Cast your mind back. Back to school. Back to PE. It’s netball. Or rugby. Captains are out front picking their teams. This name. That name. Not your name. Then there were two. Now it’s just you.
Cross country. That was the only time I found myself in that position. I didn’t mind – I was once built for speed.
But I know the feeling. So I know how the World Rally Championship might have been feeling.
Lining up alongside other global series, the WRC watched Formula 1 get picked. Then Formula E, Dakar, Extreme E and, of course, the World Cup for Cross-Country Bajas.
Now, Saudi Arabia is casting a very serious eye in the direction of the WRC.
Finally, a common sense connection could be made sooner rather than later.
The word in Croatia last month was that the World Rally Championship was very much on its way back to the Middle East.
Sources have been sketchy on this one. We know negotiations are in an advanced state with WRC Promoter and we know there’s a fairly epic event on offer within the confines of the Kingdom.
Where will it be based? Well, that’s the thing. It looks like it’ll be very much in the middle of nowhere. And that’s a very good thing.
From the sounds of it, Saudi’s all set to return a genuine sense of adventure to the World Rally Championship. Yes, I know, I know, the Safari returned for the first time in two decades last season. And Kenya was a fantastic event. But it didn’t take us into the wilderness in the way it once did.
Saudi Arabia will. The thinking is that the service park will be a cluster of Dakar-style bivouacs in the desert. Naturally, said tented village will lean very much more towards glamping than a handful of dusty gazebos. But I love the thinking behind what will be a genuinely Middle Eastern round of the championship.
And what about the competition? From what I can glean, there are three distinctly different styles of road for each day, ranging from those with a volcanic backdrop, through the mountains to the definitive desert.
And yes, I’m very aware there will be plenty of you staring at the screen with a very different bunch of questions venturing towards the forefront of your mind.
I would have been with you if I hadn’t been in AlUla for the Extreme E opener last season. The enthusiasm from the locals was huge. Rarely have I had so many people genuinely wanting the – DirtFish – shirt off my back. I was amazed at two things: the depth of knowledge and the age of those demonstrating that knowledge.
Around 70% of the Saudi population is aged below 40. And a significant proportion of that 70% is totally tech-savvy and sports-driven.
Saudi Arabia is changing. We know that. Vision 2030 is at the heart of that.
Vision 2030 is a framework for change in the Saudi economy and way of life. It’s about diversifying the national dependence on oil revenue, while simultaneously developing service sectors like health, education, tourism and, of course, motorsport.
The Saudi Motorsport Company was established six months ago with the primary focus of further developing what’s already a burgeoning motorsport sector. And this is more than just flag-waving, this is a solid commitment to young Saudis with a passion for rallying – it’s about drivers, yes. But it’s also about a new generation of co-drivers, engineers, technicians, logistics experts and, of course, marshals and women and men capable of running rallies for themselves.
It’s about the future.
Beyond the sport, it seems we’re pretty good on the tourism front too.
Before 2018, the tourist visa just wasn’t a thing in Saudi Arabia. It is now. Why? Formula E. The introduction of such a globally exposed race series helped deliver change. In a similar time frame, the number of sports federations in the Kingdom have tripled to more than 90.
And motorsport sits at the very heart of that.
The WRC has been absent from the Middle East since 2011 and that’s something that has to be changed. We made it back to Africa last year. This year we’re returning to Asia with Rally Japan and the Pacific with Rally New Zealand. The Americas will almost certainly be re-installed for 2022 and hopefully with the Middle East alongside them.
I’m not about defending Saudi Arabia. But I am about globalizing the World Rally Championship. The WRC’s Euro-centric days are apparently done.
And not a moment too soon.