The European Rally Championship should be a stepping stone. David Williams explains why it isn’t, not by a long chalk…
Take a good look round the Bastos motorhome as you clutch your free drink and you will observe a sign saying that no more than 35 people may stand on the fold-out terrace. It is by no means untypical. Walk north for a few yards and you will find a similarly proportioned trailer (it needs a lorry to tow it) owned by Belga and Renault Belgium. Head the other way and the weary journalist can slurp a bit more hospitality in the Belgacom marquee. The other side of the Gothic town hall, in the square in the middle of leper, there is yet more junketing, all of it dwarfed by the two-storey “Marlboro village” opposite the start ramp. Get inside that and you can afford to look down on the smaller predators in the corporate hospitality war centred on the 24 Hours of leper.
On this evidence, there isn’t much wrong with the European Rally Championship. leper regularly attracts a strong entry, name drivers battling it out in works and semi-works cars, along with healthy television and media coverage and up to 200,000 spectators. In an area not noted for tourism, the rally is a powerful attraction and a commercial force to be reckoned with. With some reason, it styles itself “the European Community Rally”. Yet the AC Targa Florio’s creation is an anomaly. Its European Championship status is greatly prized by the organisers but practically incidental. It is not so much first among equals (there are 10 other rallies holding the maximum co-efficient, 20), but a law unto itself.
In theory, the European Championship ought to be the most prestigious award the sport can offer, aside from the World Championship. World wide, the dominance of European drivers and expertise is unshaken, even if many of the cars and much of the funding now comes from Japan.
In practice, the European series has passed the stage of being a standing joke; it has withered into something to be pitied. To equate the European champion with the Asia-Pacific champion would be a gross insult to the latter, Kenneth Eriksson. Since Lancia ceased to offer any kind of support at the end of 1991 (when Piero Liatti was champion), the slide into obscurity has accelerated. The European series has now reached the point where it manages the difficult feat of combining enormous bulk (it is scheduled to have 54 rounds this year), while being practically invisible.
The seeds of decay were sown long ago, when the World Championship was young. The trouble started when the co-efficient system was introduced in the mid-1970s. Its advocates would argue that it was a means of distinguishing between the best rallies and the newcomers, which had still to prove their worth. Instead, the four levels in the pecking order have made it possible to add rallies at will, to the point where it has doubled in size in the past 20 years, while complicating the scoring system in such a way as to guarantee that the general public will not understand in the unlikely event that it is interested. This iniquitous procedure has never taken any account of the quality of the entry. In 1978, for example, Tony Pond scored precisely 20 points for winning the co-efficient-one Manx Rally, against opponents who included Hannu Mikkola, Pentti Airikkala and Jim McRae. In the same month, it was possible for a modestly talented privateer to cruise around southern France for a week in a Gp 3 Porsche 911 and pick up more points for coming sixth on the Tour de France, which was co-efficient four.
When the system was revised in 1988, replacing one to four with two, five, 10 and 20, it only exacerbated the problem, without guaranteeing that those drivers interested in the title (a pretty select bunch, it must be said) took part in the co-efficient 20 rallies. This year, for instance, the likes of Kurt Gottlicher (an Austrian who drives a Gp A Escort Cosworth) and Kzryzstof Holowczyc (a Pole with a Celica) chose to tackle the co-efficient-10 Hebros Rally in Bulgaria, because it was an easier way of scoring points than taking on much better drivers at leper, such as Freddy Loix, Armin Schwarz, Patrick Snijers and ‘Bernard Munster. It is easy to mock the current champion, Enrico Bertone, but at least he didn’t duck a fight, even if he did crash his hired Escort Cosworth on the third stage.
With co-efficients came clashes. On occasion, there have been up to four European Championship rallies overlapping. This would have mattered if any manufacturer or driver had regularly exploited the series, but in the last 20 years, the only truly world-class drivers to have won it are Walter Rohrl and Miki Biasion, with four world titles and 31 World Championship rally victories between them. To date, the only other European Champion to have won a World Championship rally since 1975 is Bernard Darniche.
It would be wrong to say that its swollen size and co-efficients have not been useful. They have been used to create and prop up an edifice as rotten as an 18th-century parliament. The Bulgarians may not have a Grand Prix, but their goodwill can be secured with a co-efficient 10 and a co-efficient 20 rally (the Hebros and the Zlatni Piassatzi, or Golden Sands, respectively). Driving Skill or a car’s performance are only incidental to the European Championship. Its real purpose is as a system of patronage, in which the power of the FIA and the vanity of rally organisers, bickering ever worthless co-efficients, has long since pushed competitors, the people who ought to matter, to the bottom of the list.
Further damage has been done in the last five years, not merely by the loss of Lancia’s support, but by the growing divergence of the WorId Championship from national series’. As strenuous efforts have been made to increase the promotability of the World Championship, the main combatants have lost all trace of interest in any other theatre aside from the Far East.
In response, national governing bodies have increasingly turned to two-wheel drive, notably in Britain, France and Spain. As anything goes in the European Championship, it has been marginalised still further. Whereas the likes of Darniche could launch a European title bid as an offshoot to a successful domestic programme in a Stratos, it is much more likely now that the European adventurer will need a different type of car although, given its current state, it is conceivable that a well-driven Formula Two car could grab the title.
The European Championship is entirely devoid of focus and gets no promotion aside from what individual rallies can muster. There is little communication between the organisers and even the AC Targa Florio has quietly shelved the Trident Challenge, in which competitors could score points from Antibes and Costa Brava (then a European Championship rally) as well as leper.
Yet the title is not quite dead. After years of indifference, there was a hint of optimism in the air at leper even suggestions that a well-organised European Championship could challenge the world series. This is not entirely fanciful. In theory, the title of European Champion should carry some weight in any sport and it clings to a shred of dignity in southern Europe, particularly in Italy, which has provided 12 of the last 20 title holders. As a rule, organisational standards are higher than in other regional championships (although the writer has met cars driving towards him on stages in Belgium, on the Circuit des Ardennes) and driving standards are far higher taking the entry as a whole.
Those assets can be exploited, but it requires a degree of ruthlessness on the FIA’s part. It would have to slim the championship down to less than a dozen rounds and turn it into a worthwhile stepping stone for younger drivers: its quite an event if the European title holder is under 30. Attracting youth almost certainly involves turning it over to F2 cars. At present, World Rally Cars will be allowed, but with smaller, 32-millimetre turbo restrictors that will make them slower than fourwheel-drive Group A cars, and potentially slower than two-wheel-drive machinery under certain circumstances. The range of machinery allowed at the moment bewilders the enthusiast, never mind the outside world and suitable four-wheel drive road cars will become very scarce indeed by the end of the century, by which time Mitsubishi may be producing the only worthwhile vehicle.
Whether such changes occur is another matter. There is talk of running the series on a league basis, in which competitors score points in their own countries, then go forward to a final. It smacks of a compromise in which no one is upset, no votes are lost in Paris and the competitor retains subsidiary importance. Nevertheless, discussions are at an early stage and it would be churlish to be cynical. Where there’s life, there’s hope.