We are in new territory for rallying at the highest level. Records for stage mileage – or lack thereof – in the World Rally Championship were set across the last two seasons, for obvious reasons. The COVID-19 pandemic got in the way.
That shift was partly down to fewer events. But each event that did run was averaging fewer miles of action during that period of disruption too. Itineraries are getting shorter across the board.
Safari Rally Kenya is trying to reverse that perceived decline by applying for a waiver to the maximum event distance rule this year.
That sounds dramatic. It isn’t, not really. The Safari organizer is plotting a 28-mile distance increase over last year’s edition, which would put the event all of nine miles over the FIA stage mileage limit.
That raises the question. Longer rally distances? No, that’s not on the agenda. FIA deputy president sport Robert Reid has shut that idea down.
“It’s difficult to turn back time, so it would be very difficult to go back to significantly longer events,” said Reid.
“Certainly, to have a standard format where every event was significantly longer is difficult to achieve. Personally, I liked the endurance element so it’s certainly something I would be interested in exploring.”
Reid’s focus is on something else entirely. Less is more. He raises an interesting question.
“But when you have 13 events this year, is it more important to have more events and go to different countries or less events that are longer? That’s probably one of the questions.”
Some much-missed events have reappeared on the calendar for 2022. Japan will, fingers crossed, finally get the opportunity to make its WRC return after two years of postponements, while New Zealand is back after over a decade on the sidelines too.
But those additions are not new. Not really. They’ve been staples of the past in different guises. Rallying is going back to where it’s been before, not going boldly where it has never gone.
Expansion into untapped regions has always been on the radar. And there’s one country in particular that’s always on the radar: China.
China is clearly on Reid’s mind. When asked about attracting new manufacturers, Reid brings it up of his own accord: “There are lots of different manufacturers now – just look at China and all the new manufacturers. So it’s not just a core European base like it was at one time.”
There is little doubt that rallying is European-centric. South Korean marque Hyundai bases its rally operations in Germany. Toyota’s Finnish – and before that it was German. Ford’s rallying efforts have, for most of its decades-long history in the discipline, been based out of the UK.
China is the golden ticket. It’s one nation that houses 18.47% of the global population and a litany of ambitious car manufacturers. As Europe’s automotive powerhouses are busy consolidating into groups, China’s portfolio of car brands is expanding.
There's no doubt that by growing the bottom of the pyramid, we build capacity in new countries and we build from the bottom upRobert Reid
So, China. Is that, along with other large untapped territories like Russia, what the WRC should be targeting?
“Yep, that’s where we need to be,” responds Reid, when posed the question by DirtFish.
“We’ve got a lot of classic events in Europe, so it’s always going to be a balance of how we manage that; introduce new territories when the time is right.
“China is obviously a huge market. I had a call [last month] with the Chinese federation, just to explore and we’ve got to look at it not just as World Rally Championship as well.
“One of the stated objectives for our [presidential] campaign was double motorsport participation in four years. There’s no doubt that by growing the bottom of the pyramid, we build capacity in new countries and we build from the bottom up.
“We’ve seen over the years WRC going into new territories with an event that’s maybe not lasted many years and then it doesn’t happen anymore.
“When we do go these new territories, we need to make sure we build the interest and participation to actually support having these events.”
That last part is crucial and an important acknowledgment from Reid. We’ve been here before. Chasing yuan is nothing new – and on each occasion, it’s failed.
Attempt number one was in the 1990s. Two years spent as a candidate event – both of which were won by Colin McRae in a Subaru Impreza WRC – preceded the real thing in 1999: China in the WRC.
It didn’t last.
McRae leaving the 555-backed Subaru team at the end of 1998 was unexpected foreshadowing, of sorts. This time it was 555 leaving – parent company British American Tobacco pulled the plug on its title-funding of the event. There wasn’t enough government support to prop the event up at WRC level.
Fast forward a few years and the WRC tried again. 2016 was supposed to be its triumphant return. But take two fell flat on its face.
Rally China had relocated from Guangdong to Huairou, not too far away from the capital city Beijing. A sought-after market was finally back on the calendar again. Then it rained, a lot. A month out from its return, Rally China was canned. Again.
Torrential rain was the official reason, anyway. Ask those who drove the roads the week of the canceled rally and some are keen to point out the stages were perfectly drivable.
And here we are, six years later, with no return mapped out. Unlike the first time, when the Guangdong-based event kept going as an Asia-Pacific event, its Huairou replacement died there and then.
Maybe it’ll happen someday, or maybe that idea will spend the next decade in stasis. It’s hard to tell right now. Calendar expansion is not at the top of the priority list right now, perhaps – but it’s definitely there.
There’s no appetite to retain a Euro-centric calendar longer than necessary. There’s been talk of a 50:50 Europe–rest of world split being the ideal previously. Is that the solution?
“We want to have a World Rally Championship, which means we should go to different areas of the world,” said Reid.
“The Promoter has to be praised for what they’ve managed to do over the last couple of years during the pandemic; it’s been very difficult to put events on.
“The strategy has had to change because of those circumstances, so now’s the time to sit down and revisit – is the split we talked about before still relevant? What are the opportunities? Who is interested? Just review where we are with it.”
It’s early days yet. But the phone call has been made. Take three, anyone?