For years, the European Rally Championship had always been that series everyone sort of knew about, but nobody really cared about.
The champion would always make some headlines, some stand-out events or battles would garner attention, but precious few fans or journalists actually committed any serious attention to it.
But 2023 changed that.
I still remember the buzz and anticipation when the entry list for Rally Serras de Fafe landed in my inbox. It took several scrolls of my mouse for my eyes to register every single top-line competitor in a Rally2 car – it was nuts.
As ever, numbers did drop off slightly as the season progressed but the rallies remained interesting and the championship narrative was strong – helped of course by the presence of high-profile, former World Rally Championship drivers Hayden Paddon and Mads Østberg.
Under WRC Promoter’s guidance, the ERC has experienced a boom in 2023. But can the championship sustain that in 2024?
That’s the million-dollar question, but before we get there let’s understand some of the changes in play for next season – specifically surrounding the calendar.
DirtFish booked some time with ERC championship manager Iain Campbell and this is what he told us:
The UK is back!
It’s the news so many rallying fans were waiting for – particularly if you reside in Scotland, England or Wales. International rallying is back on British soil next year with Rali Ceredigion installed as the penultimate round of the ERC.
Those that are familiar with the event will know that the organizing team has been working very hard to achieve this, but why was the event attractive to the ERC?
“We were looking for strong events, looking for ambitious events, and Ceredigion is a new rally that’s proven to run at a high standard over the three years that they’ve run so far,” Campbell said.
“They’ve got a high promotional value, and as WRC Promoter the UK market is important to us. So lots of these boxes were ticked.”
For the avoidance of any doubt, it has “nothing to do” with Campbell being British and wanting a rally in his homeland.
“It was a will from us to want to be in the UK market, and the ambition of the organizers to want to be a part of the ERC,” he said.
No Rally Poland, but still a rally in Poland
Poland is one of two countries to host a round of the ERC in both 2023 and 2024, but with the event changing quite significantly next year.
We’ll deal with the second of those countries in a moment, because Poland is probably the most intriguing case.
For the first time since 2017, Rally Poland is back on the World Rally Championship schedule next year, but as WRC event director Simon Larkin told DirtFish in September: “If Poland came into the WRC it doesn’t mean Poland wouldn’t be in the ERC.”
Now we know that Poland is indeed in the ERC, but in the form of Rally Silesia – an asphalt rally instead of the high-speed gravel event.
So was it ever viable for Rally Poland itself to be both a WRC and ERC round?
“We were always talking with Poland about WRC ambitions into the future and we were also having discussions with Rally Silesia,” Campbell replied.
“There was always these discussions for the future, it’s just that it’s all come forward a bit, maybe 12 months earlier than any of us really anticipated.
“RACC Catalunya hosted both WRC and ERC together [in 2022], and we are incredibly grateful to them for doing that, but it’s not actually something which works brilliantly for both series, and especially not for the ERC,” he added.
“There’s lots of sporting conflicts and from a media perspective it’s very hard to tell the story of what’s happening at the front of both championships.
“But Poland is an enormous market for us as the promoter. It’s got huge spectator numbers, Motowizja have their own 24/7 rally channel so there’s a good audience out there for us.
“So for lots and lots of reasons Poland works well for us having two events [across both series].”
Why is Hungary now gravel?
Unlike Poland, Hungary’s ERC event is still organized by the same team, but it has also changed.
The rally base has moved closer to the capital city of Budapest, the stages are now on gravel and the event will kick off the season instead of concluding it.
That means Hungary will host two consecutive ERC rounds, albeit straddling two calendar years.
“The area they’re moving to hosts two Hungarian national championship rounds and so it’s an amalgamation of the two,” Campbell explained.
“I went to see them in March last year – tough stages, really interesting. Some of them are quite twisty, a lot of undulations and quite narrow and then there’s other bits that are very, very fast. Some stages are on forestry land and others on military land, so it’s a real mix between both.
“It’s moving within about an hour of Budapest and into the Lake Balaton region, and Lake Balaton is more of a tourist and holiday area – Nyíregyháza was more of a wine region.
“It’s a big ask for Hungary to go from being the last round in 2023 to the first round in 2024. I was chasing the clerk of the course yesterday saying his itinerary is due next week [which is now this week]; the poor guy is only just recovering from what he’s done!
