2006 Rally Catalunya: Put on Your Rally Cap

After watching a few cars come through, I begin to get a sense of who's fast and who's not. Essentially, if a driver looks like he's in control, he's probably not going fast enough. If he looks like he's about to spin his car off the road on every single corner, he's probably contending for the lead.

For anyone used to the constant sensory bombardment of the IRL, Formula 1, or NASCAR, climbing a mountain to see one car whiz past every two minutes might sound hardly worth the effort. But with rallying, race fatigue never sets in. Your attention is focused only for a few seconds at a time, and whenever you hear a car approaching, it's cause for excitement and anticipation. Over the course of the next few days, I see cars take a 100-mph corner with two wheels on the pavement, two wheels on the dirt, and skid plates showering sparks the whole way through. I see Subaru's Petter Solberg hit a midcorner bump so hard that he almost goes airborne, requiring a big correction and eliciting a collective gasp--followed by a huge cheer--from the crowd. From my perch in the tree, I see Ford driver Antony Warmbold hit a patch of gravel scattered onto the inside of the corner by the previous car, sending his Focus RS into an opposite-lock oversteer slide toward those vulnerable grandstands. He gathers it up with a mad dose of throttle and powers out of the turn with all four tires putting down skid marks on the pavement. That sort of thing just doesn't get old.

And even if it did, the actual racing is only a fraction of the total rally experience. When the WRC descends upon a town, you're ever aware of its presence. You see the drivers out at restaurants at night. Throughout the weekend, you can wander the pits, sometimes catching mechanics frantically straightening crinkled bodywork and replacing broken parts. And my favorite random aspect of rallying is the transit stages--rally cars are not trailered to and from the race routes, they're driven, in traffic. All of the cars wear license plates, and it's not uncommon to be returning from a stage and see, say, Sbastien Loeb roll up next to you at a stoplight in his Citron. In every other form of racing, the drivers are Down There, on a track, racing alien machines in an alien environment. In rallying, you might literally run into your favorite driver on your way back to the hotel. Accessibility doesn't get much better than that.

And maybe I'm a little bit sick, but I'm fascinated by the abuse inflicted on rally cars over the course of an event. Walking around the pits, you see crews fixing cars that appear unfixable. Even on a tarmac race like this one, a rally car can be expected to endure regular trips to its bump stops, tire-smoking e-brake turns, and the most diabolical high-speed cornering technique yet devised: dropping the inside wheels off the shoulder of the road and hooking the sidewalls on the edge of the tarmac. (For this reason, I'm told, rally tires are bead-locked on the inside of the rim to keep the rubber from peeling straight off during this maneuver.) And the damage to the cars . . . oh, the damage.

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