FEATURE: SPECTATING IN ARGENTINA A KIWI IN ARGENTINA Kiwi rally fan, Gary Boyd, took a trip to South America to support Hayden Paddon in the Rally of Argentina. By GARY BOYD YPF Rally Argentina 2017 will be recognised in history as one of the greatest ever WRC battles. Elfyn Evans dominated early on to lead by over minute midway thru Saturday morning. Evans would come ever so close to claiming a maiden WRC victory for both himself and DMack Tyres. Thierry Neuville had other ideas, he won four of the last five stages, sliding into the final time control on Michelins a meagre 0.7 seconds ahead of Evans. This victory of the timing clock is well documented elsewhere, so I will not attempt to retell it. This story is about what a spectator experiences in Argentina. It was equally exciting, the passion of the fans is unrivalled. Hayden Paddon and John Kennard claimed their first WRC win on Argentine gravel in 2016. Supporting them to retain their title in 2017 was good enough reason to make the long trip. A clash of dates with Rally of Whangarei meant the number of Kiwi fans in Argentina was less than may have otherwise been expected. I have previously attended Rally Australia in 2003 in Perth and Coffs Harbour in 2011 and 2013. This would be my first WRC event outside of Australia and NZ. How would it compare to spectating on either side of the Tasman? Late afternoon Wednesday was time for a first visit to the service park. Each major team stood out for a reason. Citroen were at a higher level for corporate hosting. Toyota had a dominating overall impact with their site frontage. Hyundai had the most professional layout for car servicing. M-Sport’s unique livery for each car made them the real eye-catcher. Hyundai are a major sponsor of Rally Argentina with spectator engagement, 44 | RALLYSPORT MAGAZINE - MAY 2017 including a virtual reality simulation experience. At one point Hayden came across and chatted for a few minutes. A short chat turned into quarter of an hour of fan selfies and autographs. For me it was a moment of realisation, our man truly is a superstar on the international scene. Overall, the service park experience is similar to what we get in NZ or Australia. For a decade from 2005 to 2014 Chris Atkinson represented the ANZACs in WRC events around the world. 2014 was a passing of the baton from Chris to Hayden when both were part of Hyundai’s first year back in WRC. Thursday morning was shakedown, the first daily pre-dawn start. Wherever you go, be prepared to walk in several kilometres. In NZ and Australia spectator points are often found at midstage intersections. Most Argentina stages only have access at stage start or stage end. The walking effort was always rewarded with great viewing spots. Even for shakedown there were thousands of people crowding in. As the sun rose, safety cars were followed by zero cars and the heartbeat quickened in anticipation of a first taste of the new generation WRC beasts. A helicopter circled overhead, and you could hear the distant roar of a car engine. The cars sure look impressive, but it is the sound that really embeds in the memory. During shakedown you don’t know which car will be next, it seemed an eternity for first opportunity to cheer for Hayden and John. They were fully sideways around the hairpin, no doubt about it they deserve to be competing in the top tier. WRC crews must do at least three passes of Shakedown and after three passes it was Hayden recording the quickest time. Jari- Matti Latvala later did a fourth pass to go one tenth ahead of the Kiwi. Back to service park and wave the Silver Fern, while Hayden joined Jari- Matti and Dani Sordo on stage as the fastest trio in Shakedown. Promising early signs for the weekend ahead. Thursday night had a made-for-TV Super Special in the streets of nearby Cordoba city. Good viewing, but nothing compared to the real stages. Our Friday morning spectating was on SS2, a fast wide section of road not unlike the shire roads of Coffs Harbour. We saw the entire field make the first left hand corner, a fast 4 th /5 th gear.
