Once upon a time, in a time far, far away, the 2020 World Rally Championship season was set to include 14 rallies.
A time far, far away was less than a year ago. It’s been a rollercoaster ride.
There was a widely held consensus among the service park that eight events was the target to hit for a viable 2020 season. FIA rally chief Yves Matton said back in May that “if we have 50% then that’s seven and it starts to be a reasonable level of events”.
With Ypres gone, we’re down to seven. And even that has taken a huge effort in an incredibly unpredictable situation.
WRC Promoter knew its full calendar wasn’t going to survive as coronavirus set in around the world. It went looking for options months ago, with European Rally Championship events like Rally Liepaja given consideration but ultimately not taken up.
Rally Estonia, Ypres Rally and Monza Rally all made it onto the WRC calendar for the first time to plug the last-minute gaps. But leaks are appearing faster than they can be plugged.
How did we get here?
Nov 29, 2019: Rally Chile canceled
Remember 2019? No, us neither. It’s all a bit blurry now. But the WRC had lost its first round before any of us understood the full implications of COVID-19 and what was to follow.
The WRC was just reeling from having to cancel its 2019 finale in Australia due to wild fires when the first 2020 blow came.
Rally Chile was the first to fall, but that was down to civil unrest rather than a deadly virus. At the time riots were taking place in host city Concepcion, as the local population railed against a prise rise on capital city Santiago’s metro system.
That led to state of emergency and, given the rally’s early slot in the schedule on April 16-19, that ongoing state of emergency made organizing the rally properly impractical. It was hoping to be back for 2021, but it didn’t make it onto the FIA’s draft calendar for next season.
Jan 20, 2020: No Chile replacement
With the benefit of hindsight the WRC may have wished it had lined-up a direct replacement for Chile at the start of the year.
But on January 20, when it was announced Chile’s absence wouldn’t be countered with another event to bring the calendar back up to 14 events, the World Health Organization had only a day earlier understood human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 was possible.
Rally Argentina was moved forward a week to April 23 to alleviate the logistical complexities of the WRC’s South American trip, while Junior WRC reallocated its Chilean round to Rally GB.
Feb 4, 2020: Sweden narrowly avoids cancellation
COVID-19 still isn’t on the minds of the WRC paddock, with only 176 confirmed cases outside of China. But a second WRC event is on the ropes and narrowly swerves a knockout punch, as Rally Sweden shrinks its itinerary to cope with a lack of ice and snow caused by dry and warm conditions in host region Värmland.
The biggest casualty of the reduced stage mileage is Vargåsen, meaning the iconic Colin’s Crest disappeared from the rally route. But the rally still goes ahead, with Elfyn Evans winning an event that at times looked more like Rally Finland than Rally Sweden.
March 9, 2020: COVID-19 talk takes over the service park
The world has changed significantly since Rally Sweden. Italy, Spain and Iran are in the grip of major COVID-19 outbreaks and global cases have surpassed 100,000. Travel restrictions are starting to appear.
The WRC steers clear of any immediate effects, with the factory teams all arriving in Mexico for the third round of the season without issue. But final days of normality were quickly drawing to a close…
March 12, 2020: Rally Argentina falls
The first calendar change as a direct consequence of COVID-19 occurs as Rally Argentina postpones its April slot. Only a day earlier the WHO had declared COVID-19 a pandemic, while the Argentine government applied a blanket ban on sporting events, which also knocked out the MotoGP round at Termas de Río Hondo scheduled to take a place a week before Rally Argentina. By July, that postponement would become outright cancellation.
Sébastien Ogier meanwhile questions why the WRC has even tried coming to Mexico in the first place. His trepidation would be justified.
March 14: Rally México curtailed
Unrest begins growing in the service park about how the mostly European-based WRC fraternity will be able to get back to base, as countries around the world begin implementing travel bans and lockdown measures. Only a day earlier, the WHO had declared Europe the new epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rally organizers eventually give in: at 3:17pm local time on Saturday, Sunday’s stages are canceled so everyone can pack up and go home early. Five and a bit months later, those teams are still waiting to pack their kit and head out to another WRC round.
March 23: Biblical plague threatens Safari
2020 takes another bizarre turn as East Africa is hit with a plague of locusts, invading vast swathes of Kenya.
Safari Rally’s CEO Phineas Kimathi dismisses any concerns, though the UN’s Food and Agriculture body says there’s reason for concern and several Kenyan news publications point out there are significant locusts swarms in the region around Safari Rally’s base in Kitui County.
March 24: Portugal and Italy postponed
A day after concerns are raised about the Safari Rally, it becomes the next round on the WRC schedule as Portugal and Italy both push back their dates.
Portugal on May 21-24 and Italy on Jun 4-7 are both sent backwards in the calendar but neither are given new dates; instead, they’re floating unscheduled, still trying to figure out how they can slot back into the order when the COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly on a daily basis.
