If ever there was a rally championship that is caught between a rock and a hard place, it’s the British Rally Championship.
Once viewed on the same pedestal as even the World Rally Championship, the version that exists today is a shadow of its former self. So the question that has always been grappled with is how to restore the BRC to its former glory?
Shooting for a championship that can legitimately rival the WRC isn’t achievable – or expected – nowadays, but some of the magic that seems to have dissipated over the years can very feasibly be sprinkled back in if the right decisions are made.
But that creates quite the predicament for the championship’s organizing team. Finding a solution that works for everybody – competitors and fans alike – is a marriage that has proved difficult to find.
The buzz was there when the BRC relaunched in 2016 after a one-year sabbatical with drivers like Elfyn Evans and Swedish talent Fredrik Åhlin taking on the best of Britain, but gradually the hype has been sucked out of the championship where it’s, at times, felt like just any other national series in the UK.
Plainly, for a championship that’s roll of honor boasts names like Colin McRae, Richard Burns, Hannu Mikkola, Ari Vatanen and Stig Blomqvist, that isn’t good enough. But more pertinently, it raises the question of what the BRC is trying to achieve when some rallies have been the same length and intensity as the BTRDA, Scottish or Welsh championships (all theoretically a rung below the BRC) only with a pre-event recce thrown in.
Reece Tarren is the man with the unenviable task of leading the BRC, and has recognized the need for change. And that’s why for 2023, he’s decided to up the ante.
2023 British Rally Championship calendar:
Malcolm Wilson Rally
Jim Clark Rally
Trackrod Rally Yorkshire
“Ultimately next year’s mission is for longer, tougher events,” Tarren told DirtFish.
“The competitors that have taken part this year have stressed they come to the BRC for a challenge, so all of the events on next year’s calendar are above the regular 45 miles that we see on an Interclub rally.
“We’ve got Ypres and Ulster as two international status events with almost 100 miles of stage mileage, the Malcolm Wilson’s new for next year but they are cramming all their mileage into one day.
“So when you look at the mileage it’s about 60-70 miles. When we had Rally GB, that’s almost a day’s worth of Rally GB stage mileage which is almost unheard of in the UK at the minute.
“But the other gravel events like the Cambrian and Trackrod, they’re putting on extra mileage for us in the evening which is great. Anyone that wants to step up from an Interclub rally, 45 miles, the BRC’s the place to do it.”
It’s a very clear direction. And although the BRC has always remained the pinnacle of British rallying, that hasn’t always been the direction it has chosen to take in recent years.
There is an added cost element to consider (which could be particularly pertinent with a recession expected in 2023) with bigger events – the return to Ypres for the first time since 2019 in particular – but there are measures in place to mitigate the effect of that.
Only five scores from a possible seven will count, so a competitor can simply forgo two events and still have a chance at being crowned champion. And a very conscious decision has been made to run all the asphalt rallies in sequence, so those doing a full championship will only need to convert their car’s setup twice throughout the season – after round one on gravel and then after round five.
But perhaps the cleverest aspect of the 2023 calendar is it seemingly manages to combine the need for competitors (who, for the most part, are not professional drivers) to not miss too many days of work but also get more stage mileage, as Tarren explained.
“We’re trying to make it effective. Limiting time away from the office is key, because primarily these guys aren’t professionals, they’re taking time off work. So it’s trying to get the balance between taking time off work, and getting their value for money.
“Having that aspect of either cramming everything into one day, so for example the Malcolm Wilson, effectively a two-day event as you recce on the Friday and you compete on that Saturday.
“Events like here [the Cambrian] are still two-day events, you recce and compete on the Friday but you’ve got another full day of rallying [on Saturday], so it’s trying to find that balance between taking guys away from their day to day work, and coming out to play at the same time.”
From where I’m standing, it’s all very positive. Listening to feedback from current and prospective competitors, the BRC has reacted and created a meatier challenge more befitting of the championship it should be.
But this brings us back to the rock and a hard place analogy. In many respects, the BRC can’t do right for doing wrong. Had the events not been beefed up for 2023, you can bet there’d have been a barrage of complaints. And yet now that they have, all several online commenters could focus on was a lack of rallies in southern England.
“Yeah you’ve got strong opinion online, whether it’s on forums or social media,” said Tarren, “but I think ultimately at the end of the day it’s the competitor that funds the British Rally Championship.
“Without the competitors you don’t have a championship, and the events as well, the events and our partners also heavily support us. But at the end of the day the competitors are the reason behind the sport.
