WRC Calendar History VII: 1997

The World Rally Championship adopted a new format in 1997. The rotation was abandoned and all rallies were again included in the championship. Now there were fourteen events, and all top drivers would take part in all of them. To compensate this, the rallies were made shorter and some had to adjust their traditional dates. Here’s a look at the “new beginning” of WRC in 1997.

Cover image by Pietro Zoccola / Flickr

1Rallye Monte CarloTarmac/snowSat 18th – Thu 23rd Jan
2Swedish RallySnowFri 7th – Mon 10th Feb
3Safari Rally (Kenya)GravelFri 28th Feb – Mon 3rd Mar
4Rally PortugalGravelSat 22nd – Wed 26th Mar
5Rally CatalunyaTarmacSun 13th – Wed 16th Apr
6Tour de Corse (France)TarmacMon 5th – Wed 7th May
7Rally ArgentinaGravelWed 21st – Sat 24th May
8Rally AcropolisGravelSat 7th – Tue 10th Jun
9Rally New ZealandGravelFri 1st – Tue 5th Aug
10Rally FinlandGravelFri 29th – Sun 31st Aug
11Rally IndonesiaGravelThu 18th – Sun 21st Sep
12Rallye SanremoTarmacSun 12th – Wed 15th Oct
13Rally AustraliaGravelThu 30th Oct – Sun 2nd Nov
14RAC Rally (Great Britain)Gravel/tarmacSat 22nd – Tue 25th Nov

When we compare the 1997 calendar to the present days, we can notice that only Finland, Indonesia and Australia ended on a Sunday like today’s rallies. Many rallies still decided to opt for weekdays for various reasons.

Another difference is that mixed surface rallies were now not allowed anymore. The only exception to this were tarmac super specials on gravel rallies. RAC Rally still had one whole day of super specials on its route, most of them paved, thus I’ve listed it as gravel/tarmac.

Limiting the events to three days had already decreased the competitive lengths in 1996, but now FIA explicitly shortened the maximum length of an event from 600 km to 400 km. This might seem drastic, but now everyone had to drive through a season of fourteen events.

The 1997 season had together 6539 km of stages. If we compare it to 1993 which was the last pre-rotation season, the same number is 8546 km. However, drivers rarely did whole seasons and could only count in eight best results. For example the 1993 champion Juha Kankkunen skipped Portugal, Tour de Corse and Sanremo. This way the champion’s season of 1993 was 6893 km long, which is actually quite close to the 1997 season.

As the world of rallying was changing, it was time for Monte Carlo to let go of the concentration run. However, they decided to arrange a shadow event alongside the official one. It had a concentration run and free service, whereas the WRC event starters had to use the designated service parks. It’s curious that the WRC event had only 23 starters, the shadow event 116!

The rally itself started now with a super special on Sunday morning, a stage which was a shortened version of the Monaco Grand Prix street track. It’s also the first time the principality hosted a WRC stage.

Sunday proceeded with a long liaison to Valence. The Monday stages were run West of Valence, Tuesday between Valence and Gap and on Wednesday from Gap to Monaco, concluding with another slightly different configuration of the Monaco super special. All the proper stages of the rally were single-runs.

The Swedish Rally started now on Friday with only a super special driven on ice in Karlstad. Then the first leg took the drivers to Falun for the Lugnet twin-car super special and a remote night break in Borlänge. The second leg returned to Karlstad, while a short leg concluded the rally on Monday morning. All the stages were single-runs, but two pairs of stages shared short bits of road with each other.

Safari was now arranged before Portugal. The stages were still run on unclosed roads, and the event was allowed to be longer than the others, with the competitive sections making up together 1318 km. The Saturday and Monday legs were identical, with Sunday having a different single-run route. No servicing was allowed anymore outside the service parks.

Rally Portugal started on Sunday with a tarmac hill climb stage at Figueira da Foz, which didn’t go well.

Colin McRae reported “The people were covering the whole road and the braking points and so the pace notes we made on the recce were useless. You couldn’t see the corner or which way it went. Even the slightest mistake could have had serious consequences”. On this stage Makinen was forced to start with malfunctioning brakes due to his car being damaged by the scrutineering weighing equipment. As a consequence of them being disadvantaged the stage times were scrapped by the organisers and the rally would re-start the next day and all cars would not be re-seeded, preserving the initial running order.

