Three manufacturers at the front of the World Rally Championship? Is that enough? Plenty will say that it isn’t, but one of rallying’s key figures believes it is actually the “perfect” number.
Ever since Citroën pulled out of the WRC at the end of 2019, just three teams have fought it out in the top class: Toyota, Hyundai and M-Sport – which has partial backing from Ford.
All three committed to the brand-new Rally1 technical regulations for this season but no new manufacturer has joined the world championship since Toyota returned in 2017.
Škoda Motorsport’s recently unveiled Fabia RS Rally2, built for an existing set of technical regulations, has meant the topic of manufacturers in the top class has once again reared its head. Škoda has invested heavily in designing and developing a brand-new car, but not for the top category.
Škoda used to compete in the top class of the WRC from 1999-2005, but ever since has concentrated its efforts on building Fabias for the second-tier Super 2000 and then R5/Rally2 regulations.
It raises the question: why does Škoda want to compete in the second-tier rather than fight for a bona fide WRC title?
“I think they’re very happy competing at Rally2 level at the moment, and they’ve clearly cut a very strong niche in that area,” FIA rally director Andrew Wheatley told DirtFish.
“What we have to do is make the sport as attractive as possible and hope that they come to us in the future.”
And therein is the bottom line. What would make the WRC attractive to any additional OEMs around the world? How can manufacturer numbers be boosted in the world championship?
Some view the Rally2 class as an open goal that’s not being shot at. Currently there are homologated Rally2 cars available from seven different manufacturers – Škoda, M-Sport Ford, Citroën, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Proton and Peugeot – although Peugeot and VW are no longer building new cars.
But yet when the FIA committed to the latest regulation cycle, it didn’t choose to offer a ‘plus’ kit to these existing cars to create slightly more powerful versions for the top class, but instead commissioned the development of all-new and complicated cars that feature many of the same parts as Rally2.
Should that route therefore be offered in the future as a way of getting more different brands competing at the front of the championship?
“There’s mileage in every opportunity and at the moment one of the things we’re doing internally is a strong review of where we are,” Wheatley said.
“There’s a continual review of what goes on, but the intention is to try and understand, from all the stakeholders – and I mean everybody right from the manufacturers involved, the promoters to the media, to the fans, to the spectators – to understand what are the key ingredients of what a rally car should be.
“And then from that we can work out what the next stage should be. But honestly I think if you’ve got the position we’ve got at the moment, we’ve got three manufacturers that have won events, we’ve got hugely spectacular cars and we’ve got also a fantastic second class with WRC2.
“In Portugal I think we had 40+ competitors in the WRC2 class. We’ve got two very strong competitors there and I’d be a little bit concerned there potentially that [by encouraging WRC2 manufacturers into the top class], instead of having two strong fields we only had one.”
The more manufacturers you have in any championship the more people [will be] finishing second, third, fourth, fifthAndrew Wheatley
Wheatley does raise a valid point. Two strong classes is better than just one, but the doubt still remains as to whether the current participation level in Rally1 is strong enough.
If one of the three manufacturers decided to walk away, what’s left? Are there any new manufacturers waiting in the wings?
“There’s always manufacturers expressing interest in the championship because it’s a global series, and it’s competitive,” Wheatley said.
“I think what we need to be conscious of is three manufacturers is positive. For me personally, four is the optimum because I worked through the period where we had six, seven manufacturers and sat in some very awkward discussions and it’s very difficult to always have success,” Wheatley, a former M-Sport employee, added.
“The more manufacturers you have in any championship the more people [will be] finishing second, third, fourth, fifth. There will only ever be one winner because that’s the nature of being a winner.
“But at the moment, genuinely we’ve got three manufacturers with plenty to shout about which is positive. So to answer your question, I think you always want to have a position where you’ve got five, six manufacturers but the reality is for the health of the championship, three/four would be perfect.”
Manufacturers are often viewed as the success of any world motorsport championship. The more that are taking part, the healthier the championship is.
But as Wheatley explained that isn’t always the case. Yes, a higher number of manufacturers competing in Rally1 would prevent the current bottleneck of drivers in WRC2 who simply don’t have the opportunity to progress, and it would theoretically create a more intriguing competition with more different types of car in the mix.
However, stability is no guarantee. As Wheatley pointed out, manufacturers only invest in motorsport to win. And going up against four or five rivals instead of two or three inherently makes that task much harder.
That’s why Wheatley doesn’t think the WRC needs to return to the era of seven manufacturers in the fray. After all, it only takes two to make a race.
“Honestly I have to say absolutely,” Wheatley said when asked if he can see a bright future for the WRC.
“We sometimes have to sit back and look, and when you ask the question, ‘How many competitors do you want in the championship?’ I still remember some absolutely fantastic years when we had [only] Ford and Citroën.”
“And when I look back in the past, well it was Audi vs Lancia and it was Peugeot vs Audi. I think we have to sometimes think back and look and think we’re living in a time where actually it is quite good.
“2017 I thought could never really be beaten but then I sat at the end of Monte Carlo and thought, actually, this could be quite good.
“I don’t forget the first time we saw a Rally1 car at a test in the south of France, and three of us who came from the FIA to that day had been to many tests before and seen lots of rally cars competing in the past, and we all took a step back when the car came into sight.
“We really had to think, ‘Quite impressive, it really is quite impressive.'”