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GP Week : Issue 122
Going round in circles The 2011 Acropolis Rally was the one to celebrate the 500th rally in the history of the World Rally Championship. Can we report that it was an occasion for celebration and excitement? The chance to celebrate 38 years of relentless hard work by countless people, and hope for continued progress in the next 30-odd years till we enjoy the 1000th WRC event? Not really. The rally was thrilling; we came home with many more stories than can ever be published, but the championship confusion was there in full measure. The underlying reality was that it was only one small breath of wind that prevented an organisational catastrophe – it was almost another disaster brought on by mindless interference in the sport. The endless wish by the championship promoters to turn rallying into something that it isn’t, coupled with the failure of the governing authorities to realise that the sport has already been learning from the mistakes made in the last 38 years, continues to threaten the sport. The latest crisis was that the FIA had urged the Acropolis organisers to run a night-time stage on gravel. Right from the start of the championship, night- time gravel stages in dry conditions have proved to be unfair and dangerous. It was a disaster waiting to happen. In recent years world championship rallying has been pulled in opposing directions, neither of which is for the best, when every indication shows that the sport has satisfactorily evolved into its current format by itself. The world championship started in 1973 as a bold concept, venturing into the unknown, with no firm ambition other than to formalise the importance of the sport. What do we find nearly 40 years later? The Promoters feel the sport lacks intrinsic excitement and needs jazzing-up. And the FIA wants the championship to go back in time and bring back long rejected traditions of mixed stages, night stages and long distance events. They also want to forget the countries that were not in the championship at the beginning, even though the FIA had always welcomed newcomer countries. Wrong move! The way the sport has evolved over the years has been an adjustment to the changing world, generally excellent and timely. The only mistakes have been the unnecessary charges recently made in the name of publicity. Jean Todt arrived at the FIA at a time when rally sport was moving fast in uncoordinated directions. He noted the eco friendly steps initiated by his predecessor in office and the publicity driven steps of the Promoters. He saw further that the present day rally scene was not the one which he had actively and fondly enjoyed in his youth. And did he also perceive that recent developments indicate that the sport was being controlled by outside influences, and not by the FIA? Todt wanted rally sport to start stepping back in time, but is his wish practical or even wise? The first warning came when Rally Argentina was prevailed upon to run some mixed surface stages. A catalogue of misunderstandings followed. Ultimately the organisers were heavily fined and the wrong driver was widely thought to have won the rally. It was a miracle there were no safety issues as well. The next test came in Greece when a night-time gravel stage in dry conditions was trialed for the first time in over 25 years (right) , and again breaths were being held. Despite available advice that this one stage could wreck the fair competition of the whole event, and that summer time Greece with its dry gravel stages was not the time or place for a night- time stage, pressure was put on the organisers to give this long-abandoned idea a revival. And now, teams are trying to understand how to handle the experimental ‘long-distance’ aspect of Rally GB 2011, and the plan to use reverse seeding again in 2012. Memories are short. Fair enough, some people may have forgotten that Gilles Panizzi won Corsica in 2002 after driving on fewer stages than his rivals, but surely Sebastien Loeb’s win in Sardinia 2011 after running first car all rally isn’t too long ago to recall? How have we come to this situation? Does anyone in the sport look at the broader picture? The Acropolis Rally was heralded as the 500th round of the WRC, but who can say this number is definitive? It took many years before rally-based media accepted that the world championship had officially started at Monte Carlo 1973. The former sanctioning authority, the CSI, had organised championship rallies before then. In 1968 and 1969 there was the European Rally Championship for Makes; in 1970-1972 the International Championship for Makes. Only in 1973 was the magic word ‘world’ added. Parties who had been successful on these earlier series were keen to downplay the change of name. They still wanted to promote their earlier successes, even if it meant muddying the statistics and diluting the impact of the new name ‘world’. Muddying the sport has continued ever since. MArtin HolMes rallies editor opinion 54