What in the world is going on?

By John Davenport. The 1990s boom years of the World Rally Championship have become a distant memory. Some say it has lost its way, with one dominant driver, rules confusion and media apathy

As it celebrates its 35th birthday, the World Rally Championship appears to some observers to be in crisis, while to others it is the epitome of 21st- Century motor sport. Where does the truth lie? What are the myths and the certainties surrounding the FIA’s second most prestigious World Championship?

There have been so many changes over the past 35 years that listing them would occupy several articles. But it is true to say that the majority have been introduced to improve the safety of competitors and spectators with the additional aims of reducing costs and elevating the championship’s profile. It’s also true that, rather like our present Government is finding in various areas, not all targets have been met and it is this that creates the undertow of discontent.

All kinds of solutions are offered and discussed in the service areas, spectator compounds and in the media generally. In fact, many ideas sprang to my mind when writing this article. Rallying is a big sport and its complexity is hard to grasp so that, while many of us think a single Alexandrian blow to the Gordian Knot will liberate the WRC to fly free into the stratosphere, the truth is never that simple. There are things that are wrong with the WRC, so let’s look and see if they can be identified and if any of the cures suggested could work.

World Rally Cars were introduced for 1997. A manufacturer can take a road car and one of its engines and install four-wheel drive and a turbocharger to make a competitive rally car. But these cars in their developed form are expensive, with figures ranging from a quarter to half a million pounds. The fear is that this elevation of initial cost is a barrier to up-and-coming drivers, not to mention new manufacturer interest in the WRC. Thus the arrival a few years ago of the Super 2000 regulations was welcomed by some as the way ahead and already there are signs that the FIA is looking to replace WR Cars with these two-litre, normally aspirated 4WD cars in four years’ time.

Morrie Chandler, the FIA’s WRC Commission president, says: “We wish to grow the WRC and the number of makes participating, and therefore the future direction is simple. The cars will be based on mass production models with moderate modifications achieved by the use of a ‘reversible kit’, meaning it can be simply added and removed. There is no likelihood of the present cars being retained. The turbocharging of cars that are manufactured as normally aspirated is unlikely as the increased power places demands on other aspects of the car such as the drive train that would then need upgrading.”

So it looks as if the WRC will soon be back to running sensible cars at sensible costs. But it is never that simple as David Richards, Prodrive CEO, reveals: “The costs of running WR Cars is already on a downturn. The rules now insist on mechanical differentials at front and rear with electronics only at the centre. The restrictor on the engine means we are now running practically bombproof engines. The teams reckon that if the FIA were to freeze the engines at their present specification, we could tackle the 2009 WRC with just three engines per car. That is a big cost saving and totally different from the situation with S2000 where the free-revving engines have to be rebuilt after every rally.”

Ford team boss Malcolm Wilson agrees: “In a couple of years it will be perfectly feasible for us to contemplate running just two engines for a single season. This is one of the bonuses of reducing the WRC to 12 events.” By cutting the number of rallies from 15 this year to 12 hereafter, the cost saving for teams will be considerable. And Wilson also makes the point that standard road cars are starting to arrive with small capacity, turbocharged engines in order to meet environmental regulations.

It would be nice to think that by getting back to simpler cars participation in the WRC would become cheaper and the spectacle more exciting. Indeed it is the stability and agility of the current WR Cars that reduces the spectacle. The FIA is aware of this and the recent, somewhat controversial, single supplier deal with Pirelli will have a positive effect in that area. And with electronic centre differentials also set to disappear, there is optimism that the cars will get back to behaving more like rally cars and less like slot cars, without the changes torpedoing the cost savings in developing and running them.

Natural evolution has affected the traditional rallies that once populated Europe. Even before the WRC was created, world-famous events like the Alpine Rally (Coupe des Alpes) and the Marathon de la Route (Liège-Sofia-Liège) had ceased to run largely thanks to the double pressures of busy roads and expensive policemen. The East African Safari and the Ivory Coast – stalwarts of the early WRC – eventually disappeared, since even in Africa open road rallying became impossible. Also after several fatalities in 1986, rallying woke up to the fact that spectators and crews needed far better protection in the event of accidents.

The first changes were a reduction in the overall length of rallies and then of their special stages, and of the average speeds on those stages. Most importantly, during the 1990s, the FIA introduced a protocol for running rallies that was a major extension of the old unification of event regulations.

Events had to devise a safety plan that covered everything from designated spectator zones and stage access routes to the provision of paramedics, ambulances, communications, rescue vehicles, safety helicopters and fire engines. This had to be approved by the FIA, which sent out inspectors to traverse the stages to satisfy themselves that they were going to be as safe as possible. It has even been known for trees to be cut down to remove a potential hazard.

