smoke, while a collection of colorful flags flit among the branches.

Then you hear it – the rising crescendo of an un-muffled turbo four-cylinder at full song, popping through the gears with shocking alacrity, each upshift accompanied by a heady tailpipe explosion. The crowd around you is hushed, and all attention turns to a narrow dirt road slithering its way through the trees.

The sound builds, until finally, it bursts over the crest – a brightly stickered race car takes flight, giving you a clear view of the battered skid plate underneath. The suspension droops like landing gear as the winged hatchback sails past you, and for a brief moment, you see two helmets brace for impact in the cockpit. Momentum carries the car well over a hundred feet until it reconnects with the ground, and you watch as the rear squirms under braking before disappearing around the following bend in a sideways spray of frozen mud, covering nearby trees and spectators alike. The exhaust note fades, replaced by the cheers of all around you.

This is rally racing. It’s a contest characterized by ruthless conditions, unyielding machinery, outrageous talent, and gut-wrenching crashes. In this article, we’ll delve into some of the finer points of what makes this one of the most exciting sports in the world.

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Origins

The roots of rally date back well over a century to some of the very first automobile races, including events like the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race of 1895. Consisting of timed runs on public roads between European cities, these early competitions set the groundwork for modern rallys, with stage entry and exit points, route notes, and all the associated hazards of “real world” driving, including pedestrians and local fauna.

Over time, the popularity of these events grew, and so did the speeds. In 1903, Fernand Gabriel drove a Mors in the Paris-Madrid race at an average speed of 65 mph, an act of sheer lunacy when considering the early automobile’s wooly and unpredictable handling over the unpaved surfaces. At the time, the safety of these types of events was in question, with concerns compounded by the presence of spectators and animals that would occasionally find themselves in harms way. After several injuries and deaths, circuit racing was established as a safer alternative, prompting the rise of the modern racetrack as we now know it.

The 1911 Monte Carlo Rally is often cited as the first appearance of the term “rally” as applied to an automobile competition, with 23 cars converging on the principality from starting locations all over Europe at the request of Albert I, Prince of Monaco. Winners were judged on the elegance of the vehicle, passenger comfort, and the condition of the car upon arrival. While certainly a far cry from what we would call rally today, the term was eventually applied to a number of automobile events that would evolve into several different types of motorsport competition.

Types of Rally

Stage Rally

Audi Quattro coming back in 2012
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This is the most common form of professional rally racing, forming the basis of series like the World Rally Championship and Rally America. Held on closed roads and highways, surfaces vary from event to event, and can include tarmac, gravel, snow, ice, sand, dirt or combinations thereof.

Competing cars run individually in staggered intervals through a predetermined course, or stage, where speed and driving prowess separate the winners from the also-rans. Total time for each stage is added consecutively, with victory going to the team with the lowest accumulated time.

Events are often spaced out over the course of several days, with mechanical services available at certain points between stages. The driver and co-driver are also allowed to turn wrenches using tools and parts carried in the race car.

Some rallies include a “super special stage” wherein competitors are challenged with a unique track, sometimes purpose-built in a stadium or set among curb-lined city streets. Occasionally, these will see two competitors racing in tandem, each taking a separate lane. After one lap, the lanes cross over, equalizing the run for both cars.

Super special stages are usually more accessible for the fans, offering better seating and visibility, which also lends them the title “spectator stages.” Super specials are often done in the style of a rallycross, which is an entirely different form of rally, covered below.

Rallycross

2013 Dodge Dart Rallycross Car Exterior
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Drawing many similarities to traditional circuit racing, rallycross events are held on purpose-built, mixed-surface tracks, with competitors going wheel-to-wheel as they vie for the win. By combining the sideways antics of rallying with the accessibility and close-proximity competition of a race track, rallycross is a hybrid race with a little something for everyone.

While it’s often considered an inexpensive, entry-level form of motorsport, professional rallycross has been gaining momentum lately, especially in the U.S., where series like the Global Rallycross Championship have seen increased popularity and big-name involvement. Drivers like Travis Pastrana, Bucky Lasek, Rhys Millen, Tanner Foust, Ken Block, Nelson Piquet Jr. and David Higgins have all made their mark at the GRC, while corporate brands like Red Bull Monster, and Rockstar continue to funnel money into sponsorship deals.

Rally Raid

2015 MINI ALL4 Racing High Resolution Exterior
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Also known as a cross-country rally, the rally raid is a point-to-point race covering extreme distances. These off-road endurance events are held over the course of many days, sometimes weeks, with thousands of miles separating the start and finish line. Navigation is more free-form than that used in stage rallies, with GPS and an eye for easily passable terrain guiding drivers to their destination. Rally raids are composed of a variety of different vehicle classes, including motorcycles, quads, cars, SUVs, and even enormous trucks weighing in excess of 7,700 pounds.

The most famous rally raid is the Dakar. Formerly known as the Paris-Dakar Rally, this annual event was moved to South America in 2009 due to terrorism concerns, and now pits competitors in a grueling 5,600-mile test through Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. To finish at all is considered an enormous accomplishment.

Road Rally

Porsche mourns Paul Ernst Strähle Exterior
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The road rally may be the genesis of all other rally racing, but nowadays, it’s primarily reserved for amateurs. It’s real James May-kind-of-stuff, with an emphasis on strategy — time-keeping and precision over absolute velocity. Held on public roads, competitors must attain a specific time by averaging a specific speed. Any time over or under this is met with penalties. You usually can’t even break the speed limit.

