On the eve of the opening European Rally Championship round of 2023, DirtFish took the mind of the man delivering the series from the doldrums.
WRC Promoter event director Simon Larkin has a plan to incorporate the ERC and the World Rally Championship. Most of all, he has a plan to make European rallying mean something again.
You took over the ERC at the start of 2022. Twelve months in, what are your feelings now?
We think the format right now is pretty good, short, sharp two days. It’s less complicated.
Any changes to the format of the rallies?
I think, for the gravel events, we are investigating with the FIA a new shakedown concept to work on that rather than qualifying. We think that we can improve the current shakedown/qualifying – it’s a very long, drawn-out process in ERC and we can make it into something a bit more broadcastable. Like I said, we’re working closely with the FIA on this.
Is it a radical change?
No it’s tweaks. It’s evolution not revolution to make it more accessible – it’s probably the only complicated thing left in that championship.
How close are you now to the perfect calendar?
We’re pretty close. We would like to have an event in France, we’re in discussions with a couple of options there. We have a lot of French competitors – it is a very Tarmac competitor sympathetic championship, the ERC, with it’s 50/50 split of Tarmac and gravel.
There’s a bigger customer base for Tarmac?
Absolutely. We’ve seen a lot of French drivers come into WRC2 out of ERC. Having an event in Scandinavia I think will help encourage [Scandinavian] drivers to step out of their national championships a bit more.
We see that with the Spanish now because we’ve had a couple of events in Spain. We’ve got a good group of Portuguese who have come through into European championship and that’s because we’ve had rallies like Fafe and the Azores in the past, we think it can work with other countries as well.
What’s the perfect number of events in the calendar?
So, one in France next year and you’ve got your perfect calendar?
Yeah, we would like to add one for next year. We wanted to add one for this year but we only wanted to do it if we could find the right event in the right conditions and that it would suit competitors to make it viable for them to do the whole championship.
In terms of competitors how many do you target to do all eight or nine rounds?
If we could get 18 to 20 regulars in Rally2, I think that’s a good number. I think we had maybe 15 who probably did 75% of the events last year. I think getting that up to around 20 would be a fantastic result.
Surely key to that has to be limiting logistical costs?
We’re working with some of our partners [on that] and even some of the conditions for the new events that join are about passing on savings and benefits for the competitors. It’s always going to take a bit longer to do that – there are some events we are very happy to have in the championship, but it’s very difficult to grandfather in different financial conditions on events that have existed for a long time. We can’t just change those conditions overnight. We have to be reasonable about that.
We want to have events that are financially viable, sustainable and also actually able to develop and that means we need to make sure they have the right level of government support, of regional support, city support and commercial sponsorship.
Is the season long enough in terms of spread across the year?
March to October is absolutely the right time to do it. We get the WRC season kicked off, it gives the competitors a bit more time to find budget to commit and to finish a little bit earlier as well. We’re very happy with the spread.
Unlike in the WRC, Junior ERC is an open class. Why’s that?
It’s so it can be a bit more ‘run what you brung’ or what you might already be running in your national championship. This is the right format for ERC, definitely – this is very much more customer racing than WRC.
The Junior ERC winner goes straight to the world championship. Wouldn’t you like to retain them in ERC and see them move progress in the European series?
No. We want young drivers to progress – it’s how we bring new blood into the sport.
Who is your ideal European champion? Are they late 20s, early 30s, a wealthy privateer driver?
No. Mid-20s. Rally2 is an exceptional class of car, it’s probably the biggest success of class rallying has ever seen and we think it’s also reasonably balanced. It doesn’t matter what car you’ve got, you can still be competitive.
Is it the same for the Juniors in Rally4?
I think so. The [Ford] Fiesta Rally4 is still a good car, Renault and the Peugeot are the newest cars and they’re maybe a bit more of a ground-up build, but I don’t think you can pick one. And I think the fact you’re putting them on Hankook tires not only brings support for us to better promote that level and that championship, but I also think it acts as a bit more of a leveller.
It’s possible the championship could sway one way or the other on tires and we take that out of the equation – the Hankook deal is great for the juniors.
Are WRC2 and ERC mutually exclusive in terms of Rally2 competition?
There are drivers committing to ERC this year that we think are proof that one doesn’t have to exclude the other. We’re working to bring back the prestige of the European Rally Championship title to make it a viable platform for drivers to promote their sponsors, themselves, their distributors of the cars that they drive. I think it’s going to be a strong ERC again.
The ERC, I think, will always ebb and flow a bit and it happened last year. There were a number of drivers who were in ERC the previous years, then stepped up to WRC2 for last year. That might have made ERC look a bit thin – it wasn’t. The championship was tightly fought and this year’s definitely will be!
There’ll be some years where there’ll be a number of drivers who step up to WRC2, it’s our job to make sure there are other drivers coming behind them. But I think with the drivers we’ve seen committing to for this year, the European Rally Championship is very much seen as a genuine target title again.
I’m sure you get sick and tired of refences to the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, but wasn’t that the golden era for rallying’s second tier?
I’m happy to admit the WRC went through some difficulties in that time, around 2012 and the IRC provided almost a viable alternative to competing in the WRC’s second and third tier. Basically, we weren’t giving those classes the promotional platform they needed – the IRC was bringing the Super 2000 cars out of the shadows, giving them the chance to win rallies and giving national importers and private teams a platform.
It’s very different now. We’re much more focused on the support championships now, and for the last couple of years, in making sure that those aren’t the shadow championships behind the top class. Competing in the ERC or in WRC2 is a very good championship now. I think that’s recognized, it’s absolutely not just there. It is a genuinely, highly competitive championship and we’re trying to tell the stories from it better and better from each event.