The FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) pits cars and drivers in a series of two, three or four-day events though some of the toughest, and most varied, conditions on the planet.
The roads on this epic motorsport adventure range from the ice and snow of Scandinavia to the stifling heat of Jordan - over surfaces including packed ice, smooth asphalt and boulder-strewn rocky tracks.
Unsurprisingly, the series is widely regarded as the most challenging motorsport competition in the world. Established in its current format in 1973, in 2010 drivers and manufacturers will battle it out for the 38th annual drivers’ and manufacturers’ championship trophies on rallies spread across 13 countries.
The competition itself is deceptively simple. Each rally is split into a number (typically between 15 and 25) of ‘special stages’ which are run on closed roads. Drivers tackle these stages one car at a time in an effort to complete them in the shortest time. Competitors drive to and from each special stage on normal roads, observing normal traffic regulations. During the special stages, a co-driver, or navigator, reads pace notes to alert the driver to the conditions on the road ahead.
The cars competing at the top level of the sport are known as World Rally Cars, and are - for the last time this year - based on four-cylinder two-litre production cars. But while they might resemble the models found in a high street showroom, upgrades to the engine, transmission and suspension, mean a WRC car is a turbocharged, four-wheel drive monster that develops more than 300bhp and masses of torque. Regardless of the road surface, these machines can accelerate from a standing start to 100kph in around three seconds. Their top speed depends upon the gearing chosen for each rally, but 220kph is not unusual.
But World Rally Cars are not the only type of vehicle on the WRC stages. The championship also includes three support series for different classes of car: Production, Junior and Super 2000.
The Production Car World Rally Championship (P-WRC) is the FIA’s principal series for near-showroom spec four-wheel drive, turbocharged cars, while the Juinior World Rally Championship (J-WRC) is the place to find the stars of the future battling it out in two-wheel drive non-turbocharged hatchbacks. New for 2010 is the Super 2000 World Rally Championship (S-WRC) - a class specifically for two-litre, four-wheel drive non-turbocharged Super 2000 cars.
The WRC is regulated and controlled by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body for worldwide motorsport. Most WRC rallies follow the same basic itinerary: two days of reconnaissance on Tuesday and Wednesday, to enable the driver and co-driver to check the route, and ‘shakedown’ - in effect practice - on Thursday, followed by the competition itself on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Some events also include ‘Super Special’ stages - short and compact sprint tests which often feature two cars racing head-to-head.
Because rallies go on for several days, cars and drivers need to take a break. For this reason they visit the ‘Service Park’ at pre-determined times during each event.
Besides checking the car and changing tyres, during this time a team of four technicians is allowed to perform mechanical work on each car. Service time available is strictly limited, with each stop being either 10, 30 or 45 minutes depending on the itinerary.
Being able to work in this pressured environment means WRC mechanics are some of the best in the world, capable of extraordinary ingenuity, speed, and the odd miracle. In the heat of competition a suspension upright, hub and brake unit will be swapped in around five minutes, a gearbox in 10. Armed with hammers, welding torches and tank tape, WRC mechanics have the power to transform a sorry looking wreck into a rally winner. Away from the service park repairs or adjustments can still be made, but only by the driver and co-driver, and only using tools and spare parts carried in the car.
Time penalties are applied if visits to the service park exceed the period allowed. Time penalties are also given to competitors who arrive late at stage starts, or any of the other numerous check-points throughout the event.
At the end of the rally the driver who has completed all of the special stages in the shortest total time is the winner. Points are allocated to the top ten drivers in each competition on a 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 basis. Points are awarded to registered manufacturers, WRC teams in the same way.