All this is now seen as essential – look at a film of a WRC event from 15 years ago and compare it with one today to see that rally cars are no longer playing the bull to the spectator’s matador – but costly. With the introduction of so many new events for 2009 and 2010, the worry is that when they feel the full cost of being part of the WRC, organisers may withdraw. Chandler again: “There is always the risk of events not going the distance but conversely for some this will give them the opportunity to have an alternative event in the off year. Others will accept the break. It will also ease the demands on road use in the various areas where WRC events are run. And if there is a drop-off, we will need to re-visit the formulas for rotation.”

The old rallies used to run over much larger areas as well as through the night, and the loss of these aspects is often bemoaned. Last year the Monte reintroduced night stages. Why don’t more events do this? Well, the safety and medical helicopters cannot fly at night, while the tracking system fitted to cars needs a fixed wing aeroplane on which to bounce the signals. And if the area covered by the rally is larger than the radio footprint of a single aeroplane then another is needed, doubling the cost at a stroke.

Of course there is a solution, and that is to run your event outside the WRC. As a consequence of a new events rotation system, the jewel-in-the-crown Monte Carlo Rally will run as part of the IRC (Intercontinental Rally Challenge) for 2009. If it is a success and the Monte’s prestige remains intact, has the WRC just shot itself in the foot?

Probably no other aspect of rallying has been as controversial as where and when rally cars can be serviced by their teams. With service vans and spectators competing to get close to stages, and with the arrival of high-speed chase cars and helicopters in the 1970s, organisers did their best to forbid service in areas where they felt it was inappropriate. But finally, with the shrinking of the areas in which rallies were taking place, the introduction of centralised servicing became a possibility. It was an attraction too for the organiser who could charge for spectator parking and access, and a bonus for the media in general, especially TV.

However, the imposition of a single service area did have implications for both the rallies and the cars. An event now had to find a suitably large area to take all the trucks, vans and motor homes that were part of the modern rally scene. This often meant that non-competitive mileage between the service area and the stages increased, to the frustration of competitors. It also meant that whatever tyres on which rally crews left service, the same set had to see them back again after two, sometimes three special stages. The crews had to gear up to a world where, if they wanted to put the front tyres on the back, they had to change the wheels themselves.

With mousse inserts, punctures were still common but total deflations rare. But with the introduction of control Pirelli tyres, the expensive inserts have gone. To avoid the loss of too many rally cars through multiple punctures, remote servicing is back to allow tyres, and tyres only, to be replaced away from the main service park. To some the cost saving of banning the mousse inserts may not be as great as imagined. Wilson says: “If we get more punctures and flat tyres are driven on, then the cost in damaged bodywork will be far more than that of the inserts.”

The UK’s daily newspapers carry very little on what is, after all, a World Championship. That is because at the moment, we British do not have a title contender. But there is discontent too about television coverage which is confined to an hour of Freeview digital TV, though it must be said this will be one hour for 48 weeks of the year and at a civilised time. Richards again: “Minority sports, especially those that are difficult to televise, do not get widespread TV coverage even if they are sports, like equestrianism, where Britain has winning competitors. Media involvement is becoming more polarised and the Internet will play a much bigger part in years to come.”

The same thought came from FIA president Max Mosley when he was asked whether rallying was kept in the background like Cinderella so as not to outshine Formula 1: “If Bernie [Ecclestone] could have made the same commercial success of the WRC as he did of F1, he would have been delighted. The fundamental difficulty is that rallying is wholly unsuitable for television. The public now demand to devour their major sporting events live which simply cannot be delivered in the case of rallies. In my view, the WRC is made for the Internet with its capability to deliver the action direct to millions of people. North One Television, the new owners of ISC [which retains the WRC rights], recognise this and will, I am sure, fully exploit its potential in this direction.”

Already the people who follow the WRC live on the Internet vastly outnumber any TV audiences. And the format of modern events coupled to ever-increasing speed and bandwidth of electronic communication should enable us soon to choose what to watch on our computer screens. Simon Long of ISC confirms this: “We want to make the possibilities that the Internet has to offer take off and make it a playground for the WRC. The TV coverage is still important but the web enables you to go multi-dimensional. Our new website will be increasingly video-rich so that ultimately you will be able to choose the action to follow with cameras in-car, on stage and in service areas. And for spectators, by using their mobile phones to access data, they will be fully informed of the results as they watch the cars.”