“People talk about the glory days of the ’70s, the ’80s and the ’90s but rallies have always taken place in those areas [we are visiting next year]. The ‘golden era’ of rallying always took place in Dalby, always took place in Kielder, and yes not much has changed nowadays because those are the venues we have.”
It’s a more than valid point. Back when the BRC last welcomed proper works manufacturer teams in the late ’90s, the geographical spread was identical to what is there now with Wales represented by the Rally of Wales, Ireland by the Ulster, the Isle of Man by the Manx International and then you had the Pirelli International and the Scottish Rally either side of the Scottish and English border.
Nothing was held in the south. And you didn’t hear people moaning about that back then, did you?
It all reflects a general attitude in British rallying at the moment. Everyone is more than happy to say their piece, but in terms of collective action to improve the nationwide health of the discipline, everything just seems to stop.
The BRC has become the ultimate scapegoat for those aggrieved by the state of rallying affairs in the UK. Things have been a touch ropey for a while now with dwindling entry numbers in the British championship, and that’s of course on top of the fact there’s no British event on the WRC calendar either.
But British rallying’s problems don’t solely lie with the BRC. To suggest that they do is incredibly naive. And to get on the BRC’s back is equally short-sighted as it’s in everyone’s best interest to support it and work together to help it flourish. Not sit at home and lambast it.
That’s not to say that everything it’s doing is perfect though.
The proof was found when DirtFish surveyed some current, former and prospective competitors to try and get a feel for how drivers feel about the future direction of the BRC.
The calendar has generally been well received. Some are concerned by the added cost (although it’s believed to just be a minor increase on 2022 despite the extra miles) but the consensus is that more stage miles to get stuck into is a big plus. And the opportunity to head to a world famous rally in Ypres has also got plenty smiling – it’s ironically the closest to home for some too.
But one British Rally champion does harbor slight concerns that the schedule occupies an awkward middleground, and isn’t sure who it’s marketed towards. Professional or career drivers will revel in the challenge, but is the extra cost and effort really what business or tradesmen want?
That balance is ultimately one of the biggest challenges the BRC faces in its current guise. There are some youngsters trying to make a name for themselves in the BRC nowadays – namely Ruairi Bell, James Williams and Eamonn Kelly – but there are plenty others that know, deep down, that it’s the furthest their rallying career will go and therefore enter just enjoy the challenge of bigger events.
And for those who are trying to progress, doing so is incredibly difficult when there’s no prize at all for becoming British Rally champion. Unlike in the past where it was the place to prove yourself, being picked up by a professional team directly from the BRC is a nigh on impossible task.
As one driver put it: “Only folk that want to win the BRC want to do it.” Although the Junior BRC has proved fiercely compatible and comes with a WRC prize drive reward, generally drivers who are serious about making the next step jump into the ERC or WRC’s junior classes instead.
It all feeds into the argument that the BRC has a bit of an identity crisis. One driver compared the current state of affairs to the Belgian championship, explaining that the regular schedule over there makes the rallies far better known and therefore easier to sell to sponsors.
The last time the BRC had the same calendar from season to season was 2011 and ‘12.
A driver who has driven in the BRC in the past also remarked the current championship is “by far less attractive” now than it used to be – a pretty damning verdict by all accounts. But they were quick to point out that they have huge amounts of respect and sympathy with championship organizers “who deal with a lot more than many of us could ever know”.
However, there is a common feeling that the championship should go out for a tender rather than be run in-house by Motorsport UK. This is perhaps no surprise given there’s a general feeling within the UK rallying community that Motorsport UK is disinterested in rallying and not doing enough to promote its growth.
One driver suggested it should have a proper promoter too. While next year’s calendar does mark the BRC out over other UK rally championships, there are aspects of it that arguably still feel too closely aligned with the rest – like the media package. What’s currently on offer is fine, but it doesn’t necessarily make the BRC feel particularly special or a cut above other championships in the UK.
DirtFish understands that there are potential plans to ramp up the offering for 2023 though, potentially in the form of a mini version of WRC’s All Live service where more of the rally is broadcast live as opposed to a couple of streams from the end of stages.
Perhaps the most prophetic response we received though was: “There doesn’t seem to be a solution, and I think that’s the problem.” And given the range of opinions on offer throughout this piece alone – which in reality only scratches the surface – it’s incredibly difficult to argue.
The effort the BRC’s organizing team has gone to to revamp the calendar for next year – and include rounds that aren’t just rallies, but events – has to be lauded; it’s a calendar that deserves a good entry. But whether it will get one is another question altogether.
These days it takes a very specific type of competitor to want to do the BRC, and it remains to be seen if there are enough around to keep the championship sustainable for the years to come.