WRC and Rallying in the UK: The future

Thursday 04 February 2021

In the latest column by CEO Hugh Chambers, he discusses the future of rallying at WRC level and locally in the UK.

The lack of a round of the world championship for the UK in 2021 has prompted a number of questions regarding the future of rallying in this country, and specifically forest stage rallying. The concerns stretch beyond the WRC right down to the grassroots of the sport.

The fact is that forest stage rallying in the UK has faced a challenging environment for some time, with two main issues: the cost of stage miles largely derived from the estate owners’ demands; and the threat of enforced restrictions on use of the land under pressure from lobby groups opposed to motorised sport. There are other factors, but these are of prime importance. With regard to costs, in Wales, we have been a party in the relationship between Natural Resources Wales and the repair of roads with the independent firm, Rally4Wales.

We have established a good working relationship that is affordable and beneficial to the natural environment. The impact a rally has on the forests is very minimal in terms of carbon footprint, and even less in regard to the state of the roads that are almost always repaired to a better condition than prior to the event. Two major research studies are underway conducted by Forestry England and Natural Resources Wales – with independent research firms each conducting a wide stakeholder analysis. Motorsport UK has been closely involved with both consultations and has provided extensive information to demonstrate the positive social and economic impact, as well as highlighting the relatively minimal environmental impact of rallying.

“We will need to evolve and change to make our sport part of the solution”

Through our communications channels, and specifically Revolution magazine, we invited the community to participate in the English Forestry survey. The good news is that these are thorough and well considered studies and discussions with stakeholders suggest that there is an appetite to work in partnership with us to create a sustainable future for motorsport in these environments. But clearly, we will need to evolve and change to make our sport part of the solution and not, as some would see it, a part of the problem. We have worked consistently on these two aspects – but I think that the core of the concern lies much deeper, and that is in the changed relationship between rallying and the general public.

Back in 1995, when Prodrive was maximising the impact of the Subaru World Rally Team on the national consciousness, we enjoyed a purple patch for rallying with McRae and Burns splashed across not just the sports pages, but the front pages of the media year after year. None of this was by accident, as it was planned and pushed hard. This was at the end of a glorious period of rallying when international events would span the length of Great Britain, with mobile service crews and overnight stays in far-flung cities.

The current era started around 20 years ago with a move to more compact itineraries with centralised service parks, driven largely by the FIA, to address growing concerns over safety and also to cater for the needs of manufacturers and sponsors. The new direction did not see any place for the amateur drivers that had made up the bulk of entries on events like the Monte, Tulip and RAC.

This was a tipping point at which it was argued that the financial clout of the car makers would ensure an impact to attract new audiences and fans – but sadly that has not really happened. When the RAC Rally covered the UK map, then millions of people were exposed to the spectacle – whereas now we have less than 100,000 spectators, and pretty much all hardcore rally fans already, who make the pilgrimage to the forests of north Wales.

TV was to be the answer. But there ensued a perfect storm where the macro environment for sports footage began to stratify, with the top sports (football, rugby, F1) enjoying an ever-increasing bidding war from media outlets and with all other sports suffering a value erosion that saw them disappear behind a paywall. This problem was acute for WRC – from a logistical and technical point of view, it is a very expensive TV production, and the prospect of free-to-air evaporated. Technology and the internet have made it much easier to follow rallying, but there remains the perennial challenge of explaining to the uninitiated exactly how the competition is unfolding – versus the relative simplicity of a football match or even a 90-minute F1 race. It has always been true that live sport is massively more powerful at pulling in audiences and thus sponsors, but given the long multi-day format of rallying, the majority of broadcasters opt to show highlights that struggle to capture anything more than the photogenic nature of the cars and landscape.

Why does all this matter? It does, because the economics of the WRC changed for the worse for traditional events like ours. The change to a ‘clover leaf’ format, meant that a rally had to be based in one place and in the immediate environment of the stages, not travelling across the country via cities and stately homes.

What is the future for the WRC in the UK? The good news is that we have had a brilliant and loyal partner in the form of the Welsh government, that has supported the rally for over 21 years now. This originally began with a Cardiff-based event, but in 2013 it was shifted to north Wales, as this was seen as the most productive arena to deliver a healthy return on their investment. The key metrics of success – that are assiduously monitored each year – are the economic impact of the event on the immediate area of the rally.

The 2019 event delivered an audited net benefit of £9.87m to the region, counting only that expenditure that arose from visitors from beyond the Welsh borders. There are many other positive metrics including the engagement with local schools (9,000 attended the Big Bang Tech show) and the impact on marketing for local Welsh businesses including Toyota and Airbus. But after so many years it is not surprising that the combination of pressure on the public purse and the natural competition from many other alternative sports and culture properties saw the Welsh government begin to reduce their commitment to the event.

At the same time, we saw the emergence of countries and cities backed by governments keen to attract a major sporting world championship. Well-funded rallies in Mexico and Chile produced spectacular and popular events – a new government backed Safari Rally re-emerged in Kenya, and Toyota was keen to see Rally Japan back on the calendar.

