Two decades ago, David Richards was extolling the virtues of manufacturer participation in the World Rally Championship while simultaneously restricting privateer access to the sport’s pinnacle. At the same time, he introduced a cloverleaf format which contained rallies in the corner of a country, drastically reducing the sport’s reach in terms of side-of-the-road fans.
How times have changed.
Richards is now lambasting the sport for lavishing too much attention on factory teams, while largely ignoring the privateer.
And the fans? They’re largely gone. Two decades ago, Richards says a Colin McRae and Richard Burns-fueled British press heaped as many column inches on the WRC as it does on Lewis Hamilton’s Formula 1 world today.
When Richards acquired International SportsWorld Communicators from Bernie Ecclestone at the start of the millennium, he predicted the WRC would be flying high by 2005. He predicted you and I would be able to watch the WRC live from, well, wherever we wanted; we’d be choosing our own camera angles and delving into a rich history to watch archive footage at will.
And if we fancied getting a bit more hands on, we’d be able to compete on every WRC round. Real-time. From behind the device of our choice. The plan was to mate virtual WRC with the real thing, so I would check into a control a minute behind Marcus Grönholm. Then drive the same stage immediately after him.
Richards sold ISC to North One Television in 2006. His 2005 dream hadn’t been realized. Parts of it still haven’t been.
This isn’t about bashing David Richards. He was – and is – a visionary. He had the measure of the WRC and set about building it into a F1 rival. And he came close. Perhaps as close as he was allowed.
Richards’ plan was to create a series which followed a uniform format which ran from Friday to Sunday and looped out to stages from a centralized service park. Three locations in the morning, three in the afternoon.
All of this facilitated the move towards live television coverage, while also offering the teams the opportunity to create a paddock-type environment which would stimulate inward investment from backers keen to jump on the growing wave that was the WRC.
Privateer drivers, the backbone of the sport? Yes, they were all well and good and they’d helped deliver the sport to this tipping point. But there wasn’t room for them moving forwards.
From 2002, WRC entries were limited to 90 cars. Thirty would be World Rally Cars, 30 would be official support series entries, five would be wildcard entries and the other 25 were to be shared out among the 100-plus who had supported rallying’s top flight year-in, year-out.
Richards wasn’t blind to the views of the private drivers he was alienating, but he pointed to the greater good and to a sport which would soon be grabbing global eyeballs like never before. The WRC had rarely looked stronger, it’s future never as bright. And the pay-off for this would be felt all around rallying. Domestic series, regional championships would catch a tow and watch demand exponentially grow.
But there wouldn’t be room for 200-car entries, not when ISC would be generating, processing and delivering so much data from each car, real-time and live into laptops around the world.
That Richards moved the sport out of the dark ages is beyond question. He brought in a universal timing system that delivered dependable results from all of the earth’s four corners and he built a tracking system which undoubtedly saved lives.
In the early 2000s, the WRC was busy being commercialized. Deals were done with household names like Puma and Sony. As much as the events had to sign up to this brave new world, so the teams were handed marketing agreements outlining their spend and responsibilities.
The WRC found its own font, all part of the strategic pursuit of those around the world aged between 16 and 35. And, don’t forget, we were ready to turn ourselves into a winter series – the 2007/08 championship was sanctioned by the FIA to start in August ’07 and finish 12 months later.
And there would be no clashes with F1. In fact, the WRC would alternate with F1 to create a week-in-week-out motorsport viewing appointment.
Ultimately, television didn’t buy the WRC. Broadcasters around the world were tempted, but failed to arrive in the expected droves.
I disagree with him. We have to separate the professional world and the amateur world.Yves Matton, FIA rally director
ISC was sold. Richards had given the ball a kick. Talking to him now, you get the overwhelming feeling that he wonders how often that same ball has been hoofed since.
But when, at the back end of last year, he castigated the lack of opportunity for private drivers; that was too much for some to stomach. Richards would, no doubt, question the same method, infrastructure and vision he walked away from 15 years ago still being used today.
The market has moved on and, in his new role as the guardian of British motorsport, he finds it frustrating that there are half the number of manufacturers and, in his eyes, nothing like the numbers watching the WRC.
Richards told DirtFish: “For far too long we have neglected the participant, the competitor who pays from his own money to build his own car to compete on the rally, only to be left sort of at the back, and given all the glory to the frontrunning teams, the manufacturer teams.
“We’ve got to start to think where the customer is, and give them the support they really deserve. Cut our cloth accordingly, and we will bring the sport back again in the future.”
Predictably, FIA rally director Yves Matton takes issue with Richards and his thinking.
“He is wrong,” said Matton. “I disagree with him.
“I want to say, first we have to separate the professional world and the amateur world. Looking at the amateur world, with the Rally3 car coming in, we have the right tools to access motorsport at a reasonable cost.
“Never will motorsport be cheap. You cannot say [that] and I think never will it be cheap. Why I say that and why I believe we have done a major step, I will tell you.
“When you see in France that at Rallye Mont-Blanc you have 40 Clio Rally5s starting. It’s back 15 years ago since before we [last] saw so many cars starting some trophies.
“When in countries like Chile or some [other] countries in South America, you start to see we have FIA-homologated cars starting to be there. It means that we achieved something in terms of the pyramid of rally cars and it will be even more visible with Rally3, for sure.
“I think in terms of cars, or the tools that drivers are using to do their sport, we start to see that what we put in place three years ago is now bringing an effect. That’s the first scene.
“On the second level, I want to reply using a sentence that David Richards said 15 years ago: ‘It’s not the regulations that decide what the board want to decide for the discipline, it’s the board who decide what they want to spend.’
“That is very important. And I can tell you, even now when were are working again with all the manufacturers to put in place new regulations for Rally1 you can see that, at the end, it’s the board who decide what they want to invest in the discipline. What they believe is the value of a discipline.”
One of Richards’ mantras centered on the desire to build value rather than cut costs in the WRC. In the intervening period the global economy has melted twice and the post-pandemic rebuild is looking like a significant challenge in a sports market considerably more crowded than it was in the year 2000.
There’s little doubt, the appetite for rallying remains strong. But still the sport wrestles with the significant challenge of commercializing an entity which folk love, but don’t always understand.