WRC Finland is this weekend and it's the rally of all rallies. Sure there are more epic ones in length or difficulty, but nothing matches the speed and jumps of Finland! When one dreams of being a rally driver, it's on the stages like Ouninpohja.
And for first the first time in four decades there are Americans competing at WRC Finland. And not just one team, but two! Chris Duplessis with Alex Kihurani and Ken Block with Alex Gelsomino. These guys are living the dream.
I was planning on going over to watch these guys race in person, but Pikes Peak was rescheduled for next week making the trip nearly impossible. So let's go over how you follow this race from home.
First off, a paragraph or two on rally. It's more than cars flying over crests on closed public roads. The sport actually resembles golf in many aspects. Rally might even be closer to golf than traditional road racing. Seriously. Both competitions are broken up into sections. Golf has 18 holes, WRC Finland has 18 stages which are the closed public road sections where drivers race one after another for the fastest time. Each competitor records their best result, strokes in golf, time in rally, and moves on to the next hole/stage. At the end of a rally, the times of each stage are aggregated into one overall time and the lowest determines the winner – very similar to how the strokes of each hole are aggregated to determine the lowest score or winner in golf.
Rally also differs from other forms of motorsport in that you carry a co-driver who reads a description of the road ahead over an intercom. These descriptions tell the driver whether to go flat over a crest because it's a straightaway on the other side, or brake because it's a hairpin. This aspect is critical to a team's success as they only get two passes (at slow speed) over each stage to write their pace notes on how fast to take the corners ahead. There are a lot more nuances to the sport but this is a good start.
The best place to start learning or following an event is the World Rally Championship website. Their news updates and videos are probably the most accurate coverage of the event given the media army they deploy every weekend. But the real reason to go to WRC.com is for live rally radio! Just click the "open WRC Live" link.
I know it sounds insane. Listen to race cars on the radio? I used to make fun of it, too. But I'm crazy hooked on their broadcasts and listen all day while working on my car in the garage. I learn more about the WRC and what's going on behind the scenes than anywhere else. They start on Thursday, run all weekend, and are available for replay if you miss it.
Next up is TV, but it's not the timeliest. The best coverage is from Motors TV in Europe, but we don't get that here in the U.S. The good news is that WRC fans are awesome and it's always uploaded to YouTube a few hours after the broadcast airs! By the next morning you should be able to find it. You just need to search the right terms or you'll get a bunch of Dirt3 videos uploaded from some kid's Xbox360. So search "WRC Finland 2012 Day 1 Part 1/2" and you'll generally pull the first day's broadcast. Here is the first video from WRC New Zealand as an example.
We do get TV coverage on the Speed channel, but it's only one hour covering all three days of rally. And usually by the time it airs on Sunday night I've already seen most of the footage. But it is nice to sit back and watch high definition on a regular TV if you don't have the ability to stream YouTube directly to it.
Finally you have all the team videos, which are in some ways my favorite. For example, check out Ken Block's behind the scenes videos from testing last Friday in Finland. Interesting that only the factory drivers were testing, but very cool that Ken got to go for a ride because he is a Ford driver as well. And Ari Vatenan bets him a dinner on his finishing position! Talk about living the dream.
It's immediately followed by his second WRC Finland video which is a lot of fun but also talks a bit about making pace notes and how critical they are to a teams success. You also get to learn about rally potatoes!
Even Mikko Hirvonen is putting out fun videos. Mostly of his journey from event to event and they don't always make a lot of sense. But I don't really care, it's cool these guys are recording their life as they travel around the world racing cars at their level.
The question is how to find all these one-off videos that really give you a feel for the event? In general, I subscribe to the various teams' YouTube channels but there are sites that aggregate them over the weekend and use Twitter to pump out the links. World Rally Sport, one of the few US Rally sites, is one of my favorites. Their site takes a second to navigate but their twitter feed is excellent. Additionally, you can search the hash tag #WRC over the weekend. You'll get updates from fans at the event but also official releases from the teams themselves.
As for who to watch and why? Well, I'm following the two American Teams. Ken Block is in the WRC class and Chris Duplessis is in the WRC Academy — a special development program for guys under the age of 25. But there are others to watch as well. Peter Solberg might be my favorite. Nicknamed Hollywood for his outrageous style and of course his video highlights are the best! Mads Ostberg is one of my favorite guys to have beers with down at WRC Mexico so I follow him too! Both drivers are currently in the top five but nowhere near Sebastian Loeb, who has won the last eight years straight.
Why are these drivers significant? Peter is old school WRC and one of the more experienced drivers in the series. He used to be a Subaru factory driver until they withdrew from the series. So he started his own team and just recently was picked up by the factory Ford team! He's also the last guy to win the championship before Loeb started his winning streak nearly a decade ago. Mads on the other hand is one of the younger drivers in the series. It's only his second year but he's fourth overall in the championship.
Sure, it's difficult to watch the WRC in the United States, but with a little work it can be a ton of fun. The stages are awesome to watch and it gets even better with all the insight behind the scenes. There's no question that understanding a few of the drivers makes the stage battles more fun to watch. So if you like rally but don't know any of the drivers, just latch onto one and follow their weekend. It gives you someone to cheer for as they start putting up fast times.