What the FIA has to do is ensure the rules do not interfere with the show or make the result confusing to a non-expert. Which brings us to SupeRally. This enables a car that retires on the first or second day to restart on a subsequent day, with a time penalty for each stage it has missed plus the fastest time in its group. This famously led to Sébastien Loeb crashing on the final stage on day one of the 2006 Monte Carlo Rally, dropping to eighth and then sweeping back to finish second ahead of crews that had done the whole route. There is also the strange feeling about the fact that if a car retires on the third day, unlike the previous two, it is deemed not to have finished. With more works cars, one hopes such artificiality will not be needed.

The lack of British drivers at the front of the WRC is irksome after the heady days of having two World Champions in the shape of the late Colin McRae (1995 winner) and Richard Burns (2001). Where is the next generation coming from? While there are several initiatives in the UK to get fast, but possibly impecunious, racing drivers behind the wheel, the efforts that exist in rallying seem more concerned with improving the spiritual and physical health of their young participants. One only has to look at the career of Loeb to see where a more direct approach might succeed. Loeb’s speed was apparent when he won the Citroën Saxo title in 1999 and Guy Fréquelin put him on the fast track with a Saxo 1600 for the Junior WRC which he promptly won in 2001, before moving to the Xsara WRC in ’02 in which he won his first world event.

It needed a Fréquelin to recognise the raw talent. His first move was the gift of quick car, not an appointment with a personal trainer.

The guys who need the opportunity are the ones who show raw speed at an early age, and the opportunity needs to be a quick rally car. In 2004 the French Fédération surprised many by paying for entries in Germany and Corsica for Stéphane Sarrazin and Alexandre Bengué. With Loeb about to win his first world title, it was determined to ensure that those young Frenchmen who could replace him were given the best chance. Initiatives like that will help a few individuals, but while the WRC is weak in terms of being a commercial proposition and car costs remain so high, these gestures will be few and far between.

If the FIA can succeed in making changes to the WRC’s technical rules that result in the discovery of that Holy Grail of cheaper cars which are also suitable for national rallies, then the route to the top should be available to a lot more drivers. But you will still need a Fréquelin or a Richards to gamble their own budgets on them.

So what conclusions can one draw? Well, the technical regulations will continue to provide plenty of debate but nobody minds so long as the cars look more exciting and the drivers look as if they are enjoying the action. Safety on rallies has improved out of all recognition both for the crews and spectators. There will always be danger when cars are being driven at high speed on ordinary roads, but there is far less injury in rallying these days than in equestrian events or rugby, for example. And the events need to be helped to find ways of breaking even and living with the reality of running as a WRC qualifier every two years. At least now the WRC can truly be said to be a World Championship, though it would be nice for the USA and China to return to the fold. Perhaps the event slated for Russia in 2010 will stimulate a bit of competition.

How we got here
Global rallying’s defining events, from Group B to WRCs and McRae

1972 Governing body the FIA announces a World Championship for Rallies for 1973 of 13 events with three – Safari, Morocco and Press on Regardless [a classic American event] – outside Europe. The championship is for manufacturers with no drivers’ title.

1979 A full drivers’ championship is introduced and won by Björn Waldegård driving mainly Ford Escorts.

1981 Audi Quattro homologated in Group 4 and wins first WRC event in Sweden. Talbot is champion manufacturer and Ari Vatanen (Ford Escort) champion driver.

1982 Groups N, A and B admitted to run alongside Groups 2 and 4. Lancia 037 (above) homologated in Group B. Walter Röhrl champion in Opel Ascona 400.

1984 Peugeot homologates 205 T16 and Vatanen wins last three rounds. Audi and Stig Blomqvist scoop the titles.

1985 Peugeot and Timo Salonen take the titles. Lancia Delta S4 and MG Metro 6R4 homologated in Group B.

1986 Ford homologates RS200 in Group B. Fatal accidents in Portugal and Corsica. FIA bans Group B from the end of the year.

1987 First year of Groups A and N only. Lancia homologates first Delta HF and wins both titles with Juha Kankkunen.

1989 Lancia Delta 16-valve Integrale arrives to take on new Toyota Celica GT-4.

1993 Toyota finally becomes champion and Kankkunen wins drivers’ title in a Toyota. ISC starts to use recently acquired TV rights. Subaru Impreza makes its debut.

1995 Subaru wins both titles with Impreza and Colin McRae. Toyota excluded for cheating with its turbo restrictor. Two-litre kit cars introduced.

1997 World Rally Cars introduced.

2001 Richard Burns takes the drivers’ title for Subaru.

2004 Sébastien Loeb wins the first of four drivers’ titles.

2006 Ford wins manufacturers’ title and repeats this in 2007.