Nine miles. More. Actually 9.3 miles. We know, we drove it and tripped it. At last week’s Rally Croatia, thousands walked it. That’s right, fans walked a round trip of 18.6 miles to watch the World Rally Championship.
Oops, sorry. Did I say watch the World Rally Championship? I meant… what does it say here? Oh, yeah: “Hello officer. I’ve walked 9.3 miles to have a picnic with these, my 24 friends. What do you mean where’s my Thermos flask?”
The suggestion that fans were told to say they were going for a picnic was one of the more amusing moments of last week’s rally. There was a significant amount of picnicking going on in the hills around the nation’s capital last week.
The organizers of the Zagreb-based event knew they were fighting a losing battle, but what could they do? The WRC was the biggest show in town – a show most Croatians never thought would land in their backyard – and nothing, not even the threat of coronavirus – was going to stop them getting out to watch and wave at their heroes.
Friday was already busy on the stages, so the organizers and the police worked closely to restrict access even further. Roads were closed from all directions – with the roadblock being placed at ever greater distances from the stage.
But when fans were seen parking up in Samobor and setting out on the walk towards the stages, president of the organizing committee Daniel Šaškin and his team threw up their arms. What more could they do?
“I remember when I went to Finland for the first time,” Šaškin told DirtFish. “I walked seven or eight kilometers. I would not walk 15 kilometers like some people did.
“We had been sending the message: stay at home, watch the rally online and on TV. Don’t come to the rally. But we couldn’t stop these people. The coronavirus [advice] is a grey area in Croatia. The masks are not mandatory. The groups gathering have to be no more than 25.
“OK, on a couple of occasions we saw a lot more than this, but mostly these people were being sensible – they were wearing masks and they were in groups together.
“When we were telling them for weeks not to come, they did not listen – but when they did come to the stages, then I think they did listen and they did wear the mask and try to stand apart. Of course, this was a concern for us.
“We know that this was a no-spectator event, but we did what we could with the police blocking the roads. I think we were quite fortunate in that the weather was quite windy and the people were all standing outside.”
Through the event, there was growing frustration from certain areas of the service park and some of the crews found it unnerving to have so many fans around on a rally which had been clearly labelled non-spectator. But beyond arresting thousands of people or simply stopping the stages and forcing people to leave, there was nothing more Šaškin and his team could do.
Looking beyond the spectator issue, Croatia was a huge success. The roads were fantastic and the organization matched them.
So, what chance of a WRC return next year?
It’s being talked about. Šaškin and WRC Promoter types sat down to lunch on Monday and talked through the coming years.
Simon Larkin, WRC Promoter’s event director, told DirtFish: “We think it was an extremely successful event, we think it brought a whole new flavor to the WRC and we could see the enthusiasm of the Croatians towards the WRC.
“We will now begin our process of internal and external debriefing about that event and put it into the context of an option for 2022. We haven’t made a formal offer.”
In short, a Zagreb return is a definite possibility.
Predictably, Šaškin’s fairly revved up for having the world championship back. Not least because he feels last week barely scratched the surface of what’s possible.
“When we are allowed to have fans,” he said, “trust me, we will see half a million people coming here to watch Croatia Rally. And because of that, we would have to make some changes to the route.
“This year people were able to move between stages on each day. This, we cannot have. If we have half a million people trying to move around we will have a big jam. We need to spread the footprint of the event much wider.
“If we can take the cars another 45 kilometers (28 miles) on one day, then we can get near to the coast for some really nice stages.
“We are interested to make this a two or three-year deal. We are grateful for this opportunity, but we know we have to improve things and we know we can make some event more challenging stages. We have learned so much from our first time and now we can do even more.”
A significant impact on whether the WRC will be back in Croatia will come later this year with mayoral elections in Zagreb.
Milan Bandić, the mayor of Zagreb (and the longest serving city mayor in the world at 21 years), died from a heart attack just weeks out from an event he had been central in planning.
“He was a big, big supporter of the event,” said Šaškin. “We have to see what is happening with the elections, but for us it was really a sad day when we had this news.”
Does Croatia have a chance? Certainly it does. Running out of a capital city was a big box ticked last week and both the police and the event organizers worked hard to make the WRC welcome and helped run a smooth and straightforward round of the championship.
Crucially, Croatia delivers a fine sporting challenge as well, with some of the most complicated and hard-to-read roads around.
The bigger question is whether there’s room for Croatia.
A 12-round calendar is expected to expand to 13 next season, but what gives?
This year’s schedule includes no Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, México, Chile, Great Britain or Germany. All of those locations will put their hand up and eight events into one doesn’t work. Not even with my math.