The current WRC problem that traces back six years

The Rally1 era was meant to entice new teams and drivers to the WRC. That hasn't happened, but could the 2017 cars be to blame?


Born in the city of Trier, home to Germany’s round of the World Rally Championship for so many years, Karl Marx would have been well acquainted with the WRC. He would, likely, have stood captivated at the Porta Negra as Sebastien Loeb’s domination of the event continued to grow.

The only flaw in such a consideration is that Marx was around a couple of centuries early.

While his place of birth was famous for eight straight Loeb wins (or a total of nine victories in 10 starts, pick your own Loeb-Trier stat), KM was more of a deep thinker and an extensive writer. Most famous for his wordy capitalist critique Das Kapital Marx saw a lack of central control over a nation’s economy inevitably leading to a period of significant growth being followed by a decline.

Boom and bust.

Now, as we leave Marxism (and apologies for over-simplifying some heavyweight thinking), and return to the WRC, there’s evidence that we stand on the edge of a decline.

Question is: what’s the best barometer for the economic health of the WRC? The first option most reach for is competitor demand. And the first – and highest profile – aspect of competitor demand is frontline manufacturer support.


Right now we’re at three, with Ford’s presence only possible because of M-Sport. A decade ago, it was a similar story with the mainstay of Citroën and Ford accompanied by Prodrive’s Minis, which would be lost as a genuine factory entity before the season’s end.

But as we await the delivery of the Monte Carlo Rally entry list on Monday (January 9), it’s possible – and probable – the number of front-running factory drivers will have dwindled to where it was a decade ago.

Four Toyotas are going, three Hyundais and a pair of M-Sport Ford Pumas for Ott Tänak and Pierre-Louis Loubet. I have the ultimate respect for Jourdan Serderidis taking to the mountains in a factory-spec Ford, but he’s unlikely to be challenging for the podium’s top step.

Last time we had nine names shooting for a historic Monte win was 2012.

Sebastien Loeb - Action

The reason? For me it’s straightforward and two-fold. It’s about the cost of competition and the availability of cars.

As hybrid loomed on to the WRC’s horizon, the one thing then FIA rally director Yves Matton insisted was that these cars would be cheaper than their predecessors, the fabled 2017 generation. The so-called WRC-plus cars.

Matton confidently predicted half-million Euro motors would be the thing when we started out down the road to Monte 12 months ago.


And he was right. If you only wanted half a car.

Few people in our sport know the economics of manufacturer participation like Andrea Adamo.

It was the Italian who spent months providing his then Korean paymasters with a cost-benefit analysis of a Rally1 car. Today, Adamo is forthright in his views.

“These Rally1 cars should have never happened,” he told DirtFish. “A sort of Rally2 car with a bit more power and more aero should have been the thing. Nobody really understands why we have hybrid. We have very expensive cars and no [new] manufacturers will come. Sorry, this is the truth.

“It’s quite sad when you look at the results and you don’t see so many Rally1 cars there. Maybe I’m dreaming, but you could have had five manufacturers there and with more cars and potentially more drivers able to run [under Rally2 regulations].”

It’s impossible to disagree with Adamo.

The cost of implementing hybrid has been significant – the FIA knows this as well as anybody, having shouldered the departing Citroën team’s quarter of the budget heading towards hybrid supplier Compact Dynamics – and the benefit has been negligible in terms of spreading the word of a sustainable series.

So, should we have gone Rally2-plus like Adamo says? Quite possibly. But it would likely have to be Rally2-plus with hybrid in some form. Even with 100% sustainable fuel, manufacturers aren’t big on commitment to a motorsport program based solely around internal combustion – unless it’s internal combustion via hydrogen. That’s a different column for a different day.

Today’s Rally1 cars can trace their lineage directly back to the last incarnation of World Rally Cars.

We all loved the era of the fastest rally cars ever. There’s no doubt, the 2017-2021 period was one of the most incredible in the history of our sport. With 360bhp and huge amounts of downforce, the cars were quick, spectacular and very, very special.