“But they’re really up for it and we’re always looking for a gravel surface event so it’s going to be something different.”
Portugal out, but not necessarily forever
Fafe's not there in 2024 but that doesn't mean that the door is shutIain Campbell
As recently as two years ago, Portugal actually had two rounds of the ERC – Rally Serras de Fafe and the Azores Rally.
But next year there are none. Azores appears unlikely to come back any time soon with the championship favoring a more centralized calendar, but why did Fafe lose its place?
“Calendar space,” Campbell confirmed. “Trying to work on dates for each one, and also the ERC calendar and the WRC calendar are now more interlinked into a long-term plan.
“We’re two standalone championships, so one takes on the world and we [ERC] are the oldest regional rally championship, but our customer base on events and fans and television companies and broadcasters are all interlinked because we’re all under the one roof.
“So that means we do have a bit of sync and forward-planning as to what we’re looking for from both championships within Europe. And that meant that Fafe unfortunately didn’t fit into what these future plans are.
“The outset for European championship has been eight rounds for a long time now – I think that is the right number for all of our partners and all of our [customer] base. To go to nine would be the wrong move.”
Campbell was keen to stress that Fafe isn’t necessarily gone forever, though.
“I’ve said to Fafe that they’re not there in 2024 but we want to continue discussions for the future, and we just need to work on dates and permutations for how it works.
“So it’s not there in 2024 but that doesn’t mean that the door is shut.”
Cohesion with WRC
Campbell alluded to something quite important when he mentioned the WRC and ERC calendars being interlinked with each other into a long-term plan.
It’s something we’ve heard about before – ERC events holding ambitions to step up to WRC, and Latvia is the ultimate proof that the right events will be granted that chance.
On the contrary, some WRC events may find themselves back in ERC for a bit, as Estonia will next year.
“Estonia started in ERC back in 2014 and they were voted the best event in the championship that year by the competitors, so we know the standard that they will come in with,” Campbell commented.
“But we know the standard that Royal Rally of Scandinavia set in 2023. We don’t have poor events – the level of organization is good but also the level of promotion and what they do locally is generally very strong across the whole lot.
“And whilst competitors are always competitive I can tell you if I put my organizers hat on, you never want to be beaten by another event. You always want to go ‘OK they did that well, but we can do that better,’ and that just helps everybody.”
But what was most interesting here was this following line:
“We have got ambitious events in ERC who want to move up to WRC in the future, and we’ve got events in WRC that know that for their local market it’s best for them to keep rotating from ERC to WRC.”
Naturally, we weren’t about to be told which events that applies to.
Qualifying tweaks – why were they made?
Last month’s meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council contained some changes to the structure of ERC events, most notably alterations to the qualifying stage.
The main change is that there will no longer be a road-order selection, and instead the fastest driver in qualifying will start at the rear of the field on gravel and the front on asphalt.
“Everybody’s got an opinion on qualifying whether it’s good, bad, indifferent,” Campbell said.
“When we analyzed the road selection order over the last two seasons, very, very seldom was it anything that wasn’t just follow the leader. That is a very dull show for anybody to stand and watch.
“It’s a very dull story for us to tell anything about and what we have done in 2023 is we’ve made qualifying a live social media program, and what it means now is we can finish the live qualifying program with an end to the story, as this is the running order for tomorrow.
“We can now finish the story.”
How healthy is the ERC now?
Campbell was, understandably, very keen to point out that there are many ways to assess the strength of a championship – and it’s naturally quite difficult to essentially appraise yourself.
But the ERC is clearly going through a growth spurt and he admitted he was proud of what WRC Promoter has done in the two years it has overseen the championship.
“There’s so many different pillars that would answer that question, but I’m incredibly proud of what the events did in 2023, incredibly proud of the number of competitors we had in 2023 and the competition that we had across the board in 2023,” he said.
“I thought it was a fantastic season, and I think the promoter team that looked after it were across that story very well.
“We’ve got Toyota coming next year with their car which is going to add a new element as well. We’ve got people that are wanting to come back because they’re wanting to show they can do better than they did in 2023, and there’s interest from new competitors as well.
“You hope that the growth is going to continue. We don’t start until April – we’ve got a few months of work ahead – but I think there’s a lot of buzz and interest around the European Rally Championship.
“But we’re not resting on our laurels. 2023 is done, we’ve ticked that box and it’s been good, but that means that we start again.”