Fun, with a serious message
Back in 1988, when Fredrik Johnsson and I started the whole Race of Champions event, we had no idea what a big thing it would become.
I hadn’t done world championship rallies since driving the Peugeot 205 T16 E2 in 1986. That was a year that had some bad things [Henri Toivonen and his Lancia co-driver Sergio Cresto were killed on the Tour of Corsica] and rallying was at a low ebb. So we were thinking to create a fun contest that would bring together all eight world rally champions.
Every time rally people get together they discuss whether so-and-so is quicker than so-and-so. And in rallying, this is difficult to tell because the top drivers are always in different cars and they don’t always tackle the stages under the same conditions. We discussed that and decided to try to do something where the top drivers were pitted against one another in the same cars. And who better to have than the world champions themselves?
So we asked them if they were interested. We explained that we would dedicate the event to the memory of Henri and Sergio and at the same time try to lift the image of rallying by interesting the media with such a show. It has always been a problem to expose rallying on TV and, in those days, the idea of superspecials in world rallying was very new.
A little bit to our surprise, all eight champions agreed. The next thing was to get proper rally cars and to make sure that the manufacturers were not just willing to supply them but also to let their contracted drivers drive someone else’s car. This is not very normal since the works teams are not so delighted to see any rival driving another marque. But again, we were pleasantly surprised by how willing everyone was to join in. For that first Race of Champions we had BMWs, Audis, Lancias, Fords, Opels and Peugeots. Some of these were the Group B cars that had made rallying so popular with the crowds in the early 1980s. They were not easy to drive but they were spectacular.
Finally, we needed somewhere to hold our contest. We set up everything at the Montlhéry circuit, near Paris. It was like an end-of-year fiesta: the serious competition was over and we could all relax. And the public liked it, too. It was a rainy day but we still had 15,000 spectators there to see Juha Kankkunen become the first Champion of Champions by defeating Timo Salonen in the final.
When we came to consider what we should do to keep the concept and run it as an annual event, the first thing we wanted to do was to move it around to involve more countries. The next one was in Germany, at the Nürburgring. This was big success, with more than 50,000 fans turning out to see Stig Blomqvist emerge as the winner over Walter Röhrl. It was good to have such large crowds, but the really good thing was that the TV coverage brought rallying and its champions to a much wider audience.
I like to think that we set the WRC on its current course: to feature stadium events and encourage TV companies to devote more time to rallying.
‘Our baby’ continued to grow, and we held events in Barcelona and Madrid before moving to the Canary Islands, where we stayed for 12 years, always growing and always evolving.
The next big step came in 1999 when we introduced the Nations Cup, with teams of two drivers representing their country. Five years later we moved from the Canaries to run the event in the Stade de France in Paris.
It was then that we decided to change the concept radically and invite stars from single-seater and motorcycle racing to take on the rally men. To my delight, we got positive replies from Michael Schumacher, Heikki Kovalainen and Jean Alesi. Since then many other stars have joined to make the Champion of Champions and the Nations Cup spectacular contests. The Americans have been big supporters of our event and, with drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Travis Pastrana and Robby Gordon, have won the Nations Cup.
At Wembley this year, Michael Schumacher, Jenson Button, David Coulthard and Andy Priaulx will take on Marcus Grönholm and the rally contingent.
It is astonishing that what started as fun has come so far. We have our own specialised people designing the course and supervising its build. Wembley would not be happy if we were to ruin its lovely turf so we have to be very careful. We put down aluminium sheets that are then covered with chippings and Tarmac-ed. And the bridge for the crossover has to have its weight spread out evenly or it would sink.
I am sad when I look at rallying today and see how poor it is, and how it may get worse next year. There are not enough drivers, manufacturers and sponsors coming in. With no Marcus [Grönholm] next year, the world championship may well be a one-horse race for Sébastian Loeb. I hope it will change. Things can only get better.
I think our efforts with the Race of Champions show that if the presentation is right, then the fans love our sport.
The 2007 Race of Champions is at Wembley on December 16 (www.raceofchampions.com)