For the 2019 season, the Finnish ASN allows “virtual chicanes” to be used instead of traditional obstacles placed onto the routes. What kind of an idea is this?
First of all, what is a virtual chicane? It is an area where the drivers are obliged to slow down to a certain speed, for example 50 km/h, or to stop completely and restart. The speed is controlled electronically and there will be officials supervising the area with penalties being issued for insufficient slowing. Here is an example from an Australian event
In comparison to a traditional chicane, this doesn’t require manual work from the organizer in form of placing numerous haybales or other obstacles onto the route. Also, a virtual chicane will stay in its place, whereas a haybale can be moved or destroyed, making it possibly easier for later cars. Conversely, a car can be damaged by hitting a chicane. Another challenge is recceing, since the haybales cannot be put in place until the road is closed, and recce usually occurs when the roads are still open for public traffic.
We can remember two occasions from the current WRC season where moving a chicane has lead to later issued time penalties, some of which could even play a role in deciding the championship! Sadly, virtual chicanes won’t solve this and I could see some very difficult post-rally decisions made with them. What if the car’s front bumper was 1 cm past the chicane area when it reached the desired speed? What if the speed display told the driver he slowed down to 50 km/h but GPS shows it was still faster? What if someone goes off the road and breaks the surveillance or display devices?
Now, why do we need chicanes in the first place? Well, Finnish rallies do. In the last round of the Finnish Rally Championship there was a stage where the winning average speed was as high as 139.7 km/h on the second run, on an R5 car, meaning that it would have probably been even faster on a WRC car. We can’t deny that this is dangerously fast.
Here we can see an onboard of the said stage. Notice the long hyper fast sections at 2:20, 5:37 and 8:30. The onboard shows also that there is no chicanes placed onto the stage.
Why don’t they just use slower roads then? In Finland, roads can be classified to public and private roads, and usually public roads are smoother, flatter, wider and straighter, whereas private roads are conversely slower in many ways. However, when arranging a rally, it’s easier to obtain permissions for a string of public roads at once, but every road private owner must permit the road use. Additionally, public roads will most likely withstand better rallying, not becoming too rutted or rough for the last runners. As we can see, it can be very tempting for a rally organizer to use as much public road as possible.
Why don’t they just then cut the fast part of the stage into two shorter stages? Well, that would need more personnel and other infrastructure, and most likely there would have to be a some sort of access road between the two stages, which is not always possible.
Another interesting fact is that even the slowest of this year’s WRC events, Rally Turkey, had a chicane on one of the stages.
One argument against virtual chicanes is that it doesn’t belong to rallying. I somewhat agree, but then again accepting Rally2, power stage or super specials with donuts and multiple laps is still a struggle for me, having grown on 90’s rallying. And if we go further back in the history, braking tests were a crucial part of the 1000 Lakes Rally back in the 50’s, proved by the video below from 1958 at 10:22.
As of now, the virtual chicane presents a dilemma. They feel awkward but they could have some benefits over traditional ones. We haven’t seen yet how they work, whether they are better or worse than traditional chicanes. And for local rallies with small resources, it’s sometimes necessary to rely on chicanes to control the speed, although I’m sure the rally organizers are not so keen to use them either.
A recent interview with Henrik Frank from AKK suggests that Finnish Rally Championship events are allowed to try virtual chicanes in 2019, whereas FIA will decide whether the WRC event Neste Rally Finland is allowed to use them or not. I hope it won’t be necessary, with a similar route as this year, although it probably would allow the return of Ouninpohja. But would it be the same with chicanes?