It's no secret that NASCAR and Formula 1 are struggling—and generally failing—to retain audience share. There are many reasons for this: formulaic outcomes, predictable (and consequence-free) large-scale crashes, a lack of star power, easier-to-drive race cars, and cars that bear little resemblance to those found on the road. While these top-tier events continue to suffer this downward trend, enthusiasts can turn to the one racing series that continues to display the sights, sounds, and insanity of racing's golden age: the World Rally Championship.
Before clicking away and reading about the many theories of who will kill Cersei Lannister (come on, it’s Tyrion, obviously), consider last season’s WRC finale in Australia, a race that put every racing series to shame. The rally came down to a three-way, all-out battle, held along the dangerously tree-lined and wet-and-wild coasts of Australia. To cap off this madcap Thunderdome event, a kangaroo was killed during the race.
At the end of the long and arduous WRC season that saw spectacular wrecks, courageous drives, and characteristically idiotic spectator antics there were three competitors representing three manufacturers vying for rally’s crown. There was reigning champion Sébastien Ogier in his Ford Fiesta, Thierry Neuville looking for the crown in his Hyundai, and Ott Tänak and his mad Toyota hoping his two rivals would meet with rally-ending mishaps. Neuville and Ogier were separated by just three points. Tänak, though a handful of points down and requiring a picture-perfect finish—as well as his competitors ending their races early—was still within the mathematical possibility of taking the championship.
Where F1 has taken to crowning its champion (cough Lewis cough Hamilton) three-quarters of the way through the season, WRC tells a different and much more edge-of-your-seat competitive story.
Heading into the rally, Ogier told the press that he felt “relaxed,” and while a sixth title would be “nice,” a win in Australia “won’t change his life so much.” His competitors, on the other hand, were both hungry for a season finale win. And though Ogier's seemed pretty chill about it, the view from his pre-race shakedown looked less Matthew McConaughey and more John Wick.
Neuville couldn't hide his angst. He was pushing hard and fast, hoping to knock the champ off his pedestal. And while Neuville was thought to be Ogier’s only real rival given their points separation, Tänak was a man with driving with desperation and purpose. He obliterated the courses as he set faster times than either of his competitors by a good margin. At one point at the end of the second stage, his co-driver, Martin Järveoja, asked, “How close [are we] to the limit?” Tänak answered cooly, “I’m not there yet.”
Tänak couldn’t slow down or play it safe. He had to keep pushing his mental pace, which made his onboard cameras look as if they were stuck in 2X. It was like traveling back in time to the whiplash Group B era. Neuville looked shaken by the Estonian’s blistering pace. In the later stages, Neuville had to hang it out farther and farther until it bit him. A good portion of his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC’s left side was ripped away by hazards and rookie mistakes. Ogier, ever the veteran, fell into the more measured mindset. Tänak, though, displayed the sort of laser-focused driving of rally’s greats, like Colin McRae, Sébastien Loeb, Tommi Mäkinen, Walter Rӧhrl, and Petter Solberg.
Then the rain fell and everything changed.
Though shitty weather was a possibility, it was only a looming threat. During the final stages, the rain came and caused chaos. In sections of the race route, pools of water ripped off aerodynamics and bumpers, and made each turn much more treacherous and unpredictible. Though Tänak took the lead with only three stages left, Neuville still had to work a miracle and beat Ogier. The rally gods, however, saw it differently.
Coming through a particularly wet portion of the stage, Neuville hit an embankment, clipped a stump, spun around, and ripped the suspension and tire clean off one of the rear sides of the car. His rally—and his hopes for the championship—was over. It was down to Ogier and Tänak, and both drivers smelled a win. All Ogier had to do, however, was stay calm, stay consistent, not lose a place, and drive, in his words, “Like my grandma would.” Tänak didn’t have that luxury. He needed to finish first, he needed Ogier's concentration to slip. But during the second to last stage, while racing through the wet, wood-lined hills of Australia, the Estonian’s Toyota Yaris WRC lost forward gears. Tänak's title fight came to an end.
Sébastien Ogier went into this last race knowing he could nab a sixth world title. A lesser driver might feel a little pressure. But Ogier is steely, and his driving talent, calculating mind, and rock-solid Ford factory team have made him nearly unbeatable. In that sixth race, Ogier delivered a performance that solidifies his status as one of the greatest rally drivers ever.
Watching the replays even today, the race still delivers the sort of excitement that’s missing in Formula 1 and NASCAR. Last weekend’s Formula 1 Grand Prix in Baku was a snoozefest. And though Formula 1 has made changes to encourage passing, the current season has dropped into a drearily familiar Hamiltonian groove. NASCAR remains only mildly interesting because of the crashes, but that's not enough to hang a series on.
The World Rally Championship, however, has pushed drivers and cars to near Group B lunacy. Stages are seeing faster speeds. Aerodynamics and engineering have once again reached supercar levels. As for the actual racing, we’re five races into the 2019 season and Citroen, Hyundai, and Toyota have each earned a win. At last weekend's Rally Argentina, Ford’s M-Sport driver Elfyn Evans flipped end-over-end after clipping a boulder. The rest of the season will see the ever-changing conditions—in nine different countries—of gravel, tarmac, dirt, dust, and downpours.
Last season’s finale, ladies and gentlemen, was a battle for the ages. It was a brawl all the way to the final stage of the very last rally on the calendar. (By comparison, Lewis Hamilton won the Formula 1 championship three races before the season’s end.) WRC pits driver against driver. NASCAR and Formula 1 come down to fuel conservation, tire strategy, or hoping your fellow drivers wreck. NASCAR is terrible. Formula 1 is boring. Start watching WRC.