Prior to the mid-80s, however, road rallies were quite different, with higher speeds and a racier format that made them far more popular with enthusiasts. In the past, road rally events would feature off-road portions called “special stages.” These eventually comprised the majority of road rally events, and would ultimately spin off to become the stage rally racing we know and love today.

The Modern Day Rally Car

2015 Volkswagen Polo R WRC High Resolution Exterior
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Covering the details of every kind of rally car would be impossible here, so I’ll focus primarily on one of the most popular machines currently in service – the World Rally Championship car.

Created to be an unstoppable force in the face of immovable objects, the cars you see flying around in the WRC are not only extremely quick, but incredibly robust as well. They’re the kind of cars you can literally roll, pop back onto its tires, and continue on with.

Built to specifications laid out by the FIA, all WRC cars are based on street vehicles with production runs of at least 2,500 units. Materials like titanium, magnesium, and ceramics are banned unless they are also present in the production streetcar. Carbon fiber is used for the bodywork, including the wide-ranging, regulation-spec aerodynamic enhancements.

Engine displacement is limited to 1.6 liters, with turbochargers and anti-lag systems enhancing output significantly. However, a 1.3-inch-diameter air restrictor and a max boost pressure of 36.3 psi hold the powerplants to roughly 300 horsepower and 300 foot-pounds of torque.

The chassis are strengthened for more rigidity, and have FIA-mandated, multi-point roll cages. The minimum weight for the cars is 2,646 pounds, including one spare wheel — 2,998 pounds with the driver and co-driver.

The AWD systems are less complicated than you might think, using only two mechanical differentials without any electronic, hydraulic or viscous systems. The transmissions are sequential six-speeds with one reverse gear.

Suspension components are rugged, super-strength MacPherson struts with adjustable dampers. Opposite lock comes from power rack and pinion steering and nerves of steel. The brakes are from Brembo, with 14-inch rotors on tarmac, 11.8-inch rotors on gravel, and air-cooled four-piston calipers at each corner. The wheels are bombproof, measuring 8x18 inches for tarmac and 7x15 inches for gravel. All of the front-runners use tires from Michelin. A hydraulic handbrake makes rear-end rotation a snap.

Speed stats include a 0-to-60 time in the upper three-second range and a top speed in excess of 125 mph. On any surface.

Current WRC competitors include the Volkswagen Polo R, Hyundai i20, Citroen DS3, and Ford Fiesta.

The Co-Driver

2011 Range Rover Evoque 'T3' Dakar Rally Racer Interior
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While it’s the loose nut behind the wheel that usually gets all the glory, the individual in the passenger seat is just as important when it comes to getting the car across the finish line in one piece. Responsibilities include on-the-fly mechanical repairs, time tracking, and of course, navigation.

In stage rally racing, the co-driver will read pace notes through an intercom over the din of the motor and bits of the environment slashing at the undercarriage. These notes are essential to keep the driver on maximum attack, describing the road ahead and outlining potential hazards lurking just out of sight.

Some event organizers provide official pace notes to teams, while others allow for a reconnaissance run, or “recce,” for the creation of personalized route descriptions.

While there are a few different pace note systems out there (Jemba is most common in the U.S.), each describes the same thing. A corner is described by direction and severity of angle, using a letter and number, plus either a – or + for recommended speed (R6+ would be a flat-out right-hand bend that barely turns, while an L1 would be a slow hairpin left. R4 would be a medium right-hander, with an R4- being slightly slower). Some unit of distance follows (like 100 meters). Elevation changes, like jumps and crests, are also included.

Pace notes also describe how the driver should maneuver the car through each corner. A co-driver will say something like “don’t cut,” indicating a hazard near the apex, suggesting the car be placed closer to the center of the road. “Tidy” means a hazard exists on the outside of the corner, so take care not to slide too much.

Putting it all together, a random section of pace notes might look something like this:

“R5/C 100 L4- 50 L2 into R3 NC 200 jump! into R6 200 L2- tidy”

Which translates into “right five over crest, 100, left four minus, 50, left two into right three don’t cut, 200, jump caution into flat out right, 200, left two minus tidy.” Detail levels can vary, but you get the idea.

Keeping the car at the limit requires absolute meticulousness on the part of the co-driver. While the driver may go a bit wide in one corner or over-brake in another, one wrong call from the co-driver could spell disaster. Some say you could tack 20 percent onto your time without proper notes. Trust between the two is paramount, with the driver relying on accuracy to push into unknown territory, while the co-driver relies on the driver not to stuff it. And while it’s the driver who usually grabs the headlines, it’s the co-driver who’s really calling the shots.

Rally’s Future

Alfa Romeo 4C Rally Car? High Resolution Exterior
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As the rest of the motorsport world integrates itself with hybrid technology, rally too is going the way of the electron, but at a slower pace. Part of the reason is the necessity for robust, simple designs, seeing how a compicated hybrid system could be a tough fix on the high roads of Mexico or in frozen forests of Sweden.

But rally cars have always closely mirrored streetcars, and considering the rate at which A-to-B commuters are gaining electric motors, I wouldn’t be surprised if rallying followed suit sooner or later. EV power would actually fit the sport quite well. A flat torque curve and precise torque vectoring would work wonders at clawing a car out of corners.

But in the end, rally will always be about supreme practicality, not the latest fads. It’s about conquering an environment that’s less than sterile, creating speed in conditions where most vehicles just spew fluids. Whatever new tech come along will need to be able to withstand the rigors of this sport, and that’s a tall order.

One thing’s for certain, though: whatever the future of rally might look like, it’s going to be entertaining as hell.

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