Poland on verge of WRC axe

Group Rallying Editor
@davidevansrally

Rally Poland is expected to be expelled from the World Rally Championship calendar following significant safety failings during last week’s Mikolajki-based event.

Privately, many of the teams and crews have made their feelings clear that they don’t want to return to an event which already had a questionable record on safety – Rally Poland ran under an FIA warning in 2015. Last year the event did not receive a further yellow card from the governing body, but MN’s sources have indicated it can expect a red card after last week.

FIA rally director Jarmo Mahonen moved to quell speculation that the event’s future had already been decided. Mahonen insisted there would be an investigation into the numerous incidents. MN understands the local police has begun its own investigation to find out how a local fire engine, attending an emergency call to deal with a fallen tree from a house on the Baronowo stage, drove into the stage and met a competing car head-on, fortunately they met at a wide part of the road and were able to pass without incident.

Mahonen told MN: “There have been some safety problems throughout the rally and we have to now investigate and then draw our conclusions. The fire truck incident is being investigated locally, this was nothing something related to the rally. But how could this happen? My information is that he nearly ran over the policeman… We were very lucky nothing happened, but this does not belong to rallying.”

Rally Poland featured a fire truck on a live stage

When he launched Rally Poland at the start of the year, the president of the governing body made it quite clear that safety was the number one priority for this event. From February, the event organisers has been working on spreading the message of spectator safety, but one of the issues it faces is the international nature of the fan base. More than 100,000 fans visit Rally Poland, but more often than not they are coming from outside of Poland and making sure that message reaches countries like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia is complicated.

Mahonen added that spectator behaviour was at the heart of some of the problems, saying: “There is not the spectating culture we have in Scandinavia, they just want to come close to the cars. It’s been a very busy weekend for Michele [Mouton, FIA safety delegate], it’s been a weekend for us to survive.”

The problems began at shakedown when the stage was stopped after a fan was hit by a rock. That fan remained in hospital in an induced coma following an operation to a head injury, but MN understands he was due to be woken from the coma earlier this week.

The sixth stage of the event was cancelled due to the high number of fans and virtually every stage ran late after Mouton was forced to stop so often to talk to the fans and ask for them to stand in safer places.

One leading driver said: “How can we come back here? It makes no sense, the people don’t understand that the car can go in any direction. We are in these holes [ruts] in the road and then sometimes the car is flying out and it can go anywhere. They stand behind straw bales and think that this can save them – no chance. If we take the sixth gear into the field, it can be the big disaster.”

Spectator numbers and positions caused concern. Pic: LAT

The teams were united in their concerns at safety. Hyundai’s Michel Nandan admitted he was deeply concerned by what had happened in Poland. He told MN: “This is incredible, unbelievable that this can happen. The rally has been done here since a long time, this is not their first rally and to see this is actually quite frightening.”

Those thoughts were echoed by Citroen’s Yves Matton who added: “There can never be any compromise with safety. I think it’s important to come to events which are different and this event is different, but we cannot compromise safety.”

Rally Poland spokesman Andrzej Borowczyk said it would be unfair to judge the event’s safety record on the fire engine incident.

“This was human error,” said Borowczyk. “The police was there, there was a barrier there and this stupid guy drove straight in – I don’t know what going on in his head. The driver of the [competing] car sent information to the Clerk of the Course, but he was not complaining. Nobody can say this area wasn’t protected, it was. The fireman was from here, he had been involved in the rally from before – I don’t understand what happened. It was an idiotic human error. I strongly say, if we made a mistake then people can say: “OK guys, you made a big mistake.” But this wasn’t the case, but what can we do?”

Rally Poland’s contract with WRC Promoter ends this year, but Borowczyk is confident the event will return to WRC next season.

“Look at the pictures and the number of fans we bring,” he said. “Rally Poland brings something to the championship and I am sure we will be back.”

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