As luck would have it I was at Motorsport UK’s offices at the end of last month, when the news broke that the British round of the World Rally Championship might be rotated around the country. The source of the story was the commercial boss of the WRC – and it appeared to catch Motorsport UK on the back foot.
As much as I would like to give you a fly on the wall account of what happened at Colnbrook as calls from news organisations came in, I am bound by off-the-record etiquette merely to report that the response was pretty professional as members of staff moved quickly to explain MSUK’s position.
The gist of the story is as follows: WRC promoter Oliver Ciesla reasoned that while Britain is one of the big markets for the sport, with decades of tradition, the actual rally is held in an area that is, ahem, not the easiest place to reach. Why not, he continued, explore options around running the rally in various other parts of the country. “Maybe a model inside the UK moving from one location to another. It’s an idea that’s been circulated recently and it is very appealing to us.”
Motorsport UK chief executive Hugh Chambers confirmed that while an agreement is in place to stage the rally in Wales this year and through until 2021, talks had been held about Northern Ireland hosting it in 2020.
Chambers told BBC Wales: “In parallel with our discussions with the Welsh Government, we were also talking to Northern Ireland. We made the Welsh Government aware, and it was a very grown-up conversation. In the event it went to Northern Ireland, we would suspend the contract with the Welsh Government for a year, and the Welsh Government have said they would entertain that.”
All of which is to say that it looks at least possible and maybe even likely that this year’s Wales Rally GB may be the last – at least for a year. If so, it will certainly be going out on a high. The plan to launch the rally in Liverpool to create a sense of drama and pull in the crowds is a sound one, as is the idea to have the opening stage at Oulton Park, which harks back to the glory days of rallying in this country. (If you want a nostalgic blast down a muddy lane, look up the results for the last time the rally visited Oulton – Kankkunen, followed by Delecour, Schwarz, McRae and Vatanen.)
WRGB will also feature a new stage at Colwyn Bay – a resort town – that will bring the sport out of the forests and onto the seafront and high street. It is a welcome change and will hopefully create the sort of buzz that can sometimes be diluted among the trees and hills of the more traditional special stages.
The rally is coming under pressure to up sticks and move to more accessible venues against a backdrop of increased competition from other countries. Both Kenya and Japan are in the frame to be added to the WRC schedule for next year, while this season Chile became the first brand-new rally since 2010 (when Bulgaria made its way onto the calendar).
As new host countries come online, so the governing bodies and money men cast ever more critical eyes over existing rallies. The same thing can be seen in other top-flight championships, including Formula 1. Here, countries such as Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi have carved out races for themselves and Vietnam joins the calendar from next year. So far F1 has managed to accommodate the new races by expanding its calendar (up from 16 races in 2003 to 21 currently). But with little scope to extend the schedule further, new races will necessitate the dropping of existing ones – a threat also to the British GP, which is still negotiating its F1 contract.
For venues like Silverstone and the forests of Wales, the pressure to put on a good show has never been greater, with many rivals waiting in the wings – some with deep government-funded pockets with which to subsidise an event. This can be good as fans are treated to ever higher standards, but can come at the cost of heritage and established fanbases. And calendars have always changed with races and rallies appearing and dropping off. Like everything else in motor sport, nothing stays the same, everything is evolving.
All the more reason, we feel, for people not to take motor sport events for granted when they have them in their back yard and for organisers to strive always to put on a good show. And, perhaps most importantly, for fans to support the events when we have the chance to do so. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.
The last word this month, should go to Niki Lauda, who died in May aged 70. He was a legend of our sport and as fine and brave a man as ever graced a racing circuit. “A lot of people criticise Formula 1 as an unnecessary risk,” he once said. “But what would life be like if we only did what is necessary?”
Joe Dunn, editor
Follow Joe on Twitter @joedunn90