Much is being said about the commercial rights of the WRC at present, so let’s take a little look back through the last 25 years of the sport’s rollercoaster ride through popular culture.
In 1987, Jean-Marie Balestre, in his role as president of FISA, the worldwide governing body for motor sport, was encouraged to appoint Bernie Ecclestone to the role of vice-president of promotional affairs, with authority over all of its motor sport series.
Balestre was so encouraged by Max Mosley, the then-president of the FISA Manufacturers’ Commission, as a means of bringing ‘peace in our time’ to the endless squabbling over control of the commercial rights to Formula One. Something to do with keeping friends close and enemies closer, no doubt came to mind…
Right away Ecclestone’s department at FISA focused its efforts on squeezing every last cent out of Formula One. One of its first moves, for example, was cancelling the hugely successful World Touring Car Championship at the end of its first season in 1987 in order to encourage greater participation in Grand Prix racing from sponsors and manufacturers.
Rallying generally escaped such terminal attentions, however – indeed, Ecclestone’s department generally improved matters.
Have you ever noticed that footage of the Group B era, for example, is as rare as hen’s teeth? That’s because if an event was filmed (and not all were) it was by domestic broadcasters for domestic TV coverage and the subsequent tapes were scattered to the four winds.
In his FISA role, Ecclestone ensured that a consistent season-long approach was taken to filming WRC events by his production and distribution company, International Sportsworld Communicators (ISC). It all worked rather well – even if ISC reported that the 1990 Swedish Rally showed a large increase in spectator numbers and global TV viewership… a Herculean achievement when it was cancelled due to lack of snow and replaced with a rallysprint!
ISC’s footage was made available to national broadcasters in a season-long deal alongside Formula One events. If you wanted one, you took the other – and for a while everything was rolling along very nicely, in many ways.
Meanwhile, in 1991, Max Mosley ousted Balestre as FISA president and subsequently became FIA president in 1993, absorbing FISA back into its parent organisation. Again, the WRC largely escaped any direct attention as a result of this move, not least because of the furore that followed the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix and the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna.
When the dust finally settled in Formula One, however, a new fly arrived in the ointment for the Mosley-Ecclestone FIA: the European Union.
A Statement of Objections lodged with the EU argued that the FIA had violated existing antitrust legislation and had abused its licensing power and its ownership of the commercial rights to all 16 FIA championships – including the rights to TV broadcasting and other commercial exploitation of those rights through ISC.
After much blood, sweat and tears in court, the EU found against the FIA in 2000 and it was ordered to break up its commercial alliance with Ecclestone. As a result the role of vice-president of promotional affairs at the FIA disappeared, and Ecclestone sold ISC, together with the WRC’s commercial rights, to a consortium led by Prodrive founder David Richards.
Richards paid the FIA $50 million for the 10-year rights to the sale of television, merchandising, licensing and advertising of the WRC, using cash generated by selling 49% of Prodrive to venture capital company Apax Partners & Co. Immediately changes began to be made to the way in which the WRC was promoted – and many of these changes proved successful on the surface of things.
Manufacturer involvement was still strong, with Ford, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, SEAT, Škoda and Subaru being joined by Citroën. The Junior WRC was also thriving in quality and quantity and the Production Cup offering national-level participants their chance to take part in WRC events.
The sport was also at the cutting edge of the computer simulator market, with its own products alongside those endorsed by star drivers such as Colin McRae and Tommi Mäkinen. There was also an international magazine, RallyXS, produced by the British publisher Haymarket, aimed squarely at appealing to the same readership as its glossy sister F1 Racing.
Nevertheless, the foundations were already starting to give way. For