“The time is ripe for a radical rethink of what the WRC could and should be”

With more demand around the world came greater rights fees and coupled with the decline in our own state sponsorship meant the event moved from being financially precarious to a significant loss maker. In response, for the 2019 Wales Rally GB, there were multiple innovations: we took the start to Liverpool, with a new urban audience, and the first stage to Oulton Park, both of which were popular and raised awareness of the rally in Merseyside and played their part in the ticket sell-out on the stages over the weekend.

At the same time, the rally HQ and service park moved from the Deeside car park to the centre of Llandudno with a promise of more life and an atmosphere more akin to Ypres. Altogether it was a significant step forward in many ways, but in reality, there was not the huge leap needed in terms of financial viability. Nonetheless, we were fully committed to the 2020 edition and the opportunity it presented to build on the learnings from the 2019 innovations.

And then the pandemic struck. By June it was clear that any plan to run an event in late October was fraught with the risk of cancellation. Of course, we all now know that an event planned for the slated period of the rally would not have run, as Wales moved from restrictions to lockdowns. From this disappointment we saw an opportunity to propose the consolidation of the budgets from the 2020 and 2021 Welsh government support. However, when the FIA published the WRC calendar in September, we were concerned that the slot given to the UK was in August, albeit provisionally. This presented major issues for a Wales based rally, as the major metrics of inward spending would be hampered by the normal summer season already providing full hotels and restaurants – if that wasn’t all to be scuppered by COVID-19 anyway.

By then it was made clear that it would not be possible to roll up contractual payments and even with a spectator sell-out we would be running the event at a very significant loss – all to be funded by our membership. While all of this was going on there was the development of a proposed WRC event in Northern Ireland led by Bobby Willis.

We provided all of the rationale for the economic and social impact, as well as the global coverage it would provide. The pitch was well received, but the financial analysis was only partially complete when the pandemic hit and changed the entire financial status of government bodies. Laid against the backdrop of COVID-19 there was no chance by then that we could obtain the additional funding for a 2021 NI event, so all efforts have turned to 2022.

At this point it is worth going back to the broader issue of the future of rallying and the existential threat of the move from the internal combustion engine (ICE). On the one hand it may appear to be a long way off that we will all be driving electric cars, and more specifically that we would be prevented from the use of ICE for motorsport. But for the WRC it is a much bigger issue as two of the three remaining teams, Toyota and Hyundai, are manufacturers in the eye of the storm with investment in electrification and a social conscience that no longer embraces the ICE. The costs of the WRC have escalated for the teams and the ROI that it presents is a challenge – so the time is ripe for a radical rethink of what the WRC could and should be. And it follows so must any future round of the WRC in the UK.

For those of us who grew up in rallying, the DNA of the sport is very much about accessibility for competitors and spectators alike – the ability for the amateur to pit their skills against better funded competitors – and endurance and adventure. What we need to get back to is a much simpler and cost-effective format for rallying without the technical arms race that now extends down the hierarchy of the sport.

Realistically domestic rallying is really a driver/co-driver funded activity and as such we need to get the costs down and the accessibility up. The events that are massively over-subscribed are things like the Roger Albert Clark, the Mull Rally and even the single venue rallies at race circuits. These latter events may not all be the traditionalists’ idea of a rally, but the market responds in saying they like these events – and we need to learn from that.

We love forest stage rallying – but we cannot stick our heads in the sand and assume that everything can simply continue in the way it has done for years. This also extends to the issues of propulsion and the approach we take to the eventual phasing out of the ICE, and whatever it is replaced by in motorsport. Motorsport UK has already published rules and regulations for electric competition vehicles, including rally cars, so the basic framework is set for the adoption by those that want to be amongst the first to explore these technologies.

To address these fundamental issues, we are drawing together a group of people from the spectrum of stakeholders who can bring expert skills to the table, and a fresh set of ideas on how rallying in the UK can be reinvented for the new age. This is in addition to the ongoing work of the Rally Committee, chaired by Nicky Moffitt, which is also charged with these same challenges. Undoubtedly, at the future pinnacle should sit a round of the WRC in the UK, albeit we cannot prejudge the outcome of what the format or location of that event will be. The existing format of Wales Rally GB presents fundamental challenges to its viability and we all need to be open-minded about seeking alternative locations and formats – but we cannot escape the fact that wherever it is such an event will need considerable external funding and that is most likely to come from local or regional governments. We have advanced these discussions across the UK, but now is hardly the time for such institutions to be committing to new events however exciting.

Although having a strong championship contender in Elfyn Evans has to help. What is clear is that the UK presents a very good consumer market for the WRC, for the manufacturers and the series partners. It is also the very heartland of rallying, with a rich and extensive history second to none. In the same way that the British GP is a cornerstone of the F1 calendar, we need to fight to get a round of the WRC back in the UK every year.

With the right format I have no doubt that the FIA and the WRC Promoter would welcome us back. But we need a model that is affordable, practical and attractive to domestic and international competitors – as well as all possible commercial partners. We would like to hear from everyone with their ideas for how rallying should progress in the future. Tell us what specific ingredients will work so that everyone can be aligned behind a new future vision. rally@motorsportuk.org

Read the latest edition of Revolution Magazine

New deal for motorsport to access the nation’s forests