Brandon Semenuk dominating the early phases of the 2023 season is exactly what the American Rally Association had planned to avoid.
Altering its technical regulations to try and level the balance between the Open 4WD and RC2 classes, the idea was that more drivers – in more cars – would fight for the title.
On the evidence of the Sno*Drift and 100 Acre Wood Rallies though, that doesn’t necessarily appear to be the case.
But ARA competition director Preston Osborn isn’t worried. He told DirtFish he expected the opening two events to favor the O4WD machines, and that this month’s DirtFish Olympus Rally will prove a better test of the off-season regulation tweaks.
The championship is open to modifying the regulations if there proves to be a disparity in performance – but should it be making this change already, and not waiting until after Olympus?
That’s the question we asked our team of writers, and here’s what they came up with:
Rally2 should be the front-line formula
I’ve got to be honest and admit I’m baffled at how we even arrived at this point. And a weekend around New Zealand’s Otago Rally will only serve to strengthen my view that the ARA’s Open class car is a luxury the series can ill afford right now.
The NZ Rally Championship allows more powerful AP4 cars to compete against Rally2 – but what they win in terms of horsepower they lose in limited suspension travel and by being heavier.
Open class cars in the US don’t really lose out at all. OK, you can point to more restricted power and aero, but you’ve only got to watch Brandon Semenuk’s ultra-dominant performance across the first two rounds to know things have gone badly wrong.
And that’s entirely unfair on Semenuk – he’s a good driver who should have been picked up and carried into WRC competition by now. He certainly doesn’t need to have the validity of what’s almost certainly going to be a second title questioned because of regulations he’s powerless to have any impact on.
ARA should have implemented New Zealand’s approach to Open class and helped promote Rally2 as a frontline formula. Instead, we’ve got confusion about what Brandon and Barry McKenna are driving and we’ve got cars evolving aero almost willy-nilly between rallies.
The ARA needs firm direction, and that direction should be and should always have been Rally2.
I’m well aware of the impact that would have had on American rallying’s biggest and staunchest supporter in the shape of Subaru. But, given enough time and consideration, I have no doubt the WRX could have been incorporated more cleanly.
Either way, there’s a nettle that needs grasping. But it needs grasping with gloves on to ensure we ringfence the future for a series which has to do it can to retain Subaru’s iconic and indispensable presence.
ARA’s right to hold off until at least Olympus
Nobody likes dominance. It doesn’t matter what the series is. But where ARA is right now, it can ill afford to have it for long.
It’s a championship that is looking to grow in stature, especially with the prospect of a US World Rally Championship round on the horizon. So it needs to be on the forefront of ensuring the field is as competitive as it can be at all times.
Naturally, there’s going to be occasions where a driver wins by a big margin, but you don’t want that happening too often – or at least not the same driver doing it all the time.
Right now, Semenuk has his championship rivals right where he wants them. A long way down the road. That might be great for him and Subaru but not for everyone else.
I can see why ARA is holding off the rule change right now. Sno* Drift and 100AW are very specific events, but the organizer can’t hang about too long.
If Semenuk cruises to victory once again on Olympus, changes need to be made and made quickly.
The cost will likely be some disgruntled personnel feeling unhappy about a mid-season rule change that would alter the competitive picture, but that’s worth living with if it means the competition is stronger.
And when there’s increased competition, there’s naturally a lot more interest and storylines generated. And that’s gold for everyone involved.
Semenuk’s distorting the true picture
Designing two sets of technical regulations with the intention of them both spawning cars of equal performance is a very difficult task, so I have a degree of sympathy for the ARA’s organizing team over the situation they find themselves in this year.
But only a degree, as they made this decision fully aware of the consequences!
After the first two rounds, it certainly seems as if the calculations are a bit out though. An RC2 car has yet to win any of the season’s 32 stages so far, and reigning champion Brandon Semenuk has won both of the opening rounds in his O4WD Subaru.
The gap to the closest RC2 car on the Sno*Drift Rally was a whopping 13m26.2s, and it wasn’t much prettier on 100 Acre Wood Rally with 8m20.2s splitting Semenuk’s WRX and Patrick Gruszkas R5 Hyundai.
It’s certainly true that Sno*Drift and 100AW are two of the most specific events on the ARA calendar, and that the twistier stages of the Olympus Rally should rebalance things a touch in a fortnight’s time. So I agree that making any tweaks is better saved for after round three.
But, worryingly, I’m actually not sure any tweaks to the regulations would alter the outcome.
The problem I think the ARA faces is how can it gain an accurate read of where each car’s performance level is given the current performance level of its champion?
Semenuk is just too good at the moment that any gap that does exist between O4WD and RC2 is just being further exaggerated by his brilliance. Put simply, there isn’t a driver in an RC2 car that is performing at anywhere near the same level as the Subaru star.
Perhaps the ideal solution is to arrange some back-to-back testing with Semenuk in an O4WD and an RC2 car to see how the two truly compare. Quite how that can be managed with Semenuk a contracted Subaru driver is anybody’s guess.
Ultimately, though, I agree with David. The real ideal solution would be doubling down and making Rally2 the headline class.