Of speed and destruction

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Awesome stomach-churning jumps frequently hide bends over the crests, so accuracy and delivery of pace notes must be exact and selecting the correct line before ‘take-off’ ensures maximum pace through the following curves.” –From Auto Racing Daily about the challenges facing World Rally Championship drivers and navigators.

To me, World Rally Championship (WRC) racing looks very much like insanity distilled and packed into a very small and very fast place.

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The types of roads these drivers and navigators go barreling around at warp speed are rarely paved and hide all kinds of dangers, such as trees, boulders, wicked curves, even buildings; dangers much more common and familiar to everyday motorists like me when compared to the smooth high-speed ovals piloted by NASCAR’s finest.

And if you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably wondering what the heck WRC racing is doing in a trucking blog anyways. That’s easy, though – for if you really want a vivid, in-living-color definition as to why speeding is dangerous, look no farther than the WRC for your answer.

Just watch the video below [and many props to AdamYYZ for putting together this awesome show – set to the music of one of my all-time favorite bands, Rush] and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll get the traditional exterior view of crashes along with the unique “gun camera” view of the type of racing that WRC offers up – truly frightening shots with people, trees, walls, and even houses flying by in a frenzy.

Fort me, it’s heart-stopping to watch these rally car crashes happening from inside the vehicle – and I’ll admit to breaking out in a cold sweat at times, being a silent witness to the drivers and navigators being banged about inside these compact car frames. Because rally cars race on “normal” roads, the view from the glass is far more real and meaningful compared to what one typically sees during a NASCAR event.

I’m sharing all of this simply because there’s no better way to illustrate the gut-wrenching horror of a high speed crash. One minute you’re flying along, and the very next … WHAM! The car is violently corkscrewing through the air, pitching into a ditch or trees, or nose-diving off a badly-navigated crest in the roadway.

The night shots gives one a clear idea just how dangerous it is to overdrive one’s headlights – with the breakneck speed WRC drivers attain, there is simply no margin for error. Sometimes, there’s literally not even a split-second for the driver to react.

[Here’s a longer video that shows some of the worst rally car crashes ever – again, with a lot of “gun camera” footage. In this one, you’ll get the driver’s view of a head-on crash with a farmer’s tractor, as well as a heart-stopping near miss as an elderly spectator tries to cross the roadway.]

Spectators are all over the course, too – usually WAY too close for comfort. In the video above there are a ton of (thankfully) close calls, showing how just mere inches can spell the difference between life and death for a pedestrian inadvertently put in the crosshairs of a motor vehicle.

According to the WRC, rally cars are based on production-level two-liter four-cylinder vehicles, but while they look similar to the ones you might see in a dealership, just about everything about them is different – especially the price. A WRC car will set you back around $1 million, the group says – and that doesn’t include spares. A set of competition tires will last only about 100 kilometers – which is just a hair over 62 miles – and you're going to have to budget for several engine and gearbox rebuilds during a season, too.

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A WRC season, by the by, is made up of 12 races in 12 different countries – plowing through the snowy forest roads of Finland in the frigid winter, then winding along the boulder-strewn hills of Greece in the blistering hot summer – with each race split into anywhere from 15 to 25 stages. Each race also takes about four days to complete in total – two days for the driver and navigator to ‘map’ the course, with the navigator recording precise roadway details so the driver can hit the road at high speed, with a ‘shakedown’ day followed by race day.

Rally cars are stripped to the bare metal and then completely rebuilt – a process usually taking 700 hours, start to finish – with unnecessary brackets and mounting plates removed to save weight, largely to offset the added pounds from a welded-in tubular steel roll-cage. Strangely enough, this rebuilding process doesn’t make them weaker, as the safety cage and other modifications enable WRC rally cars to support the weight of 10 regular road cars of the same size and shape.

All WRC cars have four wheel drive and six-speed semi-automatic gearboxes, notes the WRC, with electronically controlled shifting systems allowing the driver to make clutchless gear changes in around four hundredths of a second – as fast as on a Formula One car. Most cars also use a launch control system to help them get away from a standing start as quickly as possible and though the cars have a clutch, the driver tends to only use it to move off from a standing start.

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The engine in this little monsters produce a massive amount of torque – 600 newton meters (nM) worth, which I believe equals 442.5 ft-lbs., if I’ve done the math right – allowing it to accelerate to 100 kilometers per hour (kph) or just over 62 miles per hour (mph) on all surface types, be it gravel, dirt, pavement, whatever. It’s not unusual though, to see drivers reach 220 kph in some of these events; that’s up near NASCAR speed, around 140 mph, on roads where driving 20 mph would scare the you-know-what out of me.

Those speeds are just one reason you see all kinds of spoilers and other aerodynamic devices on rally cars – not just to help direct airflow to help cool brakes and engine components but also keep these little rockets firmly planted on the ground, or at least level while flying through the air.

Special mention, though, must be given to the mechanics that keep these puppies up and running during the race. The WRC says that because the conditions are so varied and unforgiving, cars visit a 'service park' at pre-determined times during each event.

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Besides gleaning data from the on-board data systems, changing tires and making running adjustments, the WRC says the four-man “pit crews” only get a small window of time to perform mechanical work on each car – either 10, 30 or 45 minutes depending on the itinerary. As a result, these guys can twist a suspension upright, swap hub and brake units in around five minutes, and change a gear box in about 10 minutes – skills that no doubt would translate well to the trucking community on this side of the pond.

It’s a crazy world these rally car drivers navigate – one where high speed and instant destruction are separated by the thinnest of margins. And they provide an awesome reminder why taking the “slow and steady” approach to everyday driving is the right course to follow.

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