I almost wrote this column last October. I’d just finished the Cambrian Rally in a Land Rover Defender and had come away worried about how close to the stage some spectators had been standing.
But the Defender is quiet, at least by rally car standards, and I was the last car running on every stage. My co-driver reckoned that spectators thought the stage had finished, hadn’t heard us coming and were already making their way off-stage.
So I put it down to an anomaly; certainly, leaning on the horn as I approached made most of them stand away. Most, but certainly not all. It turns out I was right to have worried, too.
Last month the chief executive of the Motor Sports Association (MSA), Rob Jones, published an open letter to spectators, expressing how, after he’d looked at video footage and photos from recent rallies, he was “astonished and dismayed” that a minority of spectators “continue to display a wanton disregard for their own personal well-being” on rally stages.
His letter follows four spectator deaths on two Scottish rallies in the past two years and a review of safety by the Scottish government, whose recommendations the MSA has accepted and is now implementing.
It’ll implement them quickly, but Jones says he needs “to remind all spectators of the fact that they are ultimately responsible for their own personal safety”. There’s only so much the MSA can do, in other words. Rally stages are long, it’s hard to monitor every yard, and people need to stop standing in stupid places, because more accidents will simply shut rallying down.
“Unless these few idiotic spectators concerned change their attitude immediately and behave responsibly,” Jones wrote, “there will be no future for stage rallying in the UK. I am not talking about next year, or the year after; I am talking about right now.”
Trouble is, the simple fact that you’re reading this means you don’t need to be told, but evidently some people still don’t listen. Perhaps they just don’t quite understand. I want to tell them something: that some people aren’t very good at driving rally cars. I know because I’m one of them. If I were watching me rally in Wales, I’d want to stand in Swindon.
A Defender is about two metres tall, it weighs the best part of two tonnes, there’s no ABS and no stability control, it’s very short and pretty unstable and I was driving one at up to 80mph on a surface that had little grip one moment and precisely none the next. From inside the car, then, some spectators look terrifyingly close and the prospect of hitting them seems perilously real. Please stand back.