With the grand restructuring of the World Rally Championship announced for 2013 there is one casualty of recent seasons that will be lamented: the Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
The IRC was founded in 2006 as a new venture. It was endorsed by the FIA but overseen by Eurosport Events, basically producing rallies to put on its TV programming schedule. Using the new cars emerging for the low-cost Super 2000 formula (2-litre with basic 4WD)in tandem with classes for regular Group N ‘production’ machinery, the IRC was predominantly based in Europe but also took in some far-flung destinations as well.
In fact there was always a suspicion in some quarters that the former FIA president, Max Mosley, could wield the gift of IRC events, as well as those of the Eurosport-administered World Touring Car Championship, as a means of granting major international events to certain national bodies within the FIA family. If it was too expensive to get onto the F1 or WRC calendar, then these series provided a means to get international status on a modest budget – and would doubtless be remembered when the FIA elections took place.
Nevertheless, the IRC itself was an extremely sound proposition, with guaranteed TV coverage and a highly efficient organising body which managed to draw huge quality in terms of entries and events. The culture of rallying and pride in ownership that exists in places like Madeira, Ypres and Nairobi is priceless and the IRC rewarded the local fans, event teams and competitors by placing them in millions of living rooms as part of a slick and entertaining package.
In total the IRC has held 66 events in 24 countries through seven years, bringing many to a well-deserved level of prominence that neither the FIA’s regional series or their own domestic championships could hope to match. It also brought forth Super 2000 cars from Abarth (Fiat), Ford, MG, MINI, Opel, Peugeot, Proton, Skoda and Volkswagen as well as providing the opportunity for privateers to score points for the likes of Honda, Ralliart (Mitsubishi) and Renault in Group N and, through them, brought valid titles to drivers of massive talent who couldn’t get through the glass ceiling between them and the WRC.
Not only that, but the hosts felt a very clear benefit from being part of the IRC. When the sport’s centrepiece, the Monte Carlo Rally, was switched from the WRC calendar to the IRC in 2009 as part of the ‘rotation system’ that Mosley’s FIA sought to impose in order for more nations to host world championship events, a sigh of despair went up. A weak WRC without the Monte seemed absurd – and yet the Monegasques found life extremely harmonious with the French-organised IRC and its attendant TV coverage, and actively retained IRC status in preference to the world championship.
The IRC was undoubtedly a quality show, and any championship would be glad to have drivers of the calibre of Giandomenico Basso, Kris Meeke, Juho Hanninen and Andreas Mikkelsen among its champions. Furthermore, speaking from experience, the IRC took people to events and locations that you would never think of going to – but were always glad that you did.
It’s impossible to see the Azores earning a similarly high profile rally in future because it’s never going to be a big market for the motor manufacturers or corporate sponsors on whom the success of the new-look WRC is dependent. Neither can the Rallye Principe de Asturias hope to contest the funding and infrastructure of the neighbouring Rally Catalunya.
Let us therefore salute all that was best about the IRC and hope that the events that made it so special continue to deliver some of the most spectacular and exciting action to be found anywhere in international motor sport.