This time it’s different. This time it really does feel like it could be the end of something truly great. Last year’s loss could be laid firmly at the door of coronavirus. This time, less so.
It is indeed tricky for governments to commit budget to the World Rally Championship with hospitals struggling to stay afloat in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, but Britain’s WRC malaise is about far more than the current pandemic.
It pains me to say it, but, as things stand, it’s difficult to see a medium or long-term future for Britain in the World Rally Championship.
Five decades of British rallying history – almost 50 years at the very forefront of world rallying – are currently disappearing before our very eyes.
There is still hope that a Belfast-based Rally Northern Ireland could be landed for 2022.
It’s about time we paid tribute to the efforts of those in Northern Ireland. To most, Bobby Willis is a former co-driver; to some he’s the man behind Rallymaps. The reality is he’s actually one of the most dedicated and hardest working men in rallying.
It was Willis that picked the Circuit of Ireland up and took it back to the European Rally Championship and, if Belfast welcomes the WRC back, it’ll because of Bobby’s hard work. He will, no doubt, be deeply embarrassed to read these words, but I don’t care. Yes, he has good people around him, but he’s still the one putting in the ridiculous hours to make his dream come true.
I’ve known Bobby for years and it would have been easy for me to take exception to his decision not to talk to me for the last six months, but he couldn’t have been clearer on his motive: he was – and is – quite simply unwilling to compromise anything with any kind of on or off-the-record briefing. For now, he has nothing to say.
But, through conversations with similarly minded folk like the Member of Parliament for North Antrim, Bobby’s input and output remain very obviously at the absolute maximum.
And significant thanks have to go to said MP, Ian Paisley.
Anybody familiar with Hansard (the House of Commons’ official transcript of parliamentary business) will know that the words World Rally and Championship don’t trouble the pages too often. Except when Paisley’s on the case. He’s knocked on the right doors tirelessly for the last couple of years and fully understands the absolute value his constituents and the wider Northern Ireland community could extract from a WRC return.
Let’s hope, with coronavirus considerably less front and center, Willis and Paisley get the reward they richly deserve, in 2022.
And who knows, if everything works as we know it could, that short-term solution to Britain’s WRC aspirations could turn into something longer-standing.
But what about Scotland? Wales? England?
We should remember we remain in the middle of a three-year agreement with the Welsh Government. Year one was 2019, 2020 was the non-existent year-two event and this should be the third year.
When the deal was done, Motorsport UK chairman David Richards talked of a ‘pause’ clause in the contract. The thinking behind this was a window of opportunity for the event to visit other regions, regions such as Northern Ireland, safe-ish in the knowledge that a Welsh return would trigger another tranche of funding (albeit dramatically less than the early years fiscal input).
So why not just go back to Wales? As outlined a couple of months ago, there’s just not the same appetite for Rally GB as there once was. Former head of major events for the Welsh Government Gwilym Evans was an enthusiastic supporter of the event, always ready to extoll the virtues of a 20-year partnership which had delivered tens of millions in tourism spend up and down the country.
Evans’ retirement was another blow to hopes of an extended stay in the principality.
If we’re honest, the rally had grown restless in Wales anyway.
The time had come for a change, but any hope of that change coming on preferable terms for British rallying have disappeared with today’s news.
When there was an ongoing event in Wales, British rallying had a bargaining chip. It had the ability to trade deals off against other deals. Rally GB’s position today is considerably weaker than it was now.
That said, it would be naïve to think regions don’t talk between themselves. Of course they do. Going to Scotland and offering it the chance to match Wales’ £5m per year offer would have you laughed out of Edinburgh in the blink of an eye.
Another fact worthy of miserable consideration is the planning for major events. A senior source in one of Britain’s planning departments told me they’re already well down the road with events coming in 2025. The prospect of sourcing regional funding for a WRC round in anything less than three years I’m told is fanciful in the extreme.
Worse still for Rally GB is the demand on calendar slots for the WRC.
There are only going to be between 12 and 14 spaces available for the next few years and the last events meeting was attended by representatives from 19 events. Eighteen of those are viable…
Understandably, WRC Promoter is going to derive as much income as possible from those 12 or 14 rallies and limiting supply is only going to drive demand and price in one direction.
Richards talks of the WRC needing to reconsider its future. He charges the FIA and the WRC Promoter with the onerous task of cutting costs of competing while delivering increased value – in terms of global eyeballs – from that reduced income.
I couldn’t agree more. And few understand the economics of the WRC better than him.
But for now, maybe he’d be better focusing his attentions on his own house. His own family.
Given that those in British motorsport’s Colnbrook headquarters will now have Rally GB weekend free, I’d like to suggest a trip across the Channel. Head to Ypres and take a look at what’s possible for a rally with zero WRC heritage.
Belgium’s debut in the world championship will be a sight to behold, with Alain Penasse’s organization delivering a spectator experience on another level from what Rally GB has had on offer in recent years.
Admittedly, the logistics of housing fans on stages with great transport and logistical links is far easier than trying to pour 200 cars down a muddy forest road made for half that number. Thinking out of the box is usually the more expensive option and not always necessarily compatible with an organization burdened with a wage bill like that of Motorsport UK.
Is this the end of the road for Britain’s WRC round? Only time will tell, but every year it’s out, it gets harder to come back.