April 30: Rally Portugal canceled
As global COVID-19 cases tick past the three million mark, Rally Portugal becomes the first WRC event to outright cancel its 2020 edition. Automóvel Club de Portugal had spent days prior trying to engineer a move to October, but it eventually conceded the uncertainty of borders reopening and the health and safety requirements needed being unclear made rescheduling impractical.
Yves Matton had already declared earlier in the month that the WRC wouldn’t manage to run 13 events in 2020. By the end of April he was proven right, as 13 became 12. And that number would continue to drop.
May 15: Safari called off
Safari’s status as a long-haul event made it especially vulnerable to ongoing travel restrictions causing logistical headaches, concerning the teams. In the end, the locusts didn’t get in the way; the lack of clarity on whether teams would be able to get there and then come back smoothly was too big an obstacle to overcome.
Rally organizers had been pushing on to prepare for the rally as normal but, eventually, the legendary event’s return to the WRC calendar is deferred to 2021. We’re down to 11.
June 3: Finland falls
The unthinkable happens. WRC will have to do without Rally Finland in 2020. There had been suggestions made by the FIA that replacement dates in either September or October were being considered but in the end it’s a non-starter.
COVID-19 had crashed the event’s 70th anniversary bash. And the WRC is perilously close to dropping to a single-digit number of events this year.
June 5: New Zealand struck from the schedule
New Zealand disappearing off the calendar comes as little surprise. NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made clear the country’s borders will not reopen to the rest of the world for some time, making hosting an international sporting event in the country impossible for the foreseeable future.
The calendar situation is becoming even more bleak. The total number of events drops to nine, the next one scheduled is Rally Turkey in nearly four months’ time and two of those remaining rallies still don’t even have dates to run on.
June 9: Rally GB canceled
Another titan of the WRC calendar falls as Rally GB is scrapped for 2020. Aside from an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 1967, the Suez Crisis in 1957 and World War II, Rally GB had run since the 1930s.
It doesn’t help that Wales’ tourist board is the primary backer of the event, at a time when tourists and even day-trippers from across the border in England are being told to stay away from the country.
Eight events remain, with Argentina and Italy still floating in the ether.
June 10: Ypres gets a look-in
Strange times call for strange measures. With events dropping off the calendar at an alarming rate, WRC Promoter is looking at adding rallies being run as part of other championships to its own calendar. Top of the list for additions are existing European Rally Championship events and the Ypres Rally.
June 16: Liepaja throws its hat in the ring
Rally Liepaja makes a very public overture towards the WRC as it proclaims it’s in talks to be added to the calendar. Those negotiations would eventually break down, though the rally still goes ahead as an ERC event on August 14-16, having been rescheduled twice previously from earlier dates.
July 2: Estonia in, Argentina out
Rally Estonia, which had run as a WRC Promotional event in 2019, had originally been canceled for reasons unrelated to COVID-19 early in the year. Suddenly, it’s back on track and on the WRC calendar for the first time. And it’s going to be the first round when WRC returns, taking place on September 5-6.
While one new round joins the calendar, another leaves, as Argentina is formally canceled. Italy meanwhile ends three months of uncertainty by securing a new date: October 29-November 1.
July 30: Germany’s itinerary tanks
Things had been looking up. Momentum had been picking up and the dark days of early June, when rallies were being canceled faster than a poorly-rated network TV show, were behind the WRC.
Alas, Rally Germany organizers were forced to cut back the itinerary to only the Panzerplatte stages contained within the Baumholder military region, known for its hinkelsteins for stopping tanks (and Subaru Imprezas, as Petter Solberg learned in 2004). And it was going to need to negotiate a special exception to have spectators stage-side, a crucial element for the rally to be able to balance its books.
July 31: Turkey shifts up
Rally Turkey moves its date forward by one week from September 25-27 to September 18-20, in theory to facilitate the introduction of Ypres to the WRC calendar, as the Belgian event is working towards securing an October 2-4 slot.
Turkey’s shift means the only rally left on the calendar that hasn’t moved, been canceled or appeared as a mid-season replacement event is Rally Japan.
August 18: Ypres replaces Japan
Rally Japan was looking forward to its WRC return after a 10 year absence, but it is forced to wait another year as its comeback is called off. Like with Argentina in March, the writing was on the wall from elsewhere, as the Suzuka 8 Hours motorcycle race had been canceled only days before.
But brought into Japan’s place is Ypres, finally able to nail down a slot after its initial target of early October fails to line up. And it’s got an expanded itinerary lined up for the WRC, including a final day based at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
August 26: Germany gone, Italy moved forward
A hammer blow is delivered to Rally Germany. Only 350 people can be on-event, including those working for the rally, the teams, the drivers and the marshals. That leaves no room for spectators, which are vital source of income for the rally. The rally is canceled thereafter.
