Mikkelsen went into the last stage three seconds ahead, but came out forty seconds off the lead in a drama laden end to the Rally of Sweden
There was quite a crowd, as I recall, stood between the trees of the Forest Of Dean, some sat on felled logs, others standing around wrapped up against the cold, and everyone, my memory tells me, was drinking steaming liquids from the sort of plastic cups that were part of thermos flask lids at the time, and as the sun set on this small corner of England the tiny tin chimney of the small entrance of a hobbit-home like structure pushing into the hillside just a little way away, curled smoke into the chilly air.
The road by which we stood wasn’t one. The proper road was a few hundred meters behind us where the family car had been left, along with those of rest of the crowd, the return to which was going to give me ample opportunity to use the torch I’d been given for the expedition into the darkness, the torch being to my five year old mind perhaps as important as the outting itself. The road by which we stood, on the other hand, was lined with thin orange safety tape stretched between the tree trunks, far more a hard mud gravel strewn track than road per se.
We had taken up position by the hairpin bend that curved tightly by the entrance of the mine (actually probably in reality a logging not mining operation) my father telling me they were digging for gold deep inside, which rattled around in my imagination for a while as thoughts of riches so often do despite being almost certainly a parental falsehood, and I seem to remember boring my family, particularly my younger brother, with my thoughts on the subject, my five year old mouth chatting away about it even as people completely failed to listen. Then the first car came by, and I shut up.
The roaring engine in the dim darkness was audible way before the headlights were visible, like an angry monster scything through the trees gambling news of its approach would cause people to flee, and at my young age I was all ready to run as I failed to appreciate the degree to which we would be close to the action. That first car kicked around the hairpin bend in a shower of flicked up stones and camera flash bulbs going off, its massive array of headlights blinding us as it illuminated the way ahead for the drivers, then vanishing off noisily into the dark leaving the crowd abuzz. I’d just seen my first rally car moving at race speed in a stage of the 1976 Lombard RAC Rally.
Audience Participation In Motorsport
Of course stood in the dark with my family I was instantly enthralled as out of the darkness came each car, changing down gears, engines whining with the strain of the sudden deceleration, wheels locking hard right as driver after drive flicked their vehicle around the tight corner and then screamed with acceleration as they bounded away into the darkness once more. Not that everyone made it, at least one competitor fishtailing too much during his “scandi-flick” maneuver was left in the small ditch on the outside of the bend, which allowed me to see the audience participation part of rallying.
No sooner had the hapless competitor found his car skidding to an unceremonious halt backwards between the trees, struggling for grip and lacking forward motion sufficient to carry it on its way, the crowd were upon him, at least the young male proportion of it, jumping up or down from their vantage points and all yelling encouraging things at each other as they swarmed the car, lifting the back shoving it forward back onto the track, once more getting it mobile betting the drivers inside were fine and just waiting for their friction based transport to once more be released back into the race.
This doesn’t happen in Formula 1, the crowd not apt to climb the safety fences that divide their comfy, if sun drenched, seats from the track, to see if the boys from Ferrari or Williams need a push to get going again, but in rallying it is part and parcel of the event, the fans not separated from the sport by anything more than that thin strip of plastic tape. Not that I was large enough to lend a hand to any of the drivers that were caught out by the darkness, surface and surprisingly tight right-hander, but my hippy-yet-petrolhead-father waxed a little lyrical about how everyone helped when the situation called for it.
The idealistic imposition of hippy social theory onto the sport of rallying completely escaped my criticism at the time, I had a new torch, was up past my bedtime, and surrounded by people excited by the roaring cars that flew by just a few feet away in the darkness, I believe there was even chocolate, but looking back he had a point, rallying has always relied on its audience to assist drivers, often members of the public on the scene of any crash ahead of the marshals, and it takes a big crash to stop a rally driver from continuing.
No Banks Like Snowbanks
Unfortunately it only takes a small crash to stop a rally driver winning and in last weekend’s Swedish Grand Prix it was a collision with a snowbank that prevented Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen capitalizing on his three second lead over Frenchman Sebastien Ogier going into the final stage that he’d built up, helped in no small measure by Ogier ramming a snowbank himself in the final stage on Friday the studded tires of his Volkswagen losing grip when he needed it most, with Mikkelsen’s crash costing him his maiden rally win.
In the end Mikkelsen had to settle for third behind both the world champion Ogier, and Thierry Neuville whose Hyundai came in just 6.4 seconds down, unable to keep pace with the Volkswagens despite starting the day 1.5 seconds ahead of Mikkelsen and 9.6 seconds in front of Ogier, but the sheer speed of the boys in blue overhauled Neuville in the course of the final morning. Ogier’s eventual win setting him up as the man to beat this season building on his Monte Carlo win.
Mads Ostberg grabbed a puncture that slowed him down and dropped him to an unfortunate 10th and his team mate Kris Meeke was squeezed down into a rather dubious 7th some four minutes off the leader’s pace. Perhaps the performance of the rally was left to Hayden Paddon the young Kiwi racing his way to a valiant and deserved best ever career performance finishing a respectable fifth a minutes and five seconds behind the fourth placed Estonian, Ott Tanak, in his Ford.
Despite the somewhat convoluted Swedish gambling laws quite a few people put money on the Swedish Rally this year at sites like Come On! Sportsbook and their ilk, and indeed motor racing provides a gambling opportunity that provides a high octane alternative to slow moving games of football, or the techno-parade of rich-boys that Formula 1 so often shows itself up to be. The WRC now moves on to Mexico but the memories of another superb Swedish rally will follow the drivers across the Atlantic.