And then there were four. Or five. Technically six, but who really knows?
The loss of Rally Finland and Rally New Zealand was absolutely predictable, but still comes as a shock when the news was confirmed that the streets of Jyväskylä will stay quiet through the city’s biggest weekend of the summer.
And Auckland will have to wait another 12 months for the return of the world’s fastest rally cars.
The Finnish government put the writing on the wall for Rally Finland on Sunday, when there was no significant movement on the date to allow mass gatherings of more than 1000 people before August 1. The only thing they said was that they would consider such a move again before the middle of the month.
The middle of the month is when Finland organisers were scheduled to start sending purchased tickets out. That was never going to work.
As for New Zealand, that was even less likely. Having contained the COVID-19 coronavirus so successfully, the land of the long white cloud was never going to open its doors to the rest of the world in less than three months.
Sport – regardless of its commercial importance to the country – was put firmly in its place yesterday when Kiwi prime minister Jacinda Ardern poured cold water on speculation that foreign America’s Cup teams could be allowed into Auckland to start preparations for the yachting world’s biggest event in March.
What now then?
Rally Argentina remains postponed, not canceled, but the logistics of rescheduling a trip to South America before the end of the season are, according to sources, prohibitive.
Rally Italy, which should have been running this week, is pushing hard to move into an autumn date. While it was based on the mainland, the Sanremo Rally traditionally ran in October and Sardinia has done the same as recently as 2012. That’s reckoned to be entirely possible – especially if Italian rallying kicks off again with the European Rally Championship-qualifying Rally di Roma in July.
Aside from those postponed or canceled, there are four rallies which remain with firm dates on the calendar: Turkey, Germany, GB and Japan. Sources have indicated Germany and Japan are the most likely to run of those four.
With three rounds on the board, the thinking is – and we still await and official dictate on this – we need another four or five rounds to make handing out 2020 World Rally Championship silverware worthwhile.
If postponements in Argentina and Sardinia are reinstated and the remaining four events all run as planned that would give us a best-case scenario of nine rallies.
FIA rally director Yves Matton remains upbeat about the season.
“I’m still confident,” he told DirtFish. “With all the information we have for the moment, we will have between four and five events before the end of the year. Mainly all organizers are working normally. I don’t say that it’s easy and, for sure, there are some different constraints from one [organizer] to another and also some different business cases, if you can say like that.
“But we are working closely with all the events and the promoters on a weekly basis to try to help them as much as possible to achieve their work. But, for the moment, for me there is no sign that we will not be able to do four or five events before the end of the year.
“There are still a lot of question marks on a lot of things, but what I know is that 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 ones are the decisions [is] coming from the government and it is really step-by-step from the government.
“When you have some events that are between now and four months it’s difficult for them to have 100% of the information they need but they continue to work and submit to us information we need to achieve with them the running of the event.”
The different business cases element of Matton’s words is one of the key drivers here.
As outlined by DirtFish earlier this week, Britain – and Germany – relies heavily on the income from ticket sales. At the moment, Rally GB can’t even consider marketing tickets for an event where its principal backer – the Welsh government – is very clear in its message that it doesn’t want people coming to Deeside, Newtown and the surrounding woods. “Visit Wales. Later.” You can’t argue with that very clear message.
Even if they could start selling tickets for the late October event, the market for the World Rally Pass is desperately short on confidence right now; would you buy a ticket to an event in October?
That lack of ticket sales was another key driver in Finland’s decision – another event where fan revenue is paramount to the event’s survival.
The business model for Turkey and Japan is different. Those events rely more heavily on regional funding which means they’re far less susceptible to a shortfall of footfall.
Turkey’s perennial doubters are quick to question the financial viability of the event, but right now there’s the more prosaic point of Maramaris – the host town – still being locked down due to the coronavirus.
Japan in mid-November? That’s possible. And, as you might imagine, certain sections of the service park are pushing hard to make it happen.
From here on in, the wriggle room has gone. If we’re going to have a world championship this season, we can’t lose any more events. The next indicator is Turkish paperwork. The draft route for Turkey was scheduled to be with the FIA in early April and the manufacturers by the end of the month. It hasn’t made it as far as the manufacturers yet. It’s the same story with Rally Guide 1 – due four months ahead of the event (Turkey’s due to start on September 24) – which has yet to appear on the event’s website.
Asked to predict this year’s championship, once senior team source offered: “We might just make seven, with Turkey, Germany, Japan and Sardinia joining the three we’ve had. If we lose Turkey, we can still make a championship with six this season. If we lose Germany as well, then it’s going to be difficult…”
One organization it’s impossible not to feel for right now is WRC Promoter. Undoubtedly, there will be those out there ready to turn the guns on Munich, but what can they do? What on earth can Oliver Ciesla and his team do to raise an umbrella above the WRC to shelter it from the chaos currently raining down on the world? Nothing.
All the WRC Promoter can do is keep working through scenarios and solutions so when the coronavirus subsides, the WRC comes out prepared for the fight in the short, medium and long term.