Rally Italy takes advantage and moves its date up from the end of October to October 8-11, requested by the national governing body as it juggles a calendar filling up with additional F1 races.
September 4: Back on the pace
Almost six months since Rally México was curtailed early and the teams locked down, the WRC paddock is back in action. Rally Estonia runs its course in full and there’s even spectators allowed to watch home hero Ott Tänak score his first WRC victory with Hyundai.
September 5: Juniors get another outing
While the Junior WRC enjoys its first outing since Rally Sweden in February at Rally Estonia, it announces it will also be heading to Ypres, effectively replacing Germany as the asphalt round on its calendar.
September 16: Italians told to stay at home
There will be no crowds at Micky’s Jump this year. COVID-19 cases surge on the island of Sardinia – especially in the north-east, where a nightclub owned by former Renault Formula 1 team principal Flavio Briatore is the epicentre of an outbreak – leaving Rally Italy organizers no choice but to ban spectators from the rally.
September 20: Positive momentum
Elfyn Evans takes a shock Rally Turkey win as his rivals falter, and the WRC can add a new stretch of road to its catalogue of iconic stages; Çetibeli. Five rounds have now been completed and there’s increasing talk that Monza Rally Show may end up being added to the calendar as the new season finale. The chances of a strong end to the disrupted season are looking better. For now.
October 9: Monza joins the schedule
While Dani Sordo breaks free of Teemu Suninen to establish a healthy Rally Italy lead, there’s news afoot at the other end of the country. Monza Rally Show will be joining the WRC calendar, an event that’s been running for several decades at the famous grand prix circuit.
Purists decry the thought of a circuit rally being on the WRC calendar, though the stakeholders involved are key to point out there will be running on closed public roads outside the circuit as part of its itinerary. Meanwhile, Valentino Rossi’s phone lights up like a Christmas tree.
October 15: The second wave arrives
COVID-19 cases in Belgium are beginning to rise exponentially. Record numbers of daily cases are being set as each weekday passes, with the daily count inching ever closer to five digits. Concerns about Ypres Rally’s viability come to the fore.
FIA rally director Yves Matton points out the authorities are still backing the event to happen; it’s still more than a month way, after all. But the warning signs are hard to ignore.
October 22-23: Ypres warm-up events abandoned
Hyundai and Toyota were both in full Ypres preparation mode, with Hyundai sending Ott Tänak and Craig Breen to the South Belgian Rally and Toyota taking a pair of Yarises to the Hemicuda Rally for Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans.
South Belgian Rally is first to go, as the host city’s mayor and the event organizers agree it’s a no-go. The next morning, the Belgian government outlaws all amateur sports and bans fans from attending professional sporting events. The new rules are in place until November 19; the day before Ypres is set to start.
Hemicuda argues Toyota and Hyundai (who’ve turned around and headed north after South Belgian Rally’s cancelation a day earlier) being present makes it a professional sporting event. The Belgian Sports Ministry disagrees.
Belgium’s daily COVID-19 cases have increased to 16,746. Ypres is looking increasingly shaky.
October 28: Fans banned from Ypres
Plans for Ypres Rally to host dedicated spectator zones are scrapped. Its final day of running around Spa-Francorchamps was already set to be spectator-free within the confines of the circuit, as it had closed to the public over a week earlier.
October 30: The Ypres dream is dead
It’s been a rollercoaster year for Ypres Rally. The British Rally Championship had given up on its season very early – a sensible call, as hindsight has proven – leaving the highly respected event as only a domestic event. Then it got shunted backwards. And suddenly it was a WRC event.
And now suddenly it’s canceled.
WRC 2020 is back down to seven events again, with Monza in December the only event still remaining. And it’s also beginning to look precarious; like Belgium, Italy has experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases since the start of October. Lombardy, where the season finale will take place, has more cases than any other region of Italy.
Where we are now
Six rounds are done and dusted. Monza remains and is the WRC’s last hope of a seven-round season – the magic number Matton pointed to being the minimum amount of ‘reasonable’ events.
January 23-26: Monte Carlo
February 13-16: Sweden (shortened)
March 12-15: México (shortened)
September 4-6: Estonia
September 18-20: Turkey
October 8-11: Italy
December 6-8: Monza
Monza’s not a write-off just yet. As the Ypres warm-up rallies were being called off, the Italian national championship was ticking off round number five of the season, as Hyundai Junior driver Jari Huttunen blitzed the locals to win Rally Due Valli by almost a minute.
As it stands, the season finale at Tuscan Rewind – taking place on the very same days as Ypres Rally was scheduled to run – is still in place. If it’s able to press on, might that give the WRC hope of saving its season finale?