The new Rally1 World Rally Championship regulations being introduced in 2022 must take into consideration fan engagement if they are to attract more manufacturers according to Toyota Gazoo Racing team principal Tommi Mäkinen.
Discussing the WRC’s future on DirtFish Debates alongside his rival team bosses, Mäkinen spoke of the success the current World Rally Cars brought when they came into competition in 2017.
The Toyota boss believes that any visual changes to the top class of the WRC could influence popularity more than the new headline-grabbing hybrid engines themselves.
“When the current cars and regulations started in 2017 and the cars were developed to be looking more spectacular and more powerful, it was also immediately increasing the number of fans from previous 2016 era cars,” Mäkinen said.
Prior to the aerodynamic upgrades, the most recent FIA-enforced change to the championship’s machinery was a decrease in engine capacity from 2.0-liter cars to 1.6L turbocharged cars in 2011.
“What was the effect from cars before the previous regulations? I remember there was quite a strong rumour at one point that 1.6L was not powerful at all,” Mäkinen added.
“It was quite a negative rumour, but when 2017 regulations came it was a very, very positive rumour when we informed that horsepower would be increased to close to 400bhp. Everybody was excited about how the cars are looking at the moment.
“I would say we need to remember we have already the [secondary class] R5 car, which is very, very close to our road cars’ looks.”
Mäkinen sees similarities between the R5 cars and the long-lasting Group N regulations which serviced the Production WRC for several decades as a support to the more powerful cars that tended to be the attraction for the stageside spectators.
According to Mäkinen, the two classes of car need to remain distinguishable in the next rules cycle.
“[Group N’s longevity] was because it had so few changes with the regulations, and it stayed very close to the road cars. But it was not the main category, the World Rally Car is the highest level – like Formula 1 – and I think that car should be still looking very, very spectacular for the fans, because that makes their interest to follow rallying,” he said.
“If they are coming to see something which is absolutely, ‘hey, we want to see this, this is like a moon rocket on gravel roads’. But R5 is already the category there that is the lower category, and a category that is for normal customers all over the world. There’s a big number of R5 cars already existing.”
Due to his achievements in and outside of the driving seat, Mäkinen will attract fans across the world regardless of the appearance of the cars he enters as Toyota’s WRC boss.
He’s still wary of his responsibility to those fans though: “we need to remember we are doing this sport for fans. If we are doing some new regulations that decrease their interest, then I’m not sure if it’s a good idea.”