To begin to put words, at least in a logical sense, together to describe my weekend at Rally Legend is difficult.
The fear of falling into the realm of exaggeration or hyperbole is crippling, such is the way a short few days in the world’s 5th smallest country has seemingly changed my entire outlook on something I’ve held dear my entire life. I enjoyed rallying before, but Rally Legend has changed everything.
When I left you on Thursday night last with a look at the utter spectacle that was the opening Legends Show, or more appropriately a madhouse of noise, smoke and excitement, I felt energised and enthused. Leaving the Legends Stage on Sunday, the gravity of the whole weekend had begun to sink in, and even now, a few days on, I’m still pinching myself looking back at the photos, time after time asking, ‘did that really happen?’
To even remotely write this as a traditional event report seems impossible, such is the nature of Rally Legend. Its structure is most definitely not one for the rallying purist. Instead, everything is conducted in a very Italian (yes, it wasn’t in Italy, but the Sammarinese are very similar in their mentality) way with limits easily pushed, and boundaries seeming to not exist. To at least put some words to my ramblings, I’ve decided to list my five observations from the event, and I will have one final look in the next few days at my absolute highlight of the weekend.
1. The Cars Are The Stars
The very first thing that hits – at least within the initial five minutes spent anywhere in or around the Rally Village – is the sheer variety of cars, and the staggering quantity. Cars I’d only ever seen on grainy VHS tapes or on the pages of books, now stood feet away at every turn.
You want Group B? Well, there’s an Audi Quattro popping and crackling as it snakes through the service park. Lancia’s fearsome 037 or the Delta S4? They’re being flung around on the stage with scant regard for value or fear of breaking. These are rally cars being used as intended, and it’s utterly glorious.
I like to think that I have experienced a lot stage-side, but certain things just stirred the soul in a way I cannot describe. The bark of a Lancia Stratos piercing through the crisp evening air is almost as good as it gets. Sun setting, the last strains of daylight washing over that distinctive angular shape, the huge girth of the hind quarters even more pronounced as thick tarmac tyres fill the extended arches while scrabbling for grip.
The idea of not knowing simply what to expect next captivated me all weekend. Rallying allows generally a quick line of sight of the actual cars, so deciphering the approach sounds became a humorous way to pass the time.
2. Light ‘Em Up
My second highlight from Rally Legend is a bit geeky, and I am completely fine with that.
I am a rally nerd, and as such, I am well aware that there are two distinct features that make a rally car look its best, namely a tarmac setup – something guaranteed this weekend as it was a completely sealed surface event – and lamp pods.
I adore, so much, the sight of a competition machine festooned with high-powered spotlights. It’s unbelievable the effect the sight I met in the San Marino Olympic Stadium had upon me. Ready to tackle two days of what would include late night blasts through the tiny state, all manner of lighting arrangements were on show. This excites me massively, because I am an absolute anorak.
The move to more efficient, high-output LED bars was evident on some, but the majority of Rally Legend competitors had opted for the old-fashioned and timeless method of numerous big round spots in a bonnet mounted cluster. While something like a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III is an incredible looking car as is, it seems to look even better with lighting attached.
3. The Greatest Showmen
For all the spectacle of seeing rally cars – and rare ones at that – tackling a stage, Rally Legend has always liked to push boundaries. Heading the field were a number of competitors who had a strong objective in mind when planning their weekend’s aspirations. Step 1: Have an absolute blast. Step 2: Put on a show. Step 3: Burn some rubber doing daft things on a rally stage.
The chief protagonist, and as such the ultimate crowd pleaser, was Paolo Diana. The San Marino native and his Fiat 131 have reached legendary status online, and for very good reason. Nobody bolts a pair of gravel tyres to the rear of a tarmac-spec rally car with the intention of topping time sheets.
Every kink in the road that even remotely looked like a corner saw a swift pull on the hydraulic handbrake and the classic Fiat sent sideways towards yet another roadside barrier. More drifting than rallying, the ability to have the skill and a well enough built car to take four long days of abuse is staggering, and come the final jump on the Sunday spectator stage, guess who also really pushed the limit of the show?
