The World Rally Championship has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous motorsports. While everybody has an opinion on the matter, you might be wondering what the numbers tell us about how dangerous the WRC is.
WRC is dangerous when looking at the statistics as a whole. There have been 20 driver fatalities since 1974, numerous injuries, some very near misses, and unfortunately, some spectators who have lost their lives. However, things have changed for the better, and WRC is now safer than ever.
While the numbers may look surprising, there is a lot for us to dig into, and it would be a disservice to the motorsport scene if we didn’t do a thorough examination. If you want to understand how dangerous the WRC truly is, then we’ll be doing a detailed breakdown for you below.
How Dangerous Is WRC?
WRC is as dangerous as any motorsport. There are harsh conditions that can cause considerable difficulties, and huge demands are placed on drivers and teams. The sport also has a deadly past, which has fed into its reputation. High speeds and difficult terrain also contribute to the danger.
In the Sardinian Rally stage of the WRC in 2022, drivers complained about hanging dust conditions stemming from a reduction in starting interval times (three minutes as opposed to four minutes in the Portugal stage). This shows how small details can seriously affect a rally’s safety.
There are many factors that affect how dangerous rally racing and the WRC can be. In addition to intense speeds and rough terrain, there are incredible physical and mental strains that WRC rallies place on drivers. With that in mind, let’s take a deeper look at the WRC’s notorious history.
A Deadly Past
The WRC has a reputation for being dangerous primarily due to certain stages of its past. One such stage is known as Group B racing, which existed from 1982 to 1986. Six people lost their lives (three co-drivers and three drivers).
The Group B cars were completely different beasts from what they are today. The cars were significantly more powerful and often boasted over 500 horsepower. They were essentially heavily modified road vehicles, and it is this that contributed so greatly to Group B’s popularity. It is, however, also what made it so dangerous.
While there is nostalgia for the Group B days (considered by many to be the greatest the sport has ever been), there is absolutely no way it could continue as it was. Issues with crowd control and frequent near misses with spectators were causing the sport major issues with its image and appeal.
In 1986, in the first stage of the Portugal section of the rally, the unthinkable happened. Driver Joaquim Santos completely lost control of his vehicle after attempting to avoid a spectator on the road. His car plunged into the crowd and killed three people (a woman and two children). The incident injured over 30 others.
As a result of this, the drivers issued a joint statement saying they would not continue with the rally. They stated that the crashes were a result of incredibly poor crowd management rather than faults from the vehicles.
The sloppy response of the FIA (then known as the FISA, which folded in 1993) in the 1986 crash caused all of the factory teams to pull out. Ford withdrew immediately, followed by Audi, Austin Rover, Lancia, Volkswagen, and Peugeot. FISA began drawing up plans for the Group A era to follow.
While the cars began to get safer, there were still incidents involving spectators. In 1996, at the 1000 Lakes Rally, Karsten Richardt lost control of his vehicle (a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution) after hitting a curve at 75 mph (121 kph). He drove into the crowd, which killed one person and injured dozens.
Is Rally Racing Deadly?
Rally racing is deadly, but it would be unfair to pin the WRC and rally in general as uniquely dangerous. Every motorsport carries risk, but rally in particular places huge demands on the drivers. This, combined with unpredictable courses and treacherous conditions, ups the danger significantly.
The unfortunate predicament that the WRC are in is that the danger is the main allure of the sport. Putting man and machine to the ultimate test is one of the most significant factors that propelled rally’s popularity into the stratosphere.
While it’s most certainly true that modern-day rally racing has significantly improved safety for spectators, there have been some fairly harrowing near misses in recent history. While this is a positive aspect of the motorsport for some, it is effectively playing with matches near a pile of dynamite.
If you want to see an example or footage of an incredibly lucky spectator, look at the 2021 Picnic rally in Leningrad, Russia. At the event, a car came too fast around the bend, and the driver lost control. The car somersaulted in the air and missed hitting several people by a finger’s breadth. No spectator was hurt, but the driver suffered a concussion.
Unfortunately, there have been multiple crashes like this, and the last spectator to be killed during a WRC rally was in 2017 in Monte Carlo. There have also been a troubling amount of near misses.
Finally, rally courses can be gigantic. For example, the Monte Carlo stage of the WRC is roughly 19 miles (31 kilometers) long. While the FIA goes to considerable lengths to patrol the courses, gain police support, and hire its own stewards, it’s practically impossible to completely control what the spectators do.
Mental And Physical Demands
Another overlooked and underappreciated factor is the demands placed on the drivers. In many ways, your average rally driving teams are close to endurance athletes, as they have to operate for hours under strenuous conditions. Most of the best rally drivers are in top physical condition.
Rally driving also requires immense concentration. This is because the driver isn’t always familiar with the course beforehand, which means they cannot rely on their memory of the track. Instead, a co-driver uses unique codes and systems to give directions to the driver and to tell him about what to expect on the upcoming road.
Driving on unfamiliar, challenging terrain at high speeds under pressure of time all combine into an extremely high mental demand. It’s what makes the WRC what it is, and it significantly increases the danger posed to the driver. Surprisingly, there have been few driver fatalities from crashes. The last WRC fatality from a crash was in 2006. Today’s WRC cars are without a doubt incredibly robust.
Course crashes are still very common across all levels of competitive rallying. One of the more recent crashes, which occurred in January 2022, exposes the risks and challenges of motorsport.
In this incident, which involved Adrien Fourmaux and co-driver Alexandria Coria, Adrien Fourmaux made a slight miscalculation on a left-hand turn, causing his vehicle to bounce off a cliff face and launch itself completely off the course. Due to the huge amounts of safeguards put on modern rally cars and an fair quantity of luck, they escaped unscathed from the crash.
How Many Rally Drivers Have Died Racing?
85 rally drivers have died racing in various national and international championship rallies. There are additional rally tournaments with fatalities, such as the Dakar rally, and they have their own long list of fatalities. They are, however, a different kind of competition.
It’s also important to point out that these fatality lists have been compiled for a long time. In fact, some of the European fatalities date back to the early 1930s. There are also many different rallying events, from smaller regional events to much bigger European National tournaments. The fatalities for these events are known and recorded, so let’s organize them and break them down.
The WRC has had 20 driver fatalities since its inception in 1974, but there was also a precursor to the WRC known as the IMC (International Champion for Manufacturers). The IMC has a total of five fatalities, which brings the total here to 25.
Africa And Europe
African Rally and African Championship have had seven recorded fatalities, with the last one in 2009. The European National Series and National Rallies have recorded 20 fatalities, the last of which occurred in 2017. Meanwhile, the European Rally Championship has 11 total recorded driver fatalities, most recently in 2009.
America And Oceania
The SCCA Pro Rally and Rally America have a total of eight recorded driver fatalities. The last recorded fatality came in 2011. The Oceanic National Series and National Rallies have a total of 14 driver deaths, with 2013 being the last year a death occurred.
WRC is dangerous as rallying in general is a dangerous sport. It has a long history of crashes and collisions, and there have been many incidents involving spectators. Modern cars are sturdier than past models, and driver deaths rarely occur in the modern WRC.