Rally is one of the last forms of motorsport left where fans get close to the cars—out past small, regulated spectator areas, there’s usually not much more separating you from a race car than some foliage and maybe a fence. Now the World Rally Championship has had enough. The series thinks image recognition can catch dangerous fans hiding out where organizers can’t get to them.
The FIA—the sanctioning body of pretty much all of the big-name international motorsport series—recently released the Rally Safety Guidelines, as reported by Autosport. The guidelines are the result of two years of intensive research to discover the problem areas in rallying and that means cracking down on reckless fan behavior. Specifically, those fans who get so close to the course that one wrong move by either them or the driver could be deadly.
Rally does keep fans safely corralled in protected spectator zones and runs full sweeps of the course for unsafe fans before each stage goes hot. It’s not a free-for-all: stages are marshaled to maximize safety on all fronts.
That said, the nature of rally makes it hard to guarantee that level of safety across the board. It’s simply not feasible to constantly marshal the entirety of, say, the 50-mile stage that was included in 2015's Rally Mexico. Renegade fans can slip through the cracks at nondescript locations, particularly after course cars make their sweep.
FIA’s head of circuit and rally safety Stuart Robertson described the actions being taken to step up their game, and he think the solution to this remote problem is high tech, as noted in Autosport:
We have initiated a project that will help us detect the locations of spectators through image recognition, anonymously, using onboard cameras and various other tools.
We’re employing new, high-level technology to identify where these people are located. We know they’re waiting until the safety crews have passed through before moving into [dangerous] positions.
We’re working on a system which will send an alert to the clerk of the course in rally control, making him aware of an issue in a particular corner. Action will then be taken.
The specifics aren’t available yet, but one of the suggestions being thrown around is to instill a slow zone. If one car detects fans on or near the track, the cars behind will be instructed to pass at a “severely reduced speed.” That sounds like a real bummer when you consider the fact that, y’know, these drivers are here to run their stages as fast as possible, but it’s a lot less disruptive than cutting out the stage outright, as happened in Monte Carlo a few years back.
Additionally, those rogue spectators will be taken to task—likely by removing from the area and asking them to leave.
While safety is improving across the board in motorsport, rally is still dangerous, accounting for half of the injuries and deaths in all forms of racing, per Autosport. Robertson stressed to Autosport that these tech solutions might be too expensive for smaller, local series to enact, but education and more guidelines can help.
The message, though, is clear: don’t be the asshole who gets too close to the track!