Beyond Diana, there were quite a few others who made an impact with their showboating antics. As you likely saw from the Legends Show coverage, Christof Klausner and his Audi Quattro seem to have a flame thrower of a side-exit exhaust, and the lengthy piece of Ingolstadt metal was flung into corners all weekend at ridiculous angles. Christof also did a full-blown, flame-spitting launch in traffic as I drove to the supermarket one morning, so he gets two thumbs up.
Ireland’s Frank Kelly was out showing off the madness of his Escort with some mental speed and a lot of sideways antics, while the biggest surprise was the spectacular Group N Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX of Mauro Billi.
4. Crazy Fans
While the action was understandably nuts, it was the reaction of the fans all weekend that marks Rally Legend as being truly special in my mind. I’d seen plenty of videos of the craziness of Group B, or pretty much just the single video of Walter Röhrl through Fafe stage of the Rally of Portugal, and been left astounded at the mindset to stand within touching distance of some crazy rally machinery, but it all makes sense now I’ve experienced that rush.
Marshals and safety tape clearly, on paper at least, defined the areas in which spectators were allowed, but this played little effect once the stage went live. Flares, air horns, flags and standing inches from a sideways lump of flame-spitting metal.
The fan experience of Rally Legends is unlike anything else in the world. Every bank for mile after mile is crammed; any semblance of a spectator point often claimed hours or even days in advance. The roadside becomes just a stream of faces in the mind of the competitors.
The Legend Stage on Sunday is packed from early on, with countless banks around the industrial estate where the action takes place being full of rally fans. The most eager have set up their own compounds atop the hill with campervans, BBQs, fireworks and all manner of stage-side amenities.
Of the crowds in attendance though, the number of Hungarians is spectacular. Although, with the amount of pyrotechnics and flags they carry, perhaps they are just easier to spot. They enjoy the early action of priceless metal whizzing by, but the distinctive wail of a Lada VFTS sends them collectively into a frenzy. The drivers reward them with some spectacular slides, to rapturous shouts of jubilation. It’s an incredible sight.
5. The Superstars At Play
The final highlight of Rally Legend, to me at least, was the ability to watch some of the motorsport world’s biggest stars out enjoying themselves, putting a show on for the fans and rallying without the pressures they may have in other events. In terms of WRC talent, current Hyundai works drivers Thierry Neuville and Andreas Mikkelsen lit up the stages with stunning times, Thierry obviously testing the i20 Coupe WRC for Rally Spain, the penultimate round of the championship, while Andreas used the older Hyundai NG i20 WRC to gain a better tarmac feeling.
Craig Breen has blitzed all around him in Ireland this season, and earned his way back into the WRC with a number of Hyundai drives, so was in San Marino to let the hair down a bit driving a Subaru Impreza Group A car. When the turbo blew, it made sense to ask his father Ray for the keys and take the family MG Metro 6R4 for a blast. Chasing him all weekend was the absolute nutty sight of a full-blown EKS Audi S1 World RX car taking on a full rally weekend. The 600bhp rallycross monster was in the hands of EKS boss and multiple champion Mattias Ekstrom for the opening few days, with Moto GP rider Andrea Dovizioso taking the reins for Sunday.
Of all the stars though, Ken Block and the Ford Escort Cosworth were the centre of a lot of the attention. Can you guess in which picture he got a small bit too close for comfort with a huge cut through a flat right?
While these are an idea of the five things I took from Rally Legend 2019, in the main the whole experience left me blown away. Things like this simply can’t last forever the way the world is going, so make sure you get this onto your bucket list before it’s too late.
I’ll have my final piece from San Marino for you soon: A single grouping of cars have had such an effect that I’m gonna pen an opinion piece that might upset a few people. But for now, I’ll leave you with some more photos from Rally Legend 2019.
Cutting Room Floor