36-years after her success on the Rally of Portugal, when she scored the second of her four outright victories on a World Rally Championship rally, Michele Mouton, now the FIA’s Safety Delegate, is back once more in Portugal.
The passing years have not dented her passion for the sport, nor her sense of humour. We asked if the old days in Portugal were lovely memories for her.
“It was so long time ago that I forgot about them. No, I'm joking, it’s always a pleasure to be here,” she said.
“The enthusiasm of people is fantastic. I am happy. Happy to come back to a place where my work was always very difficult, but things are changing for the better.
“My work in safety and for spectator control these days means it is almost like a holiday to come to Portugal.”
Spectator safety has improved dramatically in WRC events.
MH: If you talk about a holiday in your work as Safety Delegate, then something must be going very well. What has been the main change in the work?MM: I was speaking only about Portugal, where the situation they have improved so much on safety. The police are managing to have all their public spectator zones ready before people arrive in the stages.
“People are not allowed to go anywhere apart from where it’s permitted. We, ourselves, have now been working differently with the procession of safety cars before the cars arrive, the official cars, from the info cars to the triple zero, double zero, and zero car.
“We are all working like a chain. We have a dedicated radio communications channel so we can all control before the first cars are running on the stage. And it has improved a lot safety.
“Also, the measures that we took about stopping people walking on the road 20 minutes before, and not entering the stages past the start and finish controls 30 minute before the first car, also help. It trained people not to arrive at the last minute and arrive much more in time.”
MH: Who has been most responsible for improving the system?MM: Before I arrived Jacek Bartos had been working 20 years at FIA, developing ideas. Since then I have changed a little bit the way of working, with more collaboration with organisers, looking for feasible solutions and also working closely before the event.
“We have more seminars, we are checking the safety plans in advance. Things have improved a lot, not just in Portugal, but on every rally.
Hyundai's Thierry Neuville in action at the shakedown for the Rally of Portugal.
MH: How did things go in Argentina, perhaps the one country where people are most afraid for safety?MM: It went very well, I was very pleased. It was the first year there where we could watch on-boards from all the stages. I could now check the stages without having myself to stop and take photos of people in bad places.
“It was the same for Monte Carlo this year, so for me this is a big improvement.
“In Argentina you know the passion for the rally is so huge and people don't want to lose the rally. With the help of the national radio live in all stages, they have managed to convince people that they have to be in good places and to respect the rules. If they do not they will lose the rally.
“That helped a lot. But sometimes you feel that the passion there is so big that they might forget about it and people go over the tapes. But considering the amount of people we have there, we had a really safe rally this year.”
Toyota's Jari-Matti Latvala was fastest in Portugal's pre-event shakedown.
MH: Thinking back to the bad days in Group B, what differences impress you? MM: In the Group B days we remember people everywhere on the road. It was surprising there were no more accidents.
“Now we have such an infrastructure for safety: 4x4 ambulances, all the rescue cars and helicopters working together with us on the road. I don't see how we can make it better on that side.
“I think really we have to keep concentrating on the education of spectators and training of the marshals. They are very important because they are the first person in contact with the spectator.”
MH: Personally, do you like the Rally of Portugal back in the north of the country?MM: I love it. I pushed them to come back to the north because the passion is here.
“In Algarve it was nice stages, but the atmosphere is nothing to compare to the north, even if we have to push people to behave.
“That is what they are doing and it all makes it a fantastic rally.”
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