Britain is looking to its history and heritage in an effort to secure its long-term future in the World Rally Championship.
The corridors of Motorsport UK’s headquarters in Colnbrook are echoing to the talk of linear routes and multi-region funding as the national governing body looks to find a future beyond the conclusion of the current Welsh government partnership.
That Rally GB wasn’t included on last Friday’s World Motor Sport Council list of agreed rounds for next season’s WRC came as no surprise to Motorsport UK CEO Hugh Chambers. Nobody knows better than him that there’s nothing in place with WRC Promoter for 2021.
His best hope? Try to convince Wales to roll this year’s funding into next season for one final hurrah, 21 years on from the first wholly Welsh round of the WRC.
Then, step on and move back to the future.
But what are we advocating here? Surely not a full-on return to an event starting from London Airport – a venue now more widely known as Heathrow – then trekking the length and pretty much the breadth of Britain? No. Of course not.
But if a series of regions can be stitched together to contribute towards the £2million budget to run Britain’s WRC round (and don’t forget £700,000 of that comes from ticket sales), then history could be ready to repeat itself.
Increasingly through the coronavirus crisis, we’ve seen the need for events to be ready to reinvent themselves and the capacity for greater flexibility from the teams and the event organizers. Question is, would that stretch to a heavily revised format to maintain the presence of one of the WRC’s cornerstone rallies – along with the likes of Monte Carlo, Finland and Sweden?
Chambers knows he’ll have to break a mold which was crafted by a man he worked closely with more than two decades ago: David Richards. By DR’s own admission, central service worked in the early ’00s, it reflected broadcasting and television production technology at the time. That’s less of a factor now. And anybody who questions that needs to be pointed in the direction of daily viewing figures for an annual tour, taken by bicycle, through the middle of France.
The difference now is the size and shape of the service-park. Much to the frustration of route coordinators and event planners the world over, the teams have been empowered to turn their service park presence into something which dwarfs the local Hyundai or Toyota showroom. And it’s the construction of those temporary workshops, offices, private rooms and restaurants that have anchored the sport in the past and stymied diversity and opportunity to offer creative itineraries.
And what for? Corporate opportunity would be the obvious answer. Go to Rally Finland’s Paviljonki service park and it’s impossible to argue with such consideration. For one week each summer, Jyväskylä rotates around those enormous structures with fans coming from across the land and from across Europe to stand and ogle the WRC at its ostentatious best.
In that space, at that time, they work. It’s the perfect time, the perfect place to bring heavy-hitting sponsors or manufacturer big cheeses. It’s no surprise, when a prospective WRC round wants to impress government officials, their envoy trip touches down in Helsinki and heads north.
Then you go somewhere like Turkey – or Deeside – where said edifices are as unseen as they are unnecessary. That’s a fact evidenced by the fact that there was no midday service planned in Deeside on this year’s Rally GB. Not one.
Friday was Newtown for a tire zone, with the same planned for Bala on Saturday. And, once the cars left Deeside at 0630 Sunday morning, they wouldn’t be back until after the champagne finish… in Llandudno.
And now is surely the time for looking beyond two decades in Wales.
Welsh investment has been reduced year-on-year for the last two contract cycles and by the time the current agreement is up, Rally GB will be unsustainable on that level of financial input. The economics of Britain’s round of the world championship will no longer add up.
On the promise of a calendar slot, Motorsport UK would probably justify bankrolling it for a season – but there has to be something tangible at the end of that period. Somewhere, somebody, somehow, a three-to-five-year deal would have to be in place to pick up title sponsorship and carry the event into the next generation.
And that’s the worry. The reality is of a fairly bleak, somewhat lonely-looking horizon, rather than a middle distance cluttered with potential and workable leads. In an era currently gripped by deep-set, coronavirus-focused economic uncertainty, it could be hard to see that change. It’s almost unthinkable, but the potential for Richards, who co-drove Ari Vatanen to the 1981 WRC title, to lose Britain’s WRC round on his watch is building.
It’s out of such significant concern that innovation and imagination must come to the fore.
Britain’s heritage in the WRC is about endurance and a travelling roadshow. That’s just as tradable and as strong as Finland’s jumps or Monte’s mountains (admittedly, Casino Square might give round one an edge) and it’s to that history that we must look now.
For Richards, Chambers and clerk of the course Iain Campbell the job is two-fold: immediately, plans must be made for the finest finale in Wales next season. A finale which reflects 20 years’ investment from one of the most solid and dependable partnerships (apart from when DR’s predecessor was taking the Welsh Government to court after funding was withdrawn when Rally GB failed to appear on the draft 2010 calendar).
Following that are the hard yards that accompany the flip side of a clean sheet of paper. And there’s nobody better equipped in Britain to color that clean sheet of paper than Rally GB route coordinator Andrew Kellitt.
Granted, Kellitt’s not at the commercial coal face, but neither should he be. He’s the man who can tie any kind of route together. And, yes, he’s been around while, but it’s precisely the sort of experience that’s needed to make Kielder and Cumbria work on the same day, if needed.
Motorsport UK needs to understand that nothing is off the table right now and that includes the potential for revisiting a possible Belfast base – something MP Ian Paisley raised in the House of Commons only this week.
They’re going to need to work harder and longer than ever before to keep Britain’s hopes of a WRC round alive. Colnbrook’s brightest commercial minds need to keep throwing ideas for Kellitt and Campbell to craft into something great.
Now more than ever, failure to prepare for what’s coming will undoubtedly mean we should face up to the potential failure of Rally GB.
Working in the event’s favor is recognition – from both WRC Promoter and the FIA – of Britain’s WRC status.
When you talk to FIA rally director Yves Matton about the potential for a move from Wales, it sparks the deep-set rally man inside him who has seen a lot of drama over the years on Rally GB.
As well as being the man at the helm, the Belgian’s a rally driver too. He understands the importance of thundering through Dyfi at dawn, but also appreciates the nomadic foundations on which the event was built.
“In my eyes, part of the DNA of the rally is going to different roads, different challenges and for sure this could be if, for them, it’s [a] better approach and an easier approach to have a good business plan to have a sustainable event to go like that,” said Matton.
“But for sure when I say that, Wales is part of the history of Rally GB; don’t take it like I don’t want to go to Wales or I don’t want to go back to Wales. For me Wales is part of the DNA of Rally GB, then we need to go there, but it’s not for me mandatory to be there each year.”
Chambers is on the same page, with the potential for a two-pronged attack on the event’s short and medium-term future.
“We’re working with the Welsh government for 2021,” he revealed to DirtFish.
“We want to come back next year with a bang and have the best Rally GB ever. We want to be really creative; Oulton Park last year showed venturing into England was very successful and we did it strategically to bring interest into Wales. That’s the whole reason to ask [the Welsh] government sponsors us.
“Equally, the Welsh government has encouraged us to think about alternative regions in the UK.
“It’s baked into our contract with them that, if we did have – as we would’ve had with Northern Ireland – the opportunity to go to another region or another country, they would’ve fully applauded that.
“For the future of the UK round of the WRC, we really need to think creatively about how we can look at formats and how we can look to utilize the rich heritage of the whole of the UK for rallying. Wales should be part of that future, but that isn’t perhaps on an annual and a unique basis.”
The page is the same. Now let’s make sure it’s a clean sheet of paper.