For the first time in my life, Britain’s round of the World Rally Championship has been canceled.
Canceled as in, it’s not happening. Surprising. Staggering. Shocking. Gut-wrenching.
Since March, I’ve sat at this laptop and typed coronavirus-touched words about Rally México ending a day early, Argentina, Portugal and Sardinia being postponed; Portugal being canceled; Safari, Finland and New Zealand being canceled. But now, for the inner rally fan inside me, this thing just got 100% and enormously real.
No. Rally. GB.
Talking to colleagues and fans around the world – especially and most recently in Finland – the feeling is the same: you see it coming, you know it’s going to happen, but then it smacks you between the eyes and completely floors you. This year, there will be no wellies, no sandwiches in the rain, no delicious aroma of mud being baked onto the exhaust of a hard-charging World Rally Car.
It’s hard to accept. But there’s no alternative. And, if we’re honest, we saw this one coming.
Last month’s news that Motorsport UK wasn’t able to sanction co-drivers in cars raised alarm bells while Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford effectively shouted the message from the rooftops of the principality’s closed hotels.
The message was a simple one: sporting events were not on the agenda, especially not in the cold, wet, miserable autumnal conditions in which coronavirus, according to Drakeford, prospers.
For a sporting event run deep into the Welsh autumn, funded from coffers controlled by Drakeford, Rally GB was only going one way. South. (And that’s a metaphorical south, I’m not suggesting we’re heading back to Cardiff…)
Undoubtedly, a Welsh Government-backed Rally GB offered Drakeford the potential for a significant statement of intent; what better way to signal just how serious Wales is taking the immediate and potentially continued COVID threat than to tell thousands of folk from earth’s four corners not to come to an event that puts it in the spotlight of global motorsport every year?
And what could Motorsport UK do about that? Absolutely nothing. I’ve had the odd run-in with Colnbrook down the years, but this time it’s impossible not to feel a significant degree of sympathy. When your principal funding partner tells you it’s a no, it is, most definitely, a no.
There will, undoubtedly, be plenty of chatter about this decision, no end of questions regarding the timing of the decision. Could Motorsport UK CEO Hugh Chambers have waited a while before he pulled the trigger?
Truth be told, even if Drakeford hadn’t said what he’d said, the time was upon the team to start spending more serious amounts of cash to lock down the foundations of the event. Now, I’m all for a gamble, but not with the odds facing Rally GB. Spending money on Britain’s round of the championship would have been commercially irresponsible at a time when every penny counts in keeping Rally GB afloat.
Beyond the economic argument, there’s the scientific, clinical and moral argument against encouraging thousands and folk to gather in one place. Admittedly, with the service park being back in Deeside, those numbers might be better measured in their hundreds, but the fact remains, it’s irresponsible to be promoting such an event. And, yes, I know, there’s plenty of opportunity to social distance in the Sweet Lamb bowl, but in lots of other places, spectators are packed much closer together – especially under the trees once it starts raining.
And no, limiting the number of spectators isn’t an option – Rally GB needs ticket sales revenue to make the thing float. And anybody thinking about drawing a comparison with the British Grand Prix (of which there are two this year), just don’t. The business model is quite, quite different, drawn on a Formula 1-funded commercial canvas which bears no similarities to the WRC.
Forgetting the fiscal side of things for a while, it’s also worth remembering the local communities we’re dealing with. Yes, the hotels and businesses around Deeside and Newtown would be desperate for the rallying pound in late October and early November, but Rally GB relies heavily on the goodwill of the local population. When Andrew Kellitt is drawing up his route for the rally, he knows he can rely on the support of the good folk of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Running an event that would bring thousands of people down the A470 and past their door would potentially trample over an association with and an appreciation of our sport which has been built up and passed down the generations. We cannot risk the potential for significant long-term damage to the event; it wouldn’t take many of those along the route to remember a decision to run against their will when it comes to plotting and planning for next year. An anti-rally local population can bring an event to its knees just as quickly as the coronavirus.
As we begin the reflect on the rally that won’t be in Britain this year, there’s the firm, sobering realisation that, actually, Wales really was pretty good. And for pretty good, read really very, very good. It was a Finnish colleague that hammered this home to me, as I talked dejectedly about missing Jyväskylä, he responded with similar sentiment about Wales.
“You tell me about Moksi or Päijälä and I’ll tell you about Dyfi and Myherin,” he said. “Both are the best roads in the world.”
He’s not wrong. And now, more than ever, I can’t tell you how much I want to be driving back past Starbucks on the way into Deeside Industrial Park for the start of Wales Rally GB. I’ve been fairly vocal in the past about the need for Britain’s round of the WRC to climb Offa’s Dyke, turn left and head north. Or potentially go in the opposite direction, cross the Irish Sea and do a season in Belfast.
But now, right now, Wales would do me just fine.