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GP Week : Issue 109
Going in the Right Direction? The arrival of the BMW Mini, and the expectation that VW will shortly follow, as rivals to Citroen and Ford are two strong indicators that World Championship rallying is going in the right direction. Mini will increase the size of the championship by 50%, VW will take the World Championship back to the level where it was in 2008, albeit still a very long way from where it was 10 years ago when there were seven manufacturers at the top level. Is everything therefore going in the right direction again? In part, says MARTIN HOLMES In relation to development of the sport as a whole, there is every sign that the sport continues to be run effectively in the way which circumstances demand – factors like avoiding unnecessary waste of money and resources, of adjusting to changing social patterns, the increase in the volume of traffic on the roads, of matching the constantly increasing performance of cars with the requirements of safety for competitors and spectators alike, splitting up big events so that there are greater chances of less competitive cars getting important results. The sport is going strongly in the right direction in matters like down-sizing of engines and demanding greater fuel efficiency and cleaner emissions through features like direct injection. The governing authorities adjust the rules of the sport to keep the current car production trends in mind, and introduce new classes of cars to match what manufacturers are now offering on the market place. In all these ways the sport is going forward in the right direction. There is every positive sign that the FIA wants to make the sport even stronger in the future, through initiatives such as the Institute and the WRC Academies. It is no coincidence that the sport at lower levels is as strong as ever in countless countries. The aspect of the sport which causes concern, however, is the very top level of the sport, the world championship itself. This is where there is still unease, confusion and lack of clear policy, a worrying situation given that the WRC leads the whole sport. What is good in the WRC as well as what is bad then filters down to lower levels. The sport’s governing body once issued the guidelines for a suitable world championship rally. WRC events had to comply with established international sporting rules, the country had to have good and effective media communication and the local car industry needed to take benefit from the event. Over time, these guidelines have become blurred and World Championship rallying is being pushed in conflicting directions, mostly because the Global Promoters request changes in the sport’s premier formula in order to optimise the medium of television opportunities. Dependence on television is a risky concept as it seeks to turn rallying from sport into entertainment. It is a fine objective if this can be achieved, but very harmful and disruptive for rallying if it cannot. So far, there have been disappointing results, with rallying unable to challenge other major sports for terrestrial TV slots. Is the sport’s governing authority happy with the way that different interests each seek to decide what is best for the sport? The Promoters have their agenda, the manufacturers collectively have another and the individual manufacturers each seek to go their own way. And all the time the FIA thought they were in charge. The difficulty is trying to balance the grand heritage of the sport with the harsh economic and social realities of today. Rallying was born out of long-distance driving where human and mechanical endurance were as significant as high performance, but after 100 years it has evolved through circumstances into its current style, for better or worse. The current philosophy from the President’s office of the FIA is that the sport has lost its way and that it should return to its former style. Where, the FIA asks, are the longer events? Why don’t rallies now have faraway overnight halts? Where indeed have the night stages gone? Why have control tyres when they obviate fair and open competition between tyre suppliers? Fair questions, but in each case there have been solid reasons why these changes happened, reasons based on prevailing philosophies of value-for-money for manufacturers, the new ecological demands of the world, safety considerations and the way that the media world has changed. The alterations have been devised to make the sport of rallying more viable in its contemporary world. Every sport has to adapt to changes in how the traditional media works, but most of all sports which are difficult to follow like rallying. The tightrope which the President of the FIA must follow is to balance the ideals with the realities. One of the most positive recent signs coming from the FIA has been the appointment of a Manager and Co-ordinator for the World Rally Championship. This is Michele Mouton, who comes with impeccable credentials, not only as a successful competitor but as an event promoter used to working with the top sportsmen and businessmen. To what extent Michele will have the power to change what she, and the people she consults, thinks is wrong, is another question. But in many ways her appointment is one of the most promising current signs in the sport. The FIA clearly recognises that it may have faults and that it is prepared to pay attention to someone it trusts, as opposed to being bombarded by parties with strong commercial interests. That in itself is a major step forward. opinion MARTIN HOLMES Rally Editor 48