Rally GB has responded to calls for a shorter route with the delivery of a three-day route including a Friday morning shakedown.
But, like all forthcoming rounds of the World Rally Championship, the wider question for Britain’s round is whether it will happen. The potential for Welsh action in this year’s WRC hangs very much in the balance right now.
A gander at visitwales.com, the nation’s tourism site, shows the message is as loud as it is clear: ‘Visit Wales. Later.’
Therein lies the problem. Rally GB’s principal funding partner? Wales.
Ordinarily, ticket sales for the penultimate WRC round of the season would be ticking along nicely. Not this year. All fans can do right now is register an interest in buying tickets. Much as the organizers want to push the button and start selling, they simply can’t. How can they sell a reason for folk to come to – or to move about within – Wales when the official line is to do this later?
Simple. They can’t.
Everything from the organizers side is poised and ready. As well as the three-day route, there’s a more normal itinerary – now at the FIA without a Thursday night visit to Oulton Park – but with the regular north-mid-north Friday-Saturday-Sunday plan.
While the areas remain the same, there are subtle changes including the return of Gartheiniog and Clocaenog, while Dyfnant shifts back from Friday to Saturday to feature as the live television stage. Brenig remains Sunday’s midday powerstage on all versions of the itinerary, including the all-inclusive three-day option.
As expected, the event is based out of Deeside rather than Llandudno. That move, initially made for fear of a high tide washing the WRC away, could well work in the favor of the event with spectators usually in fairly short supply in the car park of Toyota’s engine plant just a stone’s throw from the English-Welsh border.
Controlling fans – and potentially the social distancing of – within the confines of Deeside is considerably easier than on the streets of the north Welsh coastal town.
Sources have indicated Rally Finland organizers are willing to close the Paviljonki service park to fans in an effort to contain the coronavirus risk.
Finland faces similar – if more pressing given its August date – dilemmas as Rally GB.
The Jyväskylä-based event is selling tickets and plans to start mailing them out in the middle of this month. Whether the event will go ahead depends very much on government advice. The latest news from Helsinki is of an increase in the number of people allowed to participate in public gatherings, with 50 people now allowed to meet indoors and outdoors. Crucially, mass gatherings, granted via special permission, are limited to 500 people until the end of July. Running Rally Finland, according to many, hinges firmly on that date being brought forward.
There are more signs of normal life returning to the Jyväskylä streets, with restaurants and cafes opening again this week. At the latest count Finland had 89 people in hospital suffering from coronavirus, 11 of whom were in high dependency units.
Like Rally GB, shifting to a two-day or two-and-a-half-day route would hit Finland hard in terms of ticket sales.
One source said: “Finland is really looking for more guidance from the government on this one. There are lots of big events planned in Helsinki and elsewhere in the country in August and all of them really need some movement on this July 31 date [the point up until which massed gatherings of 500 people is banned]. If that can be brought forward, then there’s a chance. If it can’t, then it’s very hard to see Finland welcoming thousands of rally fans across its borders just days after that ban’s lifted.
“And if Finland can’t welcome thousands of rally fans, it’s hard to make the financial case for the rally.
“The difficulty with Wales is the very odd problem of having a sponsor essentially telling it not to publicise its event. From what we’ve seen, Wales has, so far, been more conservative than England in terms of dealing with changes [to lockdown] and it would involve a degree of rolling the dice if you wanted to start pushing ahead with this one. You really can’t market an event when the government’s actively discouraging people from going to the place.”
FIA rally director Yves Matton told DirtFish the governing body was doing all it could to maintain communications with the events remaining on the calendar – especially the more immediate ones.
He said: “We are working with all events – and the promoter – on a weekly basis to try to help them as much as possible to achieve their work. They all have constraints which are different from each other and there are still a lot of question marks on a lot of things. They are working, they are sending us information and things are going on, but for sure the constraints are high and one of the main one is the decisions coming from the government. When you have events between now and four months, it’s difficult for them to have 100 per cent of the information they need, but they continue to work towards the running of the event.”
One factor the events feel complicates matters is the lack of an infrastructure to deal with the current situation. The FIA provides a timeline framework which dictates when paperwork needs to be delivered and decisions to be made – but the decision to run a rally very much comes down to the individual promoters.
The source added: “Finland, Turkey, New Zealand and Wales are all spending more and more money now. Hotels will start to pass the point where refunds can be made, so deposits could be lost, equipment will start to be paid for and the paperwork for the event will need starting. The marketing strategy for selling the tickets – it all costs. All of this money will be lost if an event is canceled or postponed.
“So, what do you do? If you’re Finland, like if you’re Wales, do you go ahead and push like crazy to bring the people in? Like I said, you roll the dice and take a gamble.”
Another facet to the Rally GB question is the current agreement with Wales. Funding for Britain’s round of the WRC has dropped in recent years and the latest three-year agreement is on a further sliding scale, with this year’s year-two investment reckoned to drop below £1m.
Pausing that agreement – which is a possibility, as we know from the potential to take Rally GB across the Irish Sea to Belfast for a single season – might not be seen as the end of the world by some within Motorsport UK. Cancelling this year would offer the chance to chase partners to bolster the coffers and, perhaps more pertinently, an opportunity to seal a deal with a new region. Like Scotland, for example.
There’s plenty of talk about events moving back in the calendar. Sardinia looks like being the only event capable of shifting to a date later in the season. Logistically, Finland could fall back into a September date likely to be vacated by Rally New Zealand (the Auckland event is reckoned the most likely to announce its postponement next), but moving Rally GB later into November or December would bring plenty of complications.
Right now, everything’s a gamble. We all want to visit Wales. But how late is later? And when is later too late?