Rally fans the world over are a devoted and hardy breed, but even their passion for the sport pales into comparion next to the devil-may-care attitude of the Rally Portugal home crowd...
There’s something about the craziness of Portuguese rally fans that puts them into another league of lunacy. It was at its height in the 1980s, when people used to stand in the middle of the road to get as close to the cars as possible. The height of bravado was to actually touch them as they flew past and, back in the day, mechanics used to regularly find bits of finger and other body parts in the air scoops at service.
For the fans it was exhilarating, for the drivers absolutely terrifying. Former World Champion Walter Rohrl remembers: “You just had to try and forget that the walls at the side of the road were made out of people: instead you simply focussed on the road ahead and tried to think of it as a tunnel.”
Rob Arthur, who was co-driver to British hero Tony Pond in the mighty MG Metro 6R4, had an even more poetic description. “You’d drive through the crowds in Portugal and it would be like Moses parting the Red Sea. Unbelievable.”
Of course, it all went horribly and inevitably wrong during the 1986 event, when the Ford RS200 of local man Joaquim dos Santos speared off into the crowd and killed three people, injuring about 30 more. It remains the most deadly single accident in the sport’s history.
Security was tightened up considerably afterwards, but there remained an endearingly anarchistic streak to Portuguese spectators, just one of the reasons why the rally was sadly ‘rested’ from the World Championship calendar for five years after the 2001 event.
The fans were up in arms, and one of the familiar sights on any world rally for years afterwards became a cavalcade of Portuguese camper vans with the slogan 'You can take away our rally but not our passion' processing around Europe.
These days, it’s all a lot safer. Spectators remain obediently behind barriers, but there’s still a slightly unhinged streak to them. One woman in the service park at this year's rally was carrying a placard aimed at local hero Armindo Araujo (we think): 'Armindo, I want your baby'. Another person (impossible to tell if it was a woman or man) was dressed up from head to toe as a television set. At least he got a good reception…
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