The euphoria surrounding New Zealand's return to the World Rally Championship in 2020 continues, but it's highly likely that the Kiwi WRC experience will be vastly different to what we remember. The last time New Zealand hosted a WRC round was in 2012 which may not seem like that long ago, but in WRC terms it's a lifetime. The sport has evolved in all sorts of ways, not the least of which has been rally car development. The current crop of World Rally Cars are the fastest we've ever seen, and more exciting than ever. Technology has also evolved remarkably. Not only is every special stage streamed live around the world, but we can sit in with the drivers as they negotiate the route, all in the comfort of our lounge rooms. For the 'on the ground' spectators, however, the memories of 2012 will seem like a lifetime away when Rally New Zealand gets underway in September next year. Kiwis are used to watching rally cars from wherever they want. Sure, there's designated spectator points at NZRC events, but walk up the road, through the bush or across a farmer's field and you can get as close to the action as you like.
Fans who think they can do that at Rally New Zealand are dreaming.
Rally Australia has taken a lot of flak over the past few years, with fans complaining that they're herded like cows into spectator zones that are boring and don't give them any freedom to watch where they want.

Mikko Hirvonen jumps his Citroen over the famous Hella jump, north of Auckland in 2012.

While the vantage points in New Zealand are likely to better, with the cars visible for a lot longer, don't for a second think you won't be told where you can stand. That's what the FIA and the WRC want, and it's what they demand from events. The FIA's 2019 Rally Safety Guidelines document is a massive 104 pages, covering everything from the roles and responsibilities of officials, through to safety cars, event safety plans, spectator safety and incident handling. It's not the most gripping reading, but if you have a few hours, knock yourself out HERE.
The point is, the FIA and the WRC take safety incredibly seriously – more so than anything else.
For Rally New Zealand, a bad safety rating could well be the difference between the event coming back, or disappearing forever. With that in mind, event organisers have no option but to follow the FIA's rules to the letter. It's exactly what Rally Australia have done, and while it doesn't make the rally popular with fans, it has ensured its survival.

Standing this close to the action could be a thing of the past at Rally NZ in 2020. Photo: Peter Whitten

And before you take the age-old spectator option of waiting until the spectator safety car passes before moving into your 'preferred' viewing location, think again. The FIA's guidelines spell it out clearly: "Following the event, the use of on-board footage from competitors or fan footage from the internet should be studied to see how the devised plans worked and what can be learned for the future."
In other words, you might get a great place to watch from, but your choice could risk the event's future.
Of course we're all thrilled that the WRC is returning to New Zealand, and the chance to see the WRC cars on the best roads in the world is something we've waiting eight years for. It will be fast, it will be exhilarating and it will be fun to watch. Just don't expect your spectating experience to be the same as it was in 2012.
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