Thursday, 17 February 2011

Why Risk It? - Because Its The Most Fun You Can Have With Your Clothes On!

The horrific sight of a safety barrier skewering the remains of Robert Kubica's Skoda may leave many people wondering why such a succesful sportsman would risk his career by participating in such a dangerous sport.

Robert Kubica is not the first driver to suffer a serious injury picked up participating in extra curricular activities. Nor will he be the last. One of the most publicised recent examples is that of Mark Webber who broke his leg while cycling in November 2008. At the time, people were suggesting that the head on crash between his bicycle and a car in Tasmania may threaten his ability to participate in the sport. While Kubica's recovery is likely to be a far longer process, we certainly wish him just as successful an outcome. But why risk it in the first place?

It can be argued that Mark Webber could not have foreseen such a dramatic event taking place while riding his bike. The risks were far more likely to have come from a fall - risks which themselves carry enough threat of serious injury - but not likely to result in career threatening injuries. The same cannot be said of Robert Kubica. Rallying, like all other forms of motorsport, is dangerous. It says so on the ticket, on the entry forms and throughout any access points to the event. Unlike other forms of motorsport, rallying does not have run off areas or purpose built venues designed with safety in mind. It takes place on roads and tracks designed for very different purposes. The risks are undoubtedly greater.

That said, it is not as if Kubica did not already know of the considerable risks involved in his own profession, as shown by his crash in the Canadian Grand Prix in 2007. He emerged relatively unscathed from that accident, but it is fair to say that it was a memorable experience.

Such an experience would leave ordinary mortals such as you and I with a far more cautious outlook on getting behind the wheel of a car. Grand Prix drivers do not have that luxury. They are a special breed. Their focus remains on the thrill of driving at high speed, testing the limits of man and machine for the reward of victory. They are aware of the risks but they do not focus on them. It is all about the joy of high speed driving.

I have no experience of driving a Grand Prix car, so I am not particularly qualified to pass opinion, but I will anyway. My opinion is that the thrill of driving a rally car at high speed surpasses even that of driving the ultimate Grand Prix machines. The speeds may be nowhere near as great as in Grand Prix racing, but the thrill of negotiating obstacles and hazards that pass inches from your vehicle is unlike any other. Whether it is on public roads, closed for the event, or on forest gravel tracks lined with trees and precipitous drops to valleys below, rallying is a test of skill over constantly changing terrain. The car moves from one slide to another as the driver negotiates bend after bend, incorporating jumps and wheels lifting on the undulating road. This is the ultimate driving by the seat of your pants experience. Every twist and turn, lift and dip is felt as they travel through the stage. The vehicle is an intimate part of its surroundings.

Despite the risks, or maybe even because of them, the adrenalin buzz is both indescribable and addictive. The car is constantly on the limits of its abilities, only ever a fraction of a mistake away from disaster. The line between success and failure is a tiny one. The fastest line is often the highest risk to take, passing millimetres from the trunk of a tree, an outjutting rock or, as in the case of Robert Kubica, a safety barrier at the edge of the road. It is difficult to describe the thrill created by the proximity of these hazards. The closest example of these condition in Grand Prix racing is probably the Monaco Grand Prix with its tight, twisting lines and lack of run off areas. It is probably no coincidence that the Monaco Grand Prix is many drivers favourite event.

This buzz is more than likely what drew Robert Kubica to participate in rallying despite the risks. Following the accident, his Renault team issued a statement saying that both they and Kubica were aware of the risks involved in his participation, but that they were happy to give their blessing for his participation as they did not want robots driving for their team. Perhaps this statement also provides another clue as to his attraction to rallying. Grand Prix driving is an extremely skillful and demanding art. However, it is very different from rallying. It involves repetitive coverage of a short track, seeking thousands of a second improvements lap by lap. Without being meant in a derogatory way, the driver becomes almost robotic in his actions. Rallying is the very antithesis of this. The courses stretch over hundreds of miles, with no detailed knowledge of what lies around the next corner. The challenge of responding to each new situation, corner by corner, adds to the thrill of driving a rally car.

