The qualifying stage will remain part of the European Rally Championship next year, but the road selection element has been removed.
On all ERC events, the fastest drivers from shakedown compete on the qualfying stage where, traditionally, the competitor that set the quickest time would be able to select their starting position for the first leg of the rally.
For 2024, the competitive qualifying element (which used to also be a part of the World Rally Championship from 2012-14), will remain, but rather than the quickest driver selecting their start position they will be given first on the road on asphalt, and last of the eligible qualifiers on gravel.
These positions are widely recognized to offer the best conditions on those respective surfaces in the dry, and is what the drivers would regularly select for themsevles anyway – often making the start order selection process a bit of a non-event.
Other changes to the championship include all cars now starting at two-minute intervals on leg one, while the top 15 will start two minutes apart on leg two before the rest of the field is given one minute gaps.
The regroup before the powerstage has been extended from 40 to 50 minutes, allowing the possibility for Junior ERC crews to start the stage first and feature in the live TV broadcast.
And all ERC events will continue to run over four days from the start of recce to the conclusion of the powerstage, but event organizers can schedule an additional day of recce provided they seek approval from the FIA.
As already announced, a tire manufacturers championship will be added where tire companies will score points depending on where the highest two drivers on their rubber finish on each event.
The 2024 ERC calendar is yet to be released, but Wales’ Rali Ceredigion is expected to join the schedule. Rally Latvia won’t feature as it graduates to WRC status, but it’s understood Poland could still feature even though it too will be a round of the WRC next year.
There are some that don’t like the qualifying stage – reigning ERC champion Hayden Paddon for one isn’t the biggest fan – but I’ve always quite liked it. It adds a different and fun element to the weekend, and a genuine early indicator as to how fast everyone will be (unlike shakedown where it’s hard to read if drivers are pushing or just experimenting).
So I’m glad it will remain part of the ERC next year, particularly as that doesn’t put those (likely local) drivers not contesting a full season at an immediate advantage or disadvantage.
The decision to remove the road order selection is a bit sad, but it makes complete sense.
I’ve only attended one ERC round since WRC Promoter took over at the start of 2022, Royal Rally of Scandinavia earlier this year, and so have only witnessed one start order selection.
The concept is great. Fortunate enough to be standing among the drivers before they were each called to make their choice, it was fascinating to witness the tactical conversations between driver and co-driver, trying to keep their thinking secret from those around them.
The fundamental problem was there weren’t really any tactics. The thinking was always obvious – run as far back as you can on gravel, or as far forward as possible on asphalt.
So while the start order selection should be an engaging element for spectators, very quickly it becomes stale as there’s no variety in what drivers are doing. In essence, it’s a procession.
Removing it but keeping the competitive element of the qualifying stage is a win-win. The intrigue remains, and shouldn’t peter out.