The harsh realities of the WRC’s calendar quandary

As rally postponements pile up, a new WRC calendar looks like an unwinnable game of chess

Jari-Matti Latvala

Rarely have I stared at a wall for so long with so little return. Literally, for just over an hour now, I’ve been looking deep into the 2020 planner which sits in the office.

Just over an hour ago, I asked myself how difficult it could be to put together a replacement World Rally Championship calendar. It can’t be that bad, plenty of weeks and weekends left in the season. I’ll write a story outlining the DirtFish solution to the 2020 calendar. In a world of short stories, that one would have set an epigrammatic record.

In short, it’s a nightmare.

Every now and then, there was a eureka moment. Until I remembered I’d forgotten parameter x. Parameter x could have been anything from event KPIs to deliver footfall during a tourist season, or weather complications compromising tyre allocations.

FIA rally director Yves Matton is absolutely right about one thing: the 2020 season will not run to its expected 13 rallies (originally 14, don’t forget, before we lost Chile to social and political unrest on the Pacific side of the Andes).

Portugal’s decision to cancel confirmed that on Thursday.

It’s tough to say but, in my opinion, it’s almost impossible to see a way to run Argentina, Kenya and New Zealand this season. Privately, Argentina’s already accepted it won’t be seeing the service park again until next year.

Kenya’s fallen into precisely the position many hoped it wouldn’t fall in to (but most predicted it would), with nobody stepping forward to take a decision. The FIA and WRC Promoter are sympathetic, but quick to point out that decisions on when to postpone the event must come out of Nairobi.

Andreas Mikkelsen

Photo: Jaanus Ree / Red Bull Content Pool

Forgive me, but I’m not really in sync with that one. The FIA can’t postpone or cancel the Safari Rally, but it can surely scratch or suggest a reconvening of round seven of its own world championship?

Asking the promoter to cancel a rally is like asking a shop keeper to shut their doors the week before Christmas. Unlikely, despite the teams keen to avoid travelling to a country where the coronavirus pandemic is understood to be still growing.

So it falls on the organizers of the rally themselves. And why would they want to make any hasty decisions? Absolutely understandably, they wouldn’t. Sticking with Christmas, if a turkey’s got to vote for it, it’s going to wait as long as possible – just in case there’s any possible chance Christmas might go out of fashion.

It’s unreasonable and, to my mind, unacceptable to allow the weight of the decision to fall on organizers locally. I understand there are insurance and financial implications which surround such decisions – we saw much of this at play earlier this year when, for very different reasons, Rally Sweden hung in the balance.

Surely this has to change and the FIA has to be armed with the decision-making firepower to direct operations in a series which it governs. Countering that is the consideration that the calendar has to be, primarily, the concern of the promoter. Otherwise we end up in the situation (and some might feel we’re already there) where WRC Promoter effectively rents the shop from the FIA only to be told by the FIA what it can – and can’t – sell in its shop.

Apologies, I’ve drifted to an argument which, certainly in these more pressing times, could be considered philosophical.

Back to the task in hand: this square peg into that round hole.

The biggest parameter in all of this is, of course, the time when the world emerges fully from lockdown and coronavirus is consigned to a particularly miserable chapter in the evolution of planet Earth.

Andreas Mikkelsen

So, when’s that?

Who knows?

Nobody. That’s who.

Yes, things are improving in parts of Europe and China looks like it might have spied some light at the end of the tunnel. But who’s to say that light’s not attached to the front of a train called ‘The second wave’?

What about shunting some of the so-far unaffected rallies around? Predictably, those organisers aren’t keen at all and talk about having routes planned and prepared, roads closed, government’s worked with and so on. If there was a rally which could be more flexible, it’s potentially Germany – which is running so far out of its traditional summer date in October that shifting it forwards or back a week might not make too much difference. Providing such a decision is made early enough. And early enough is, er, now.

Any event which is less than four months away, which is Finland and creeping towards New Zealand is starting to incur real costs now with hotels unlikely to refund on big bookings and land owners starting to push for a bigger wedge of their cash.

Let’s look at what’s increasingly being seen as the most, how to put this, optimistically sensible option that we’re back in business in September. Sod’s law would dictate the first event is a reasonable hike Asia-wards in Turkey.

Is it possible to lob the cars and kit on a boat out of Turkey, steam through the Aegean, crank it up past Malta and dive into Sardinia?

Portugal was aiming for the end of October – so, the week between Germany and GB? Or maybe Rally GB could have dropped back a week.

Service park

My plan would have been to stick Portugal the weekend before Germany, then give the teams a few days to get across Spain, the Pyrenees and north-east through France to Bostalsee. Then leave Sardinia until the first week in December.

But what about the postponed Finland? Hang on a minute, I think I might be on to something: let’s do what we’ve all wondered about doing for years and turn Finland into a winter rally. Jyväskylä between December 17-20? Yes please!

And if the Paviljonki’s busy and can’t fit the service park in that weekend, then don’t worry. We can get the Finnish ASN AKK to work its magic and bring the Arctic Rally forward a month and run the season finale out of Rovaniemi the week before Christmas. Lapland’s not busy that that time of the year, is it?

That’s as good as it gets from me. Nothing until September, then we have Turkey, Germany, GB, Japan, Sardinia and Finland.

One decision I’ve definitely reached this afternoon is that a career switch to co-ordination and logistics is probably not for me.