As somebody who used to compete in the sport, and regularly attend events, I have often wondered why rallying does not receive the same levels of coverage and media interest as Formula 1. I was not brought up in a rallying family, and attended my first event as a spectator purely out of loyalty to friends who were competing on the event. I was a rallying novice with a limited knowledge of the sport. The long trek into the forests of Dumfries and Galloway did not fill me with any special excitement or thrill. Standing in amongst the trees with the other spectators for a good half hour and seeing nothing happen certainly did not cause any anticipation of good things to come. And then it happened. The relative quiet was shattered by the sudden scream of an engine from nowhere. It sounded like a car was was hurtling towards where I stood at any second. I could not believe how long it actually took for any vehicle to come into view, but when it did I was addicted. A Metro 6R4 suddenly appeared over a crest and within seconds was sliding around the tight left hand corner we were stood next to, apparently without bothering to slow down. As the car passed less than two metres from where I stood I could feel a shiver running down my spine. The noise, the smell, even the feeling of gravel being thrown up by the car in my direction, all created an experience I would never forget. The whole situation lasted only three or four seconds but the memories lasted a lifetime.

Car after car passed at minute intervals, each one adding to the occasion. Twenty or thirty cars later one of the cars suddenly went straight on at the corner, finding itself embedded in the undergrowth at the side of the track. Before I knew what was happening, I was part of a hoard of spectators surrounding the car, lifting and pushing it back onto the track. This was like nothing I had ever seen. Certainly, as an avid Formula 1 fan, I had never seen spectators helping a car out of any gravel traps. This was motorsport at its very best, up close and personal, in cars that looked just like cars I saw on the high street everyday of the week. Following that day, I spectated on every rally I got the opportunity to attend. I thought that nothing could beat the excitement of watching a rally. I was wrong!

Within a year I was competing on my first event as a co-driver. I went on to compete in roughly fifty rallies, experiencing the thrills of being in a car travelling at 100mph through forests with trees inches away, and huge drops at the side of the road. The adrenalin rush was amazing. I simply couldn't get enough!

I also experienced the pain, literal pain, of things going wrong. That was part of the thrill. It is impossible to push the car to its limits without mistakes being made and limits being crossed. I was fortunate. The worst I ever suffered was bad concussion from hitting a tree sideways at high speed. The risk was always there of far worse injuries, but rarely thought about during events. The risk was all part of the attraction. I believed, and still do believe, that this was the most fun anybody could possibly have with their clothes on. So why does Formula 1 get all the attention?

The problem for rallying lies within the very things that make it so appealing. The noise, the smell, the participation from spectators. These are all things that involve being there. They do not translate to television. No amount of electronic gadgetry and TV effects can pass on the most thrilling aspects of rallying. What you are left with is cars that pass any given point on the track one at a time at minute intervals, and then disappear into the distance never to appear again. There is no overtaking. This is man and machine against the clock. Only somebody who understood the thrills of rallying would ever want to watch a live event with all of the waiting around for the next car to appear for a few seconds. Its a bit of a vicious circle. You have to understand it to understand it.

In contrast, Grand Prix races are spectacular events. They are superb events to attend. Just as in rallying, the noise and atmosphere do not translate fully to television, but unlike rallying what you are left with is an event that is viewer friendly. Cars are constantly in view. Every piece of action is captured by the cameras due to the small geographical space involved. As a result, Formula 1 is one of the most exciting sports to watch with millions of armchair fans all across the globe.

Sadly, due to the relatively poor coverage that rallying receives, not many of those armchair fans will understand why Robert Kubica took the risks he did by participating in rallying. Not many will have any appreciation of the thrills that lured him into the rally car driver's seat. The only suggestion I would have for those fans would be to attend an event yourself and see at first hand what it is all about. In the meantime, along with all motorsport fans everywhere, I wish one of the most talented drivers to have taken up a seat in a grand prix car a speedy and successful recovery, and hope that in as short a time as possible he is back participating in a sport that I love just as much as rallying.

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