Is there such a thing as the perfect World Rally Championship calendar?
Many of us likely think there is. We even made a podcast about it at the end of last year.
But drawing up a utopian idea is one thing. Actually trying to deliver a schedule that works for every single stakeholder in the real world is quite another.
The very fact we were told next year’s WRC schedule would be announced at the start of September and that’s no longer looking like the case is telling.
There are so many factors that play into the delivery of a WRC calendar that it’s perhaps difficult to understand unless you’re on the inside.
So we asked today’s inside man, WRC event director Simon Larkin, about the challenge.
“Yeah, it’s not easy,” Larkin told DirtFish.
“It’s not easy now that we do the European Rally Championship and we also do rallycross [so we have to be] avoiding clashes. This year, unfortunately, we have some clashes between rallycross and the other two championships but that’s something that we won’t let happen [again].
“It’s bad for us, it’s bad for business, it’s bad for the audience.
“Rally TV is something we want to have ideally 28 to 30 appointments to watch on separate weekends, but it’s the same for our broadcasters. We have a lot of consistency in our broadcasters between all three of our championships, and we want to be able to access all three of them on an individual basis.”
It comes down to far more than just television, though.
“The biggest thing is logistics planning and movement of sea freight between our long-haul events,” Larkin added.
“We’re all committed to, if anything, reducing the amount of sea freight that we have and certainly only continuing to have one set each which is what we have at the moment, so that’s the critical equipment block that forms the basis of the calendar.”
But the situation Larkin faces this year is far from new – the need to avoid clashing with ERC and rallycross events aside.
Initially the demands placed on devising a WRC calendar were never quite so strenuous. With dropped scores in play, teams would pick which events they’d contest and so things like scheduling and logistics were far less important as nobody would travel to every single event.
But that all changed in 1994, when the teams of the time (Toyota, Subaru, Ford, Mitsubishi) clubbed together to form the WRTA – World Rally Teams Association – in a bid to fight the FIA’s control over the WRC.
Mike Greasley was taken on to sort the media/TV battle, while Charles Reynolds was enlisted to develop a logistics structure as the teams’ co-ordinator.
By 1997 the WRTA had achieved its objectives, and Reynolds went from poacher to gamekeeper as the FIA employed him to effectively run the WRC alongside the promoter with various titles such as co-ordinator, sporting delegate and rally manager over the next 14 years.
Reynolds therefore also felt like a good man to ask about the difficulty of creating, and delivering, a WRC calendar.
And he told DirtFish picking which events to include all came down to the needs of two key groups: organizers and teams.
“For the organizers, for those that had been around a long time there was tradition [which worked in their favor], but climate was one of the big bugbears and big problems everywhere. There’s a social side of it, it’s what their sponsors wanted and it’s what their councils, if you like, wanted too, because a lot of rallies used closed public roads so they had to get the regional councils onboard as well,” Reynolds said.
“And meanwhile the teams were interested in costs, because budget was tight and the teams had two kits. One was a European major kit and the other one was a so-called flyaway. It wasn’t at all – that had to go on boats because it was containers.
“And then on the side you’ve got ancillaries like fuel and tires – those organizations, whoever they might be, needed to make sure they could get their stuff out and around on time.
“From the FIA’s point-of-view there’s the overall thing that to be considered a world championship we had to include three continents, which I think is still the case.
“[But] the dictating factor has always been the shipping times for the second kit for the flyaways.”
In essence, the needs stretch far beyond which rallies offer the best stages. Of course that’s an important factor, but has always been overridden by commercial and logistical constraints.
Is that country a good market for the competing teams? Does it fit well in a schedule alongside the other events? How big is the TV audience?
Reynolds explained: “The event that’s still bubbling around which causes consternation is New Zealand.
“Fantastic event, personally [I think it has] the best rally roads in the world and well organized, but the manufacturers’ point-of-view is there’s no car market there, so why do you go?
“And then you involve the promoter and what they require, and television is a big factor. If you’ve got an enormous TV audience, surely you want to go there.
“Indonesia came in – enormous population but a very small percentage of the population was buying cars because they couldn’t afford to.
“Obviously the stages did have to be reasonably good, safety has become an increasing concern, but the promoter wanted to encourage tourism and the events to involve tourist boards – there was even a push to ensure there was a minister doing the prize presentation at the end.
“It’s a small detail and that wouldn’t have gone against an event, but that was the sort of thing [that was considered].”
Today, little has changed. It’s still all about filing the edges of the square peg so that it will fit in the round-hole.
“After where we go long haul, it’s almost like filling in the blanks a little bit in between,” Larkin explained. “One of our biggest challenges is that we are a sport that brings tens of thousands of international guests to everywhere that we go, and the upshot of that is that brings new money in.
“Ourselves, the events, governments, tourism bodies, they want to know that this is genuinely new money that comes in so we typically run in the shoulder season. Particularly here in Europe we’re running in the shoulder season in a lot of places, that’s very critical.
“And that affects in particular if we look right now in August, the fact that we have this five-week gap between Finland and Greece is two-fold. For HR purposes for our teams and everyone who are on the road doing testing, development and actual competition, we like them to have a bit of time during August to go on holiday with their family, just as other sports do as well.
“But it is also a time of year where it’s very difficult for us to slot in an event because it’s peak tourism season.”
Thinking about how all of that stitches together, personally, makes my brain hurt. So while we all may have our own ideas about what would form the perfect WRC calendar, those in charge probably don’t think such a thing exists.
Reynolds takes a long pause as he considers the question. Is there such a thing as a perfect calendar?
“No,” he laughed.