The sixth round of the European Rally Championship in Rome has just begun – yet we still don’t know where the eighth – the season finale – will be held.
On paper, that’s nothing out of the ordinary these days. After two years of COVID-19 interruptions, it almost feels normal for calendars to be up in the air until the last minute.
But this absence is a bit different. This is no pandemic-induced benching. The outgoing event received a yellow card in 2020, then a blue card last year, from the FIA and isn’t allowed to be on the international rallying calendar anymore – at least not until it appeases the FIA Rally Safety Task Force.
Rally Hungary suddenly found itself booted off the ERC calendar last December, a consequence of the final round of World Motorsport Council decisions in 2021.
There were plenty of problems to contend with. Spectator safety was the absolute number one problem that brought the ire of the FIA – people standing in dangerous places and putting themselves at risk.
And after Norbert Herczig crashed out on the Erdőbénye test last year, an ambulance entered the stage while it was still live, with no red flag deployed.
Yoann Bonato called the event “a joke” when he ended up driving right behind said safety vehicle, with nothing to suggest he needed to slow down beforehand.
Then there were administrative failures – there was controversy around how the stewards handled an incident on the 2020 edition of the rally, where Oliver Solberg was accused of running on three tires when four were required by the rules. Multiple parties were left unhappy with how the stewarding process was handled around that incident.
It would be easy to assume that such an outcome would kill the event off entirely. But this is Hungary we’re talking about here – a country gripped with automotive fever. Its auto sector makes up almost 10% of the country’s entire GDP and a quarter of its exports. It’s had a Formula 1 race for decades now.
That means Rally Hungary is too important domestically to simply throw in the towel. If they get their way, they’ll be back next year.
A letter of intent has already been signed between HUMDA, the body responsible for national-level motorsport promotion in Hungary, and WRC Promoter, to have the event back in the ERC next year. And the money is already in place – there’s a financial guarantee in place for government cash to pay the promotion fee in 2023.
It is by no means across the line. A letter of intent is non-binding by its very nature. But both parties want to make it happen, should one key obstacle be overcome.
“It’s another cracking part of Europe that is popular with the sport, so it would be good for us to go back there,” Iain Campbell, ERC championship manager, told DirtFish earlier this year. “That decision has been taken away from us for 2022 because of the issues for their 2021 event.
“As organizers, I know they are investing in taking on the learnings from the last couple of years. They’re also working with the FIA Rally Safety Task Force to get their safety standards up to scratch on whatever their failings were. Until that happens they can’t look at rejoining anything else.
Based on us having two yellow cards, we really need to have a think about major changes within the organizationKornél Őry, HUMDA's director of motorsport
“If they were looking at it, they would have to make a big step in 2022 I would imagine for the task force to sign them off for 2023 but nothing is ever impossible. That one is purely a sporting decision; it’s not something we can influence.”
A return to the ERC awaits for Hungary. But to do that, changes must be made. To get the national rally’s international status back, it needs to satisfy the FIA that the plethora of issues that cost it a place on the ERC calendar in the first place have been resolved.
“Based on these experiences, I think it’s quite clear that we need to make bigger changes within the organization of the event,” Kornél Őry, director of motorsport at HUMDA, told DirtFish. “So this is a topic that we are discussing with the local ASN, with MNASZ.
“We tried to talk to the local ASN and tried to find a solution that will help us avoid getting into the same situation again. Based on us having two yellow cards, we really need to have a think about major changes within the organization.
“This is something we do not have complete agreement yet with the ASN but it’s an ongoing discussion and I believe that we can have a solution very soon, so that when dealing with the Rally Safety Task Force and putting together the event, which we want to invite the FIA and WRC Promoter as well, so that it’s perfect and it complies with all the standards.”
There’s a lot of work to do, no doubt. Relocating Rally Hungary elsewhere in the country is a “possibility” according to HUMDA, but is considered unlikely.
“Nyíregyháza is a great host city for us,” Őry points out. “They were helping us a lot and we basically got everything from the host city that we could wish for. In my opinion, it is not a problem of the host city in the first place.”
Nyíregyháza’s biggest asset is also its biggest flaw. Mád is considered the event’s centerpiece stage, with narrow and dusty asphalt roads weaving through sun-soaked (and, sometimes, rain-soaked) vineyards. Long flat-out straights are punctuated by corners with huge cuts. It was a crowd favorite. And therein lies Hungary’s problem.
“We believe it’s a spectacular stage,” says Őry of the Mád stage. “It looks really nice and it’s really exciting for the fans and drivers alike. But because of the vineyards it’s very complicated to control all the public traffic that’s coming to the stage.
“It means that last year, when we had the nice weather, there were thousands of fans coming from everywhere in all directions and it was really difficult to somehow control the situation.
“Obviously we need to take that into consideration but it’s a very tough decision to make because, that said, we consider it a signature stage of the rally.”
This stage, potentially more than any, contributed to a second yellow card.
“Just a slight mistake and you kill someone,” was Mads Østberg’s conclusion immediately after traversing Mád last year.
Would the drivers be comfortable going back to Hungary, given both Østberg and Bonato’s comments last year? That’s not entirely clear. But ERC points leader Efrén Llarena, who contested both of the championship’s visits to Rally Hungary, was pragmatic about a potential return.
“It’s not one of the best rallies in the ERC, for sure,” he said. But he wasn’t pointing the finger directly at Hungary either.
“What rally would be the alternative option? Last year in Fafe we went off the road and we didn’t have any service on the mobile phones, the GPS didn’t work, so nobody saw us during the road because we were just in the downhill in the forest.
“I think all the rallies need to improve.”
Let’s say Hungary does improve. It’s still running as the season finale of the FIA’s Central Rally Trophy, giving the organizers a chance to prove to the FIA they’ve remedied the faults of years past. If it gets that sign-off, it’s extremely likely to reappear on the ERC calendar in 2023.
But they don’t want to stop there. The short-term focus is very much on getting its ERC status back. But the World Rally Championship is on its roadmap. Its financial guarantee from the Hungarian government ends next year – but with ruling party Fidesz winning a resounding majority in the recent Hungarian parlimentary elections, that stability may well help them extend that arrangement.
“This guarantee is until next year but obviously our goal is to extend this and if possible to include WRC as well in the future,” says Őry.
“We see a very good example in Croatia. We believe that maybe it is something worth considering in the Central European region, to have rotating events. Maybe we can get an agreement with Croatia and the Promoter to make it, or maybe to even include another country, and to have that kind of system.
“But first of all, we need to prove to the FIA that we can organize an ERC event that complies with these standards. When we do that, we can go back to the government and convince them we have a long-term vision that includes WRC.
“That is something that can be very valuable to Hungary as a country and of course to the fans here. The automotive industry in Hungary is the most important industry, I would say, in terms of what it brings to the national GDP. This is why all kinds of motorsports are so important because we feel that this is in our DNA because of all the development being done in Hungary.
“If we can go on that route, firstly doing a successful ERC event, then we are definitely in a good position to discuss further plans with the government, with WRC Promoter and with the FIA as well.”
Its place on the calendar might have been taken away from it. But Hungary isn’t planning on staying away for very long.