I went to the 50th Mecsek Rally in Hungary to witness the golden anniversary of one of the country’s biggest domestic motorport events. It was short but went with a bang. A literal one.
Whatever type of motorsports you fancy, you have to love rallying. Not necessarily because of any type of vehicles or drivers involved, but for its atmosphere. One takes a few stretches of road, close them from traffic at two ends and one has a rally. It’s the sensation that you can take the street version of any of the cars involved and drive them on the same pieces of road any other time of the year.
That and the fact that no other time a spectator can get as close to competitors of a motorsport event apart from Irish road racing. The sweet smell of racing fuel fumes lingering between the branches of the surrounding trees, the scream of the engines coming from the distance the tyre screeching in the corners and the cars disappearing behind the next corner with pops, bangs and whistles.
Saturday looked like a good day with the sun finally out, following a week of gloomy weather and freezing nights. I got off the bus and headed down the highway to the nearest intersection that was the exit of one of the stages of the rally. I like this place, because it’s easy to get to by public transport and it takes a maximum of 10 to 20 minutes of walk from the bus stop to get a good spectating spot.
Being dumb as a brick, I only had sneakers on walking on the just-over-freezing cold tarmac. You could see the outcome of the recce on the road. It was clean from any debris, dust or leaves and the apex of the corners were marked by tyre tracks as the cars had already made a pass there at a relative speed.
I wanted to get to the spot where I was the year before - where I shot most of my photos -, which was part of a complex of corners catching out many drivers during the last half a century. It was named Antalffy-corner after a rally driver who, in 1977, drove his Renault R12 Gordini straight into the ditch due to a faulty gearbox, squeezing the front of the French rally fighter by half a meter.
I got to the spot and said “Good morning” to the track marshal standing there. “Good morning” he relied. “Can I stand over here?” I asked. “You may” he said. “...but I guess strictly behind the tape, is that right?” I pointed at the white tape stretched between two trees at the end of a dirt road intersection. “That’s right” he said. “Well, it’s supposed be the outside of a corner and although it’s more of a kink and flat, it’s safer behind it.” he advised. I stood behind the tape and saw the trees and bushes covering off all peripheral vision, leaving only a narrow gap of spectacle. “It’s really tight here. Let me check at the next corner.” I said. “Yes, you surely will see a lot more at the next one” he agreed.
I walked about 70 metres until the next corner and checked out what was going on. A small patch surrounded by trees, people enjoying the growingly valuable sunshine, eating sandwiches, exchanging stories. You cannot go to a rally without having someone cracking stories nearby about rallies of the past with them being some hardcore rally ‘anoraks’ or amateur rally drivers. There was half an hour to go until the stage went live for the field of the Historic Rally European Championship with many a good Ford Escorts, Porsche 911s and whatnots leading the field.
One could hear the cars gathering at the startline and I looked at my watch. It was just after 10AM. I kept looking at it until the last digit jumped to “3". One engine revved up in the distance and a car started to gain momentum on the road. A Ford Escort mkII - Friday’s prologue winner - raced up the road, gently drifted around the corner and headed up the steep climb with its carburetors screaming for more air. It was followed by an mkI Escort taking more measured steps, perhaps not wanting to write off the precious classic.
The orange swinger went past the house in the mountainside and disappeared from sight. A slightly different-sounding engine emerged from the opposite direction with a growing volume. I set my camera and squatted to take a low-angle shot of the car perhaps drifting. The engine got louder. Suddenly, tyre-squeal. The revs went to the limiter in an instant, scraping and then...
From the corner of my eye I saw the violent tumble of the car across the road with the windshield flying off, parts of the car screeching on the asphalt, landing on its wheels at the very same spot I was standing at twelve months before and the one I had just left for another spectating spot.
“Holy shit!” the crowd cried out. The track marshals started running towards the car frantically. “Come on, let’s see what happened!” someone said and we started marching towards the car.
Two Swedish competitors were sitting inside the vintage Opel Ascona, neither of them moving. “Call it in!” one of the marshals shouted. “This is position [whatever]. We need an ambulance here, quick!” radioed the other. Turns out, both driver and co-driver were conscious and relatively well, but they were suffering from pain and didn’t dare to move. The ambulance were fast at the scene. “Do you guys speak English?” the paramedic asked. After confirmation he started the verbal checkout of any injuries. Pain in the chest, pain in the arm, pain in the lower back. The stretchers were prepared for extraction with people dangling outside the doors and through the empty hole left behind the missing windshield.
The two competitors were extracted in the most careful way. The diagnosis - shared by driver and co-driver - was a broken arm, some broken ribs and a broken vertebra in the lower back. After about half an hour, the stage was cancelled for the Historic field and the cars were let through to the next special stage. All of them slowed down to a walking pace while passing by the scene of the accident and then carefully drove past the crowds, waving.
It took some time for the wreck to be removed and the start of the stage picked up a 20-minute delay. The R5s, S2000s, the Group N cars and the old WRCs and Kit Cars drove in a different universe compared to their seniors in rallying. Much faster, but perhaps with less spectacle.
Popping, banging, whistling, rear wheels bouncing while braking.
At one point, a Honda Civic spun in the same corner, triggering the track marshal in Forrest Gump mode again, but it was quick to restart and traffic was not needed to be slowed down behind.
By the time the stage-closing Audi Quattro went past, my feet were covered in ice, therefore I was glad I could start walking again, putting some heat in my toes.
This is it, this is rallying.
A real time travel where all you needed to watch a race was a blanket, equipment for open-fire cooking or roasting, a keg of beer and some friends. Go, find a local rally.