Rally Mini

The rest of the route was similar to 1995, with the first leg taking the crews to Povoa de Varzim, the second to Viseu, and the last back to Figueira da Foz. Roughly a third of the stages were single-runs.

Catalunya was arranged now already in April, meaning that the event was arranged twice in less than six months! Probably due to this the route was identical to 1996. No shortening had to be done either since the 1996 event was already short enough to fit the current regulations. A third of the stages were single-runs.

Tour de Corse’s route in contrast was very different to the past years. It wasn’t a tour around the island anymore, as all the rest halts were now in Ajaccio. The Monday and Wednesday stages were driven South from Ajaccio, the Tuesday stages North. There was only one full stage repeat, but a couple of Monday stages shared their route for the Wednesday ones.

Rally Argentina was moved again earlier into the year, now into late May. It had switched the order of the Thursday and Friday legs, while the Saturday leg remained unchanged, but the rally was now 100 km shorter than in 1996. All stages except the San Martin super special were single-runs.

Acropolis was another event to remain virtually unchanged, just 50 kilometres shorter. Only two and a half stages from Sunday were repeated on Tuesday, the rest were all single-runs.

Rally New Zealand operated now on a smaller area, having all the rest halts in Auckland. This meant that the stages East of Rotorua, including Motu, were omitted. The Maramurua stage which closed the Monday leg was repeated on Tuesday in two parts, but both driven twice, making most of the stage essentially driven three times in the rally! The rally had also created its own twin-car stage, the Manukau super.

Tommi Mäkinen had hit a cow in Tour de Corse, while Carlos Sainz had a similar incident with a sheep in New Zealand, as shown on this long onboard video (in addition to showing the character of the road).

The name 1000 Lakes Rally became history as the organizer of the Finnish WRC event changed, and the new event was known simply Rally Finland. The route itself was fairly similar to last year, except that the 1996 Monday stages were now driven on Friday, and the Sunday leg ended earlier in the afternoon. A new addition was the Hippos super special. Only three and a half stages were repeated.

Indonesia’s route didn’t change much from the previous year. Mostly the Sunday leg was shortened in order to cut the overall length of the event.

FIA had now banned mixed surface events for good, so Sanremo became again an all-tarmac rally. It used a similar format to Catalunya, having the first and third legs on the exact the same stages on the Sanremo area, whereas the second leg took the crews North-East for stages which were either new or driven decades ago. All stages of the rally were twice-driven.

Australia was now moved to be the penultimate round of the season. It was also the longest event of the calendar with 421 stage kilometres, but differences between the event overall lengths were very subtle. The route itself was largely unchanged from the previous years. The first leg was driven West, second South, and the third between them in the Bunnings forest. Only two non-super specials were repeated.

When we compare the routes of RAC Rally 1995 and 1997, the difference is not that huge. Just one of the four legs of 1995 was cut off. However, in the bigger picture it meant that no more forest stages in the event would be run anymore outside Wales.

Most of the Sunday spectator stages were run twice, typically with two consecutive starts on short intervals. Silverstone hosted an almost 9 km “single venue” stage going on and off the circuit. Later in the day, the same area offered also a twin-car super special on a rallycross type of track.

On Monday the drivers set out into mid-Welsh forests. Radnor – driven so early it was still dark – hadn’t been used in the event since 1981. The Taliesin stage was also planned, but in the end it didn’t make the cut.

The Tuesday leg took the rally to South of Wales. These stages, including Margam, hadn’t been used on WRC level since 1986. At the same time, the most Northern stages like Clocaenog would be put onto the bench for some while.

Although the events were shorter, individual stages were longer. The 1997 season had four stages with over 40 km in length, but remarkably none of them were in Monte Carlo.

1Tour de CorseLiamone48.93 km
2Rally NZTe Koraha47.43 km
3Swedish RallyJutbo44.88 km
4RAC RallyResolfen42.21 km
5RAC RallyHafren39.46 km
6Monte CarloSisteron36.67 km
7RAC RallyRhondda36.27 km
8Rally CatalunyaLa Roca – St Hilari 136.12 km
9Rally AustraliaStirling East35.48 km
10Swedish RallyHamra35.42 km

The following years would bring only small changes for the calendar or the routes of the events, but the new rules would be brought in year by year, bringing the sport closer to what it is today. More about that on the next episode.

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