We like to associate rally with the phrase “flat out,” because rally legend Colin McRae wouldn’t have it any other way. What you may not know is that rally has a long history of imposing speed limits for stages—and it’s a rarely-imposed recommendation that canceled one stage of last weekend’s Rally Sweden.
The WRC’s speed limit isn’t a “speed limit” in the traditional sense, thus allowing drivers to pin the throttle to the floor as long as the laws of physics will allow them with no personal repercussions if they exceed a certain speed on a closed stage road used in competition. Rather, rallies’ speed limit applies to stage design.
The WRC used to have an average stage speed recommendation written into its regulations, but since then, it’s become more of a guideline for individual FIA inspectors to consider before deeming a stage safe to run.
The last written mention we could find in the WRC regulations is from 2007, wherein the average competition speed of a gravel or loose-surface stage—including the high and low speeds reached over all the straightaways, corners and jumps—should not exceed 130 kilometers an hour, or 80.8 miles an hour in America, lest the organizers may be forced to modify or cancel that stage.
Do note the use of the word “recommendation” in the WRC’s statements on Rally Sweden’s canceled stage, however. The WRC’s speed limit is currently not a hard and fast limit, but if the FIA thinks cars will run too quick to be safe, they will intervene.
The WRC has been pretty lenient on adhering to the 130 KPH limit lately. At last year’s Rally Finland, the winners of 10 of its 24 stages had average stage speeds exceeding 130 KPH.
The WRC has dropped the verbiage referring to the 130 KPH limit from the WRC’s regulations over the past decade. The 130 KPH average speed recommendation was revised in the 2008 regulations with a big “except for the World Rally Championship” disclaimer, and mention of that limit disappeared from the WRC’s rules entirely in 2009. The 2008 WRC regulations left it up to an FIA inspector to sign off on whether or not a stage is safe enough for the WRC to run using their own discretion—a process which remains in place today.
Rally Sweden’s canceled stage demonstrated that 130 KPH is still a benchmark for the FIA. The FIA is now considering writing that long-recommended 130 KPH limit back into the WRC regulations—without the wiggle room it’s been given lately, reports Motorsport.com.
FIA rally director Jarmo Mahonen told Motorsport.com:
We want the cancellation of this stage to send a message to the other organizers to think carefully about their route.
Rally organizers can keep speeds down—and thus, avoid having stages canceled by the FIA later—by selecting twistier stage roads or by adding chicanes on longer straights. While artificial chicanes are no one’s favorite, at least Mahonen shared our disdain for them in his comments to Motorsport.com:
We want speeds lower than 130 kph, but I remember when I was an organizer and I didn’t want to use straw bales to make chicanes.
I understand that, and the answer is simple: use smaller roads that will be slower. This is what we have to do.
I’ll be honest: it sucks that the FIA didn’t catch Rally Sweden’s too-fast stage before the rally, thus having to cancel Stage 12 after the first run through the same roads for Stage 9 saw Ott Tänak reach an 85.62 MPH average speed.
That being said, let’s cut everyone involved with Rally Sweden some slack. This year’s new cars are the fastest WRC cars in years, and we’re all still discovering just how much faster they are as the season progresses. Rally Sweden is also one of the fastest rallies on the WRC calendar, making it one of the most likely events to be affected by the FIA’s speed limit.
With more power and wide fender flares, there have been a ton of comparisons between this year’s WRC cars and the awesome but deadly Group B cars of the 1980s. Of course, it’s Group B that convinced everyone that there need to be some limits imposed on rallying for safety’s sake.
This idea of a top average speed for a stage has been around since at least—surprise, surprise—the Group B era. Group B plowed into unheard-of speeds, and FISA (the FIA’s predecessor) cracked down accordingly. One victim of FISA’s average speed limit was the fast, flowing Rally Finland, which was adjusted in 1986 to meet FISA’s then-110 KPH average speed limit recommendation, per Keskisuomalainen. (FISA did grant them a 10 percent waiver on that average speed limit, however.)
Average stage speed limits are by no means unique to WRC events, either. Rally America, for example, has a similar maximum average speed limit for their stages, although theirs was adjusted recently to focus on the speed of the classes that represent more of their field (read: not the speed of Subaru’s obscenely quick factory effort).
Likewise, the new American Rally Association has an average stage speed limit of 80 MPH.
ARA Vice President Chris Cyr told Jalopnik that it was primarily for insurance reasons. However, the ARA is also sanctioned by the United States Auto Club, which is a member of the FIA’s Automobile Competition Committee of the United States and thus, follows many of the FIA’s same standards. Allowing cars to run faster would be unsafe, Cyr said, and would also require teams to spend more money to be competitive.
Cyr explained that adhering to an average speed limit doesn’t just fall on the rally organizers. Rather, it requires collaboration between the series and the rally itself to ensure that cars won’t break that 80 MPH average speed limit. For the ARA’s upcoming Oregon Trail Rally, this meant restricting its top Open Class so that the cars wouldn’t break the limit with the rally’s longer straights.
Fans don’t want to lose or chop up classic fast stages like Finland’s Ouninpohja, or see cars navigate hay bale chicanes without a really solid reason. One competitor from Rally Sweden didn’t see such a reason for canceling Stage 12 at Rally Sweden, describing that stage’s route to Motorsport.com as “just straight, not dangerous, just boring.”
Just as Rally America adjusted their average speed limit to accommodate the reality of their series having one class vastly faster than the others, perhaps it’s time for the WRC to do the same. Today’s cars handle better than their predecessors, and spectator safety is taken much more seriously than it did in the wild west days of Group B. The WRC’s 130 KPH recommendation has remained unchanged for a decade now, so one option would be to raise the speed limit—after all, we’re talking about rallying’s top class in the world.
However, if the cars still aren’t safe at higher speeds for whatever reason—be it spectator safety on stages, impact protection in crashes or whatever—or if organizers simply can’t insure the faster stage speeds, then maybe the cars will have to slow back down.
One of the most difficult parts of running a rally is finding the roads to do it, according to Cyr. While I love seeing rally cars get sideways on curves, telling organizers to replace existing stage roads with even twistier ones is an optimistic command at best. “We’re running out of roads in the U.S.,” Cyr noted.
If that’s the case, then we may have to slow the new! fast! wow! cars back down. It’s an unpopular opinion, but what would you rather see: slightly slower cars or canceled stages and goofball manufactured chicanes?