Safety concerns threaten Rally of Britain

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The Independent Online

David Richards, whose ISC company hold the rights to the world championship, has warned that the Network Q Rally of Great Britain could be kicked off the world championship calendar unless there are spectator safety improvements.

The head of world rallying said the incident in last November's event when around a dozen people, including children, were injured after being struck by a car on a forest stage in west Wales was a "wake-up call". Britain used to lead the world in safety standards, but complacency had seen it fall behind other countries, according to Richards.

"I am very concerned about safety on the British rally," said Richards, giving the annual Motorsport Safety Fund Watkins Lecture in Birmingham. "We cannot carry on with the ways of the past, thinking it will be all right on the day.

"We have been totally complacent about it. We were at the leading edge 10 years ago, had the best standards of the time and we assumed that would be all right for the future. But things move forward, and we have to keep investing. This year's incident was a very good wake-up call.

"There is no event in this championship that is sacrosanct, and safety stands head and shoulders above all other issues. There has to be a plan of action and a proper team of people mandated and resourced effectively to solve the problem."

Last year's event was marred by the incident in the Brechfa Forest, near Carmarthen, when the Ford Focus driven by Spain's two-time world champion Carlos Sainz hit a group of spectators and marshals. The stage was cancelled as the injured, including a 13-year-old girl who suffered a broken leg, were ferried to local hospitals. Ford withdrew Sainz and the rest of their drivers from the rally.

The Motor Sports Association, the governing body in Britain who organise the rally through a subsidiary company, reconvened the Rally Safety Study Group to look into what happened on the Network Q and other events last year.

"I do not think we have allowed safety standards to fall or been overtaken by other countries; I'd say we are running just as safe a rally as we were 10 years ago," said the MSA's Colin Wilson. "We have been overtaken by the increasing popularity of the rally and the increased number of top-class competitors in much faster cars, which increases the risks of an incident. But there are no excuses – we should have noticed what was happening.

"I am sure the study group will call for a wholesale overhaul of rally safety and the training of marshals, and the governing body will act on it even though it will cost a lot of money. Spectator safety is paramount."

The MSA will report back to the FIA, the sport's world governing body who demanded improvements for spectators from the organisers of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone under threat of the Formula One race being lost.

Richards added that the Kenya-staged Safari Rally – possibly the most spectacular event on the 14-round world calendar – could also be at risk because of drivers' safety fears.