The local Maxi rally cars were impressive, given our AP4 regulations are based on these, and Kiwi and Aussie fans have something exciting looming for future national events. We headed to SS8 Santa Rosa - San Agustin in the afternoon - one of the legendary stages where locals camp out for a day or two before the rally comes through. Walking in, you discover tent site after tent site, steak slow cooking over embers, music and drink flowing. It’s an amazing atmosphere, many of the people are just here because it’s rally weekend. They’re not supporting a particular team or driver - they just love to be at the rally. Experiencing this atmosphere is just as good as seeing the WRC machines flying along the stages A major difference to spectating at home is that rather than having a few designated spectator areas, the entire length of the stage, except for red taped zones, are used as a spectator area. Viewing options were many and varied, from water splashes to fast and flowing or a selection of tight, technical corners. Despite the tens of thousands of spectators it was possible to find uncrowded locations. The Argentinian spectators are a hardy bunch, most were packing tents and loading cars, vans or trucks ready to relocate to Sunday’s El Condor and Mina Clavero stages. It’s hard to imagine many Kiwis or Aussies camping for two nights in near freezing temperatures. Some just sleep wrapped in a blanket sitting on a camp chair. We headed back to our warm accommodation in Villa Carlos Paz, within a kilometre’s walk of the service park. Each day provides increasingly difficult terrain and surfaces for drivers - road surfaces worsen and corners become tighter. Our Saturday began walking in darkness up and up, out of the village of Tanti. Thousands of fans were spread out along the length of SS10/SS13. You could choose somewhere to see the cars up close, or opt for a view many kilometres into the distance. Persevere until you find a spot to your liking. I settled on top of a rocky outcrop with a view down the valley toward the start line in one direction, and up a ridge line in the opposite direction. Police and marshal presence was quite inconsistent, near stage starts and finishes numbers were large. In the middle of stages there were few officials to be seen. Spectator safety was self-policing, the crowd heckled/booed/hissed anyone going into an unsafe spot, and peer pressure ruled the day. The crowd noise as Hayden and John came sideways around a sweeping right-hander into view created an enduring memory for me. I have not experienced anything like this at a rally in NZ or Australia. The flying Kiwis were definitely one of the most spectacular crews on the morning pass. I decided to stay exactly where I was for the afternoon, with great viewing and Ferna Branca drinks courtesy of the locals. Hayden and John were even more McRae-like when they passed our viewing spot again, probably the reason Hayden’s global fan base is growing rapidly. During the days I had little idea of what was happening with results. Each day’s end was an opportunity to catch up on what had occurred, with less than 30 seconds separating Elfyn Evans, Thierry Neuville and Ott Tanak - an exciting final day was guaranteed. Sunday’s final stages are at the highest altitude with the roughest roads. For the morning we headed into the opening kilometres of El Condor, the mecca of Argentine rallying. Wandering in near zero temperatures you pass the corner where Andreas Mikkelsen and Thierry Neuville had almost identical Power Stage accidents in 2015. This is the hallowed gravel on which Hayden and John claimed Power Stage victory over reigning world champion, Sebastien Ogier, last year. In 2016 El Condor was engulfed in thick fog, limiting visibility to just a few metres in the morning. By contrast, 2017 had crystal clear skies with unlimited visibility. I found a spot high among the huge boulder strewn landscape. Welcome to rally spectator heaven. I could see the banner across the Add the Rally of Argentina to your 'Bucket List' says Gary Boyd. stage start. Cars would twist their way over the opening kilometre to a tight right hand hairpin, before passing below our rocky point. A few steps to the side and you could watch cars intermittently for about 8 to 10 kilometres until they became a distant dust cloud. Words cannot do justice to what it is like to see the 2017 WRC cars attacking this stage. It has to be experienced for yourself. Over the tight technical opening kilometre it appeared Thierry was taking time off Elfyn, checking split times later confirmed this was the case. For the afternoon we watched the Power Stage on the Service Park big screen, as this had the benefit of avoiding the hours-long traffic jams at end of day, something we do not experience with our own WRC round. While watching the giant screen we could see TV crews filming Hyundai management. Elfyn was faster at the split point, so breath was held by everyone, all still unsure how this would turn out. When the DMack shod Fiesta clipped the entrance to a stone bridge you could feel a collective inhaling of breath. Can Elfyn survive this? He just might - his car still going at full speed. Then a cheer from Hyundai HQ tells us the final result a minute before we see it on the time delayed big screen. A great weekend is over. The camaraderie amongst the spectators was great, the location superb. The new generation WRC cars are superb to witness first-hand. If you are considering going to a WRC event in Europe or Australia this year, all I can say is do it - you will not be disappointed. Looking ahead to 2018 and beyond, if Rally Argentina is not yet on your bucket list, then it should be. MAY 2017 - RALLYSPORT MAGAZINE | 45