Anyone who works for the RAC MSA knows better than to expect much thanks, so the occupants of Motor Sports House will have been less than surprised by the reaction to their proposals for new technical regulations for international rallying. The most favourable response was that the RAC had kept an “open mind,” the more damning that its proposal “goes round in a big circle”. If nothing else, it demonstrates that there is no consensus as to what, if anything, should replace Group A.
New vehicle rules have exercised the big team managers greatly in recent months, generating rather more heat than light. Inevitably, they scent the undermining of a competitive advantage or a massive investment and there has been much digging in to protect vested interests. At a time when between four and five manufacturers are contesting the World Rally Championship seriously with good four-wheel-drive machinery (depending on how one regards Mitsubishi’s lukewarm efforts), it might seem strange to be worrying about new rules. After all, the sport is in a healthy enough state, isn’t it? There was probably more overtaking on the Acropolis Rally than in the French Grand Prix, wasn’t there? Indeed, things are superficially healthy, but there is no denying manufacturers’ underlying disquiet at the escalating cost of top level rallying, nor the fact that 1998 the date when new rules should be introduced is closer than one might think. No manufacturer will commit itself to a new car until a new set of rules is in place.
Given that it takes three to four years from scratch to produce something like an Escort Cosworth, that already means that we may shortly see the last of the new Group A cars. Once the new Subaru lmpreza 555 makes its first appearance in late August, manufacturer support is set to reach a plateau at best, more probably to dwindle as certain models lose competitiveness or go out of production. Agreeing, as opposed to implementing a new set of rules, is therefore a matter of some urgency. While there is no consensus on a new formula, the battle lines are clearly drawn. Broadly speaking, the manufacturers divide into those who want to retain four-wheel drive and turbocharging, and those who want to dispense with both; the latter favour a twoor front-wheel-drive category, popularly known as ‘Formula Two’ (although FISA prefers the charismatic designation ‘Touring Car Cup’ for its World Championship award), while the former are coming round to the idea of calling the quickest four-wheel-drive cars the rallying version of ‘Formula One’.
There is no question that ‘Formula Two’ cars are cheaper (albeit not by much) and that they are much more widely available: almost every manufacturer, from Alfa Romeo to Volkswagen, via Hyundai and Rover, makes a suitable two-litre sports saloon, and the four-wheel-drive argument tends to be an attack on ‘Formula Two’ as much as a broadside defending the present situation or something like it.
Those manufacturers, such as Toyota and Ford, who want to retain four-wheel drive usually maintain that it is needed to demonstrate the technical benefits of international rallying, and that the sport thrives as a spectacle that motor racing finds hard to rival. There is a good deal of additional pleading based on the fact that sizeable sums of money have been ploughed into existing four-wheel-drive cars and, in the Japanese case, there is little doubt that the parent manufacturer will continue to produce suitable base cars of a cost and complexity that make European firms blanch. The fire is also being turned squarely on Renault. Patrick Landon, Renault Sport’s personable rally team manager, has been the most persuasive advocate of two-wheel-drive rallying and the big guns often try to dismiss his views as rank self-interest. If Renault would make him a four-wheel-drive turbo, the argument runs, he’d soon change his tune.
There is a good deal of sincerity amidst the politics a real wish to preserve the sport as well as the individual company’s position. Ove Andersson, Toyota Team Europe’s President, genuinely believes that rallying will revert to being a private matter between consenting adults in the woods if four-wheel drive and spectacular power outputs are outlawed in favour of ‘Formula Two’. John Wheeler, Ford Motorsports chief engineer, similarly believes that reasonable power outputs must be guaranteed to retain public interest and that it can be done in the face of growing environmental pressures. Perhaps the strongest case for four-wheel drive comes from Ford, because it combines Group A with the ideas of FISA’s technical chief, Gabriele Cadringher, and offers some kind of transition to a new formula. Ford’s blueprint would admit new cars from 1995 and gradually cut back Group A performance by reducing the size of the air intake in the turbocharger.
Under the Wheeler scheme, Group N engines would eventually become universal, on environmental grounds as well as expense, but with Group A chassis and four-wheel drive as a free option, even on cars that don’t have it fitted in the first place. In advocating such a radical change, Wheeler parts company from Cadringher, while answering at least one of Landon’s points by offering a formula that could admit every manufacturer. Cadringher is only prepared to allow free use of turbocharging, which misses the point in a sport which relies so greatly on traction. Landon believes that his Clios have proved quite spectacular enough to entertain the crowds. Indeed, the 220 bhp front-wheeldrive cars are arguably better entertainment than the four-wheel-drive machinery in the French Championship, given the driving standard of the four-wheel-drive men, and that is the nub of Landon’s case: four-wheel drive may be all very well at World Championship level, but there are good grounds for thinking that these £200,000 monsters are destroying national rallying across Europe and the growth of ‘Formula Two’-only championships in the past two years, notably in France and Spain, suggests that a number of governing bodies share his belief that World Championship machinery is pricing itself out of reach.
That consideration explains why the RAC appears to be perched awkwardly on two fences rather than the usual one. The British governing body argues that any discussion of the future must concern the rallies themselves as well as the cars. If the sport still requires a universal formula, two-wheel drive becomes extremely hard to reject. However, if World Championship rallying is to develop into a televised circus, perhaps with a single service area and a small number of stages forming a compact loop round a central point, then four-wheel drive and turbocharging could retain their place at the very highest level. Come to that, why not give the cars big aerofoils and huge wheel-arch flares, the better to entertain the crowds and display advertising logos? The manufacturers are fast approaching the point at which they want a much better promotional package to justify the multimillion pound investment that the World Rally Championship requires. Whether the men who run the teams many of them top competitors from the good old days, in the 1960s and ’70s really want to see their sport metamorphose into rallycross remains to be seen, but major changes seems inevitable, spurred on by a pressing need to save money. D K W