Rally GB goes back to its routes

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Fan feedback sparks change of direction for Britain’s WRC showpiece

The Wales Rally GB has a rocky history. It was first run in 1932 as the RAC Rally, with 341 starters, and there have been many yumps in the road since then.

In 2011, organiser International Motor Sports (the commercial arm of the Motor Sports Association) was lured into creating a longer event, but has since admitted that “nobody liked it”. Then, last year, the World Rally Championship was at an all-time low, with no promoter. Things are looking up, though, and this time there will be dramatic changes to the seasonal finale. They’ve all been based on the results of a questionnaire sent to fans, crews and drivers, so they’re certainly taking directions from the right people.

“Two years ago we were the only WRC promoter that dutifully listened to the FIA when it asked for rallying to be more of an endurance sport,” says Andrew Coe, CEO of International Motor Sports. “We did it and nobody liked it. Last year we also had a poor reaction, but let’s be honest: the WRC was in pretty bad shape because it didn’t have a promoter (after North One Sport’s parent company Convers Sports Initiatives went into administration at the end of 2011).”

Sportsman Media Group and Red Bull Media House have since stepped in and Coe admitted that he felt the time was right to make some changes and invest in the future. “We asked the public, ‘What is it that you want?’ They told us to bring back the iconic stages and move to North Wales, so we have.”

The event has been edging towards North Wales over the last few years and in 2011 it actually started on the north coast in Conwy. However, this year the service park will be located near Queensferry, which just happens to be within a 90-minute drive of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. It’s a wise move. “We did a small promotional event in Llandudno [on the north coast] with thecouncil in 2010,” says Coe. “Matthew Wilson and M-Sport came along to this car park on the west side of the town and, despite a notice period of only six weeks, 14,000 people turned up. People had driven from Scotland, Yorkshire and Manchester because it was suddenly an interesting distance.”

The move north prompts the return of the country’s greatest rally territory. Some will argue that this year’s stages are more than just the best Wales can offer – they’re the best in the world. Names such as Sweet Lamb (so called simply because it is on the land of a farmer who claims mountain lamb tastes sweeter), Clocaenog, Great Orme, Gwydyr, Penllyn, Hafren and Dyfnant will be music to the ears of rally fans. As Coe puts it, “These are our Wembleys and San Siros.” Some will be run during the night, too. Thursday night will feature three timed stages of action, including Gwydyr, Penmachno and Clocaenog – the highest number of night stages the event has featured over the last few decades.

In 1970 the competitors slogged through 2300 miles – the first leg lasted for 48 hours! – but this year that number is a paltry 196. It is by no means the shortest WRC rally on the calendar, however, and cars need to cover quite a distance just to get to the stages.

Most importantly for some, the event is now back on ITV4 and it’s possible that a “digital channel specialising in sport” will also show the action. Add to this lower ticket prices with a larger variety of tariffs – to ensure that everyone can find something to suit their rallying appetite – and lower entry fees, and it’s hard not to get excited about this potential return to form. There’s also a new initiative called RallyFest, which targets families andyounger fans. The idea is simple: on each day there will be a hub that allows fans to watch cars going past on a competitive stage, while also benefiting from nearby viewing screens, catering facilities and special displays.

Tickets are already selling better than last year and everyone at International Motor Sports and the Welsh Government – which has been the event’s principal funding partner since 2003 – are quietly confident that it will be a success.

The truth won’t become apparent until mid-November, but it’s hard to fault the logic.

For further information and to book tickets, visit www.walesrallygb.com.

Ed Foster