Poland’s back! Yet you could have heard a pin drop.
Suggesting there’s no excitement about Poland’s return to the World Rally Championship would be wide of the mark. But it’s equally true that the comments I’ve read since the event announced its inclusion on the 2024 calendar yesterday haven’t been hugely positive either.
“Bring back Rally New Zealand.”
“Another round of the European world championship.”
“Wales back please.”
“Oh look, another fast European gravel rally. Joy.”
Clearly, some reticence exists within the fanbase at least. So why the negativity? What does Poland bring to the WRC?
To be counter-intuitive and tackle the second question first (as it’s simpler), the answer is plenty.
Anybody that’s played DiRT Rally 2.0 will be well accustomed to the challenge the Polish stages provide. Narrow yet fast with plenty of crests over jumps, Poland’s not for the faint-hearted.
It’s also a rally-mad country with plenty of history. Of next year’s WRC events, only the Monte Carlo Rally is older, first held 10 years before Poland was (1921) in 1911.
And it served up great rallies the five times it has been in the WRC too. In year one there was the sight of Sébastien Loeb (and Jari-Matti Latvala on the final superspecial!) sensationally crashing and opening the door further for Mikko Hirvonen’s resurgence, then who can forget Ott Tänak’s famous heartbreak of 2016 and his final day battle a year later with Thierry Neuville which went Neuville’s way after Tänak crashed?
Indeed, the reason the WRC stopped visiting Mikołajki was never for sporting reasons, rather another two s’s. Spectators and safety.
But speaking to WRC event director Simon Larkin in August when rumors were emerging that Poland could be back, he was clear: “Everything has moved on since then.
“The PZM, Polish motorsport federation, have done an exceptional job of improving every part of their event management and safety management over the years in ERC, and that ERC event has been run to the highest standards in the ERC, no question.”
To which ERC championship manager Iain Campbell added: “The safety delegate report on both years we’ve been there has said that the safety manual has been the highest standard one, and should be used as the template for all of our events.”
Safety, then, shouldn’t be a concern. And as such, Larkin said the return of Poland “has always been a target of ours for the last couple of years”.
“It’s a critical market,” he explained. “Look at the number of competitors we have, look at the audience, the events are very, very well run, the knowledge of the sport in Poland is exceptional, we have our new TV partner Motovisia there which takes everything that we’ve got and is getting extensively high numbers of audience.
“It’s a great market for everyone. M-Sport Poland is based there. We’ve got Miko Marczyk, we’ve got Kajto [Kajetanowicz], it’s an interesting market for everyone.”
Poland clearly has value, but it’s evidently not of interest to everyone as proved by some of the fan responses on social media. If I’m honest, I share their view.
In most other years, there’d likely be few who’d be disgruntled by the trip to Poland. But placed in 2024’s schedule, which already includes two other fast, gravel rounds in the Baltic region (Latvia and Finland) it’s hard to feel too enthused by an event that’s, to be blunt, effectively offering more of the same.
What makes the WRC great is its variety. The sharp contrast from the snow of Sweden to the scorching Sardinian sun, the twisting roads of Japan and the high speed of Finland.
Balance is key, and naturally some events – take Croatia and Central European Rally for example – will share similar characteristics. But each event ideally needs its own USP to really stand out (Croatia the low-grip asphalt, CER its three-nation format to extend that particular example), and there are more than enough high-quality rallies in the world for that to be the case.
There were already questions when Estonia arrived in the WRC that we really didn’t need another high-speed challenge because we had Finland.
Personally I never subscribed to that theory – the nature of Estonia’s roads are different enough to Finland, and watching rally cars fly between the trees is one of life’s greatest spectacles. Witnessing that twice a year is no crime.
But three of the same? A whopping 23% of the calendar comprising these fast gravel rallies, likely all scheduled back-to-back-to-back?
I’m not so sure.
I fully understand all the reasons a return to Poland makes sense for the WRC’s various stakeholders, but I more than understand the disappointment from some fans that of all the rallies fighting for a place on the calendar just now, it’s this one that’s got the nod first.