World Rallycross gets the vibe
Since its relaunch as a world championship the sport is pulling in a new audience through social media
Audi has put its weight behind reigning champion Mattias Ekström, Renault is on its way in conjunction with rally grandee Prodrive and a near-capacity grid is set to take part in 2017. As it heads into its fourth season, the FIA World Rallycross Championship is on a roll.
The good news has kept coming for the championship launched by global sports management company IMG for the 2014 season. Timo Scheider – like Ekström, a two-time DTM champion with Audi – has signed up full-time with Ford and the winner of the first two World RX titles, Petter Solberg, has thrown his lot in with Volkswagen.
“There’s a real vibe about the championship right now,” says Swede Ekström, whose EKS RX squad will get financial and technical support from his long-time DTM employer for the first time in 2017. “And there are reasons for that: cars are cool, the format is cool, there are lots of high-quality drivers and the level of the teams is rising all the time.”
This branch of the sport once graced UK TV screens on Grandstand and World of Sport on Saturday afternoons, but the creation of World RX by IMG hasn’t exactly brought a back into the mainstream. Rather, it is bringing rallycross to a new and younger audience that doesn’t necessarily get its motor sport fix though TV.
World RX boss Paul Bellamy believes the ‘short, sharp, shock’ format of World RX is the key. It allows for a TV package that segues from pre-recorded coverage of the quarter-finals into the live action of the semi-finals and finals, but he also points out that rallycross is tailor-made for viewing via new media platforms.
“What we are offering is easily digestible to a younger audience that isn’t only experiencing the sport through traditional media,” says Bellamy.
Ekström sums it up smartly: World RX appeals to what he describes as the ‘click-and-watch’ generation following through social media.
Audi’s decision to get involved reflects the growth of the championship as well as his own successes, reckons Ekström, who is expanding his team from two to three S1 RX Supercars in 2017.
Prodrive’s interest was also piqued by World RX even before it was approached by Frenchman Guerlain Chicherit, a former star of the freestyle skiing world and a Dakar Rally regular, to build a Mégane RX Supercar with the support of Renault.
“We have been watching the growth of rallycross since IMG took control with a clear vision,” says Prodrive boss David Richards. “It’s affordable, the most affordable world championship out there, and it can only grow in stature.”
Renault has an arm’s-length involvement in the project that should put the Mégane on the World RX grid for some development races in 2017 ahead of a full season next year. The same goes for Ford, which supports American Ken Block’s team. Peugeot and Volkswagen have more overt involvements, developing their respective 208 and Polo RX Supercars in-house and then placing them with teams.
Bellamy likes it that way.
“We want manufacturers to support our existing teams, which is exactly what they are doing,” he says. “We don’t want costs to spiral out of control.”
Move to Silverstone
World RX will move its British round away from its spiritual home at Lydden Hill in 2018. It will switch from the Kent track that hosted the very first rallycross event back in 1967 to Silverstone, though details of the layout to be used at the British Grand Prix venue have yet to be disclosed.
The venue change reflects the rise in popularity of the series, according to Bellamy, who likened the move to replacing the original Wembley Stadium.
“The analogy I make is with the old Wembley, which like Lydden, had a place in everyone’s heart,” he explains. “But you have to sometimes move away from iconic venues to run somewhere that can service a modern audience.”
No big expansion
World RX is made up of 12 rounds, with two outside Europe to meet the ‘three continents’ rule demanded of world championships by the FIA. Bellamy isn’t looking for a quick expansion.
“We’re quite happy with our number of rounds and don’t see ourselves growing dramatically,” he explains. “We work on the premise that less is more.
“We are looking at opportunities on other continents. The Far East is of interest because it is a big market
for the manufacturers.
The same goes for North America, but Bellamy is insistent that it wouldn’t go head-to-head with the Global Rallycross Championship by scheduling a date clash with the US series. He believes that World RallyX and GRC can co-exist and feed off each other.
“GRC is important because it helps spread the rallycross message and keep the sport in the eyes of the US market – it is helping to develop the brand, if you like,” he says. “A healthy GRC is also good for us because it provides another place for our teams and
drivers to compete.”
The next step
Bellamy suggests that the most important thing is maintaining a competitive field of cars, which is likely to be close this season to the 20 full-season entries allowed under series rules. Ekström has more lofty ambitions for the championship – he’d like to see an ex-Formula 1 driver join the show.
Former world champion Jenson Button sampled a Honda Civic Coupé from the GRC early this year and has talked about his interest in having a go in a category in which his father, John, was a leading light in the UK in the 1970s. Ekström reckons the Briton could be up at the front in World RX inside three years.
“If the public can see a newly retired F1 driver competing, it is certainly going to help the championship,” he says. “If Jenson jumped in and worked hard, he’d be the biggest winner. If someone like him came with a proper three-year plan, they could be challenging for the championship in the third season.
“No one is going to be competitive in their first season, but if Jenson wants to have some fun going sideways, he should come to rallycross.”