But were they a contributing factor to less cars at the sport’s sharp end? For me, they were. I’ve floated the concept of the ’17 car being an unnecessary expense;  the possible by-product of a series living beyond its means. It’s a suggestion greeted with mixed reviews. Yes, they were more expensive, coming in wider, lighter, more powerful, with ever more aero appendage and, of course, the return of the active centre differential.

There’s nothing new in Adamo’s talk of basing the top tier from the second level. The 2017 cars were actually rooted in 2011, when the 1600cc cars grew out of Super 2000. But by the end of the 2021 season, those cars had come further than most could have imagined in a decade. In terms of pace and price.

Expensive in themselves, those cars should have laid the launchpad for the WRC to return to the stratosphere. That they did. Rarely has rallying been compared so readily to the days of Group B in terms of fervour, fever and passion as it was in the last five years of the World Rally Car.

The irony is that today’s Rally1 cars are even quicker. Even more dramatic. If you don’t believe me, talk to Juha Kankkunen. He’s driven Toyota’s GR Yaris Rally1 and is more than happy to stand it alongside the Peugeot 205 T16 E2 he drove in 1986 in terms of commitment required and spectacle provided.

The problem?


The cost. Quite simply, Rally1 cars are too expensive. How on earth Matton did the maths and figured that these cars would be cheaper is beyond me. Granted, being able to bolt panels to a spaceframe chassis is more economical than building a brand new shell after an accident, but the bigger picture remains one demanding more dollars.

Should we have gone Rally2? From a cost perspective, without a doubt.

A bigger restrictor, aesthetic but inefficient aero and a hybrid solution would have made for an intriguing proposition.

The current manufacturers, we’re told, didn’t want that. But what about the manufacturers sitting on the sidelines or the manufacturers eyeing those sidelines with a degree of interest. We’ve gone very firmly down the road of a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush. That’s understandable.

What we’ve also done is head down the safer road. The current Rally1 cars are an absolute sensation in terms of keeping the crew safe. From the outset, from the moment Thierry Neuville tipped his Hyundai off a cliff roof-first just over 12 months ago, the FIA had to be applauded for what it had done in terms of looking after competitors.


So, maybe we need to look at this one from a different angle.

Manufacturers can, of course, afford a WRC program. They’re choosing not to.

Let’s just take a moment here. Being honest, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about a million-Euro race or rally car. A WEC Hypercar, for example, starts at two and a half times the price of a Rally1 car. Then goes north. Way, way north.

So the World Endurance Championship must be seriously suffering? Not exactly. Cadillac, Ferrari, Glickenhaus, Peugeot, Porsche and Toyota have all signed up to next year’s WEC. That’s a fabulous and enviable cross-section of automakers, from the boutique to the big time dream machines via the mainstream. Interest in endurance racing has rarely been stronger. Beyond the Hypercar class, 13 teams competed in LMP2 last season while a similar number of teams ran cars across LMGTE Am and LMGTE Pro.

Patently, at the highest level of motorsport, price is not the ultimate barrier to entry. Instead of the costs being too high, the concern is centred more on derived value being too low.

You and I both know there’s nothing, like nothing in the whole world of sport to rival the sight of a rally car bouncing off the limiter in top as a driver wrestles to keep it between the trees and dirty side down.

But it’s no good if we’re keeping our own secret.

It’s almost impossible to argue against rallying being the most relevant discipline for a car manufacturer to align itself with. Between creating heroes and legends on special stages, we’re joining the rest of the world and sharing the roads with those on their daily commute.

We’re still four years away from the next regulation change, so talk of running Rally2 cars at the top of the tree is entirely superfluous. Much better we pull together and find a way to let the rest of the world in on our secret.

Underpinning such promotion and development is co-operation and governance.

Maybe Marx was a rally fan after all…

Words:David Evans