Thursday, January 24, 2013

And the Monster It Became

The beautiful scenery and famously complex corners in the hills of Faro attracted more than 300,000 of the sport’s most outrageous and passionate fans.  They embarked on an annual pilgrimage to the well-known highlight of the FISA World Rally Championship calendar, Rally Portugal. 

The greatest fear of the drivers and journalists was realized early in the opening stage. Joaquim Santos lost control of his Ford RS200 and careened into a crowd standing on the embankment of the coniferous winding road.  More than 30 spectators were injured.  
Santos's RS200 after the crash

Henri Toivonen was selected to read the statement the drivers and teams prepared in the aftermath,
“First, as a mark of respect of the families and for those injured. Two, it is a very special place here in Portugal.  We feel it is impossible for us to guarantee the safety of the spectators.  Third, the accident on stage one was caused by the driver having to try to avoid the spectators that were in the road.  It was not due to the type of car or the speed.” (Henri Toivonen qtd. in Madness on Wheels)

Rallying is a pure and humble sport.  A series of time trials are conducted one by one over a number of stages in a particular locale.  The driver with the lowest combined time over all of the stages is the winner.  It is unlike other forms of the auto racing.  Rallying takes place on public roads, rural gravel paths, and snowy ice covered mountains rather than purpose built race courses.  The stages start and finish in different places, and the competitors see little of the course prior to the day of the race.  Each car carries a driver and a co-driver for shouting information concerning the upcoming obstacles and corners as they race along.  The races are held in exotic destinations.  The most popular stages are on the glorious hills of Monaco, the snow covered lakes of Sweden, and the sheer cliffs of Pikes Peak.   

In 1982, the FISA governing body president Jean-Marie Balestre set out to increase the fan base and revenue of the sport by modifying its homologation rules (competitive criteria for allowing vehicles to enter).  He worked together with the manufacturers to allow them to produce faster cars further distanced from their road-going ancestors.  These cars were bespoke, purpose built race machines designed to push the very limit of engineering abilities.  The new class was called Group B.  
Lancia Delta Integrale

Audi Quattro

After perennial power Lancia won the first year in the new class, the other manufacturers were extremely driven to bring more competitive cars to the rallies held all over the world.  Audi, a small manufacturer at the time, came up with an ingenious solution to the issue of traction.  They developed the first ever rally car with 4 wheel drive.  Extreme turbo-charging, space frames, and the black magic art of “ground effect aerodynamics” were all employed by various multi-million dollar teams in the bloodlust for speed.  In the four years of Group B, the cars had doubled in power and speed and the machines became impossible to drive.  The crowds impossible to control.  

The sport grew into the most popular form of racing on Earth.  Crowds of hundreds of thousands stood by the roads to see the cars pass at breakneck speed.  The spectators were known to step out in front of the approaching racers to shoot exciting photos even while airborne.  Drivers complained about the dangerous fans.  Injuries and deaths grew more and more common.  The governing body was far from faultless.  Tim Considine wrote about its president, “Monsieur Balestre was spied breaking one of racing's incontrovertible rules -- running across a racetrack occupied by race cars -- in front of one very surprised Grand Prix driver” (Considine).  Group B had become an insatiable monster.  

The Rally of Portugal in 1986, specifically the events involving Joaquim Santos, only foreshadowed the inevitable.  Though the major teams chose to protest completion of the rally, Balestre allowed the rally to go on without them.  They returned for the next rally in Kenya where a young spectator’s leg was broken.  The following event was held in France and was also known as the “Rally of Ten Thousand Turns”.  Exactly one year after Attilio Bettega’s death at the same rally, the infamous high speed asphalt stages claimed their most prominent victim.  Henri Toivonen and his co-pilot Sergio Cresto ran off the road in the 18th stage.  Martin Holmes wrote this in his obituary,
The news of the accident was received in almost stunned silence by the Lancia mechanics waiting at the end of the stage. Garbled messages crossed the air waves and, as the truth dawned, Henri's friends openly wept.  A dear friend had been lost to us all. The following day, FISA killed his reason for being there at all. Things would never be the same again...” (Holmes)

The day after the deaths in France, Balestre banned Group B competition altogether.  Scientists concluded that the cars were traveling quicker than the brain could process.  Drivers like Henri were experiencing “Tunnel Vision”, where the brain can only see what comes from the center of the eye.  Balestre, the teams, and the fans were all experiencing tunnel vision.  Purely focused on speed and excitement, no steps were taken to ensure the safety of drivers and fans until it was too late.  The meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of Group B rallying would teach the entire sporting world that great leaps forward in performance can lead to terrible consequences.    

Considine, Tim. “Dickens of a Decade.” Autoweek 1 Jan. 1990: 47. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 27 June 2012.
Holmes, Martin. “Autosport 40th Anniversary Supplement: On the Death of Henri Toivonen.” Henri Toivonen: The Printed Word.   Witolda Maruszewska, n.d. Web. 27 June 2012. .
Madness on wheels. Dir. John L. Mathews and Richard Heap.  BBC, 2012., 6 Apr. 2012. Web. 27 June. 2012. .


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