Monday, June 12, 2006

Ripping Out The Heart of the World Rally Championship

Remember when the World Rally Championship was a real contest?

It really wasn't that long ago. Back in 2003, four drivers from three different teams went into the final round of the series with a shot at winning the title and there were, count 'em, six works teams having a serious crack at the world championship. Citroen, Peugeot, Subaru, Ford, Mitsubishi and Skoda were all having a go, and four of those teams were doing so with some success. The world rally championship appeared, on the surface, to be in rude health.

Four years on, and half way into the season and there are only the tattered remnants of a two-horse race for the 2006 title - we all know that, whatever Marcus Gronholm might like to believe, it is really a matter of when, rather than if Sebastien Loeb wraps up his third world title.

Loeb looks well on course, too, to become the winningest driver of all time, but against such weak opposition that, in all honesty, its hard to judge how his performance rates against previous holders of that record, such as Makinen, McRae, Kankkunen and Sainz.

Back in January, I predicted that, while the entry list for the 2006 series might look a little thin, there was every chance of a fascinating three way title battle between Loeb, Gronholm and Solberg. Sadly, it hasn't worked out that way. Gronholm has had been the equal of Loeb on pace - perhaps been even a little faster, but neither he nor his new Focus WRC06 has been reliable enough to take the fight consistently to the Kronos Citroen team. Petter Solberg and Subaru, by contrast, have had an utterly miserable year. Things didn't go particularly well for the Anglo-Japanese team last year and the reckoning was that things could only get better in 200g. In truth, however, things have got dramatically worse - especially on the tarmac rounds, where the Pirelli rubber has proved woefully inadequate for the task in hand, though the occasional flashes of pace from Pirelli-shod privateer entries, such as Gigi Galli's Peugeot 307, suggest that the rubber is not entirely to blame.

The immediate causes of the world rally championship's problems are twofold: Firstly, the withdrawal of Peugeot and Mitsubishi has reduced the number of good, serious teams from 5 to 3. Secondly, the remaining teams seem to be inclined only to run one serious driver. Who really believes that Chris Atkinson or Mikko Hirvonen have more potential than, say Gigi Galli? And what, exactly, has Xavier Pons done to merit the second Citroen seat? The use of Dani Sordo seems a little more inspired, but why hasn't Per Gunnar Anderson or Guy Wilks got a works seat?

But if these are the immediate causes of the world rally championship's decline, then what is the underlying cause? Why have two of the leading teams pulled out, and why are those that remain running pay-drivers in their second cars? I submit that, at heart, it is that the championship, as it is at present, is failing to capture the public imagination.

When I went to my first rally, the Lombard RAC Rally (as it was known as then) back in 1986, the Group B rally cars had 500, perhaps even 600BHP running through relatively primitive 4WD systems and suspension. The cars looked incredibly difficult to drive, and for a kid standing freezing in the English winter rain in Cirencester Park, utterly spectacular to watch.

If Group B cars were simply too insanely powerful to be let loose on forest gravel tracks and narrow single track tarmac roads, then, in the early days of Group A, at least, it scarcely mattered. Group A rally cars were meant ot be restricted to 300BHP (though it was always rumoured that the Lancia Deltas, at least, had rather more than that) but suspension, differential and tyre technology was sufficiently primitive back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that the cars remained spectacular to watch.

In recent years, there has been no increase in horsepower, but great strides have been made in suspension, chassis and tyre technology. The result is that, on tarmac especially, the cars hold the road almost like circuit racers, and just don't look as interesting to watch. They've got too much grip and not enough power.

The problems with the sport lie deeper than this though. A WRC car on full chat is still a sight like little else in motorsport if you're there to witness it in the flesh. The real problem is that the nature of the sport has changed in response to the demands of television and whisper it - rallying doesn't really work on the telly.

The mystique of rallying stems largely from the notion of the great events as tests of endurance, of man and machine against the harshest of conditions, and the clock, at the same time. When I was a kid, the RAC Rally, for instance, took place over five days and 50+ stages (with few repeats). Now, no event runs for more than 3 days and sixteen or so stages - usually just eight stages run twice. Rallying is becoming ever more like extended hill-climb racing. The total time taken for an event is frequently little more than an hour longer than a Grand Prix might run for, and the competitive stage mileage is barely greater than the distance of a GP2 race. Why? Well a large part of it is that 8 locations and 3 days is a damned sight more convenient for film crews and television producers than 50 locations over 5 days.

As Dave Evans pointed out the other week in Autosport, there's an increasing tendency towards homogenisation of the rallies themselves too. Whatever happened to the African Classics - the Kenyan Safari Rally or the Ivory Coast Rally? (Ok, the latter was never that popular with the mainstream rally teams, and the political situation there might make it a difficult event to reinstate - but all the same it lent the series variety).

What too, of the infamous night stages on the Monte Carlo? And where have the roughest parts of the Acropolis Rally got too? All jetissoned so as to ensure that the championship has a neat, corporate image. And while I'm having a moan, what's this nonsense with SupeRally about? (apart from ensuring that the TV cameras have some cars to look at come Sunday). Rallying is meant to be about endurance. Manufacturers get involved, at least in part, to promote the idea that their cars are, as well as being quick, also pretty well screwed together. We all know that's rubbish, of course, Lancia dominated the rally championship for years and its road cars fell apart on touch and rusted at the faintest hint of drizzle, but nonetheless, it was a part of the reason manufacturers got involved.

On top of all this, in the UK at least, the series isn't even televised very well. The footage will focus typically on just two or three runners towards the front, regardless of whether any real battle is taking place between them, and the commentary is provided by and for peoples whose knowledge of the sport appears to be minimal. The coverage is littered with largely uninteresting and irrelevant computer graphics and far too many pointless rearward facing camera shots which show little besides the driver changing gear. Add in service-park interviews with the same, by and large introverted and unexpressive drivers and you have a recipe for telly hell. Even leaving aside the fact that brief excerpts of cars competing against the clock makes for uninteresting viewing anyway. For what its worth, if you're going to televise rallying, pick a stage - preferably short - say two or three miles - focus on it - and show all the top twenty or so drivers having a go at it.

If there's a silver lining in all this, its that, given it makes such appalling television, it won't be long before the television companies realise that nobody's watching and, away from the cameras, the sport might start to recover some of its essential character.


Anonymous Don Speekingleesh said...

I think there are rules limiting the experience the second drivers can have, and that's why there are no strong two driver teams.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Qwerty said...

Say, if you did watch the RAC in 86, did you manage to watch Henri Toivonen? He's my absolute favourite rally driver of all time.

I think Peugeot left to make way for sister company Citroen. The Xsara WRC is simply a 307 WRC in different bodywork.

As for Mitsu, they aren't about to make a WRC machine.

Whilst I very much enjoyed the Group B years, I thought the introduction of the Super 2000 rules in the WRC was nothing but a blatant attempt to break the stranglehold of the Japanese manufacturers in the WRC. I mean, the 307s and Xsaras bear no mechanical/chassis/engine resemblance whatsoever to the road going varieties. And neither will the C4 to be introduced at the end of the year.

Had the FIA stuck with Group A, then you can bet that more manufacturers would still be here and Mitsu and Subaru would be walking away with every single trophy. Try taking a normal Xsara and pit it against a Mitsu Evo IX. No contest.

10:21 AM  
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10:52 PM  
Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

Mitsubishi is the best anyway!

6:18 AM  

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