WRC deal hits the skids

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News of an investigation into alleged asset stripping at a bank in Lithuania should not have so much as raised an eyebrow for the World Rally Championship’s powerbrokers when the story emerged last November. Instead, to the current detriment of the sport, the two subjects have become intrinsically linked.

Rather than celebrating the turn of the new year full of optimism for the future, those at the sharp end of the WRC were facing up to a new crisis and one that will send shockwaves through the service parks of the world for several months to come.

Central to the investigation by Lithuanian prosecutors was Vladimir Antonov, the boss of Convers Sports Initiatives, which included Portsmouth Football Club and WRC promoter and rights holder North One Sport in its portfolio, but has since been placed into administration.

Antonov had promised to underwrite a 10-year promotional plan for the WRC, but without CSI’s promised millions there was no money to back the championship’s long-term recovery, not to mention the running costs for 2012, such as filming and post-production of each event.

NOS thought it had found a saviour at the 11th hour in the form of a Qatari investment bank, but despite promises of a support package which exceeded £100 million, it was not enough to spur the FIA into a favourable response.

Instead motor sport’s world governing body cancelled the NOS contract, stating that it hadn’t received “unequivocal assurances from NOS that it could fulfil its contractual obligations”. This led to NOS’s rapid meltdown and left sister company North One Television seemingly on the brink.

NOTV sold NOS to Antonov’s CSI in 2011 on the proviso it was retained to continue televising the championship. However, the failure of NOS means that NOTV not only loses the WRC filming deal but also has virtually no chance of recouping the reported £2m which it is owed by asset-weak NOS.

To make matters worse, NOTV must now pay out hundreds of thousands of pounds in redundancy money to its beleaguered staff of more than 40.

In a statement confirming its decision to terminate its contract with NOS, the FIA vowed to work “tirelessly” to ensure the 2012 WRC went ahead. But barely days before the famous Monte Carlo Rally – back on the WRC roster for the first time since 2008 – got underway, no promotion agreement had been signed.

Eurosport Events, the satellite channel’s marketing arm and the driving force behind the World Touring Car Championship and Intercontinental Rally Challenge, has stepped in and was close to inking a three-year deal with the FIA when Motor Sport went to press.

However, this agreement may amount to Eurosport merely filming and distributing footage of the series – paid for by the FIA – with the FIA absorbing some of NOS’s promotional responsibilities.

But fears that the new alliance might not be able to deliver the promotion spend that NOS had planned came with the news that there was no guarantee of live television coverage of the Power Stage, a hit NOS product introduced in 2011 to award bonus points for the final stage of every event.

Elsewhere, a legal dispute between administrators and Stage One Technology, the company responsible for the WRC’s sophisticated timing and tracking systems, meant Monte Carlo Rally organisers had to source lower-spec replacement equipment.

At least the action on the stages this year should provide some solace. Citroën and Ford have committed ever-present factory teams and semi-works efforts, MINI will contest as many rounds as its finances allow, while Volkswagen will field two Super 2000-specification Skoda Fabias on all events as it prepares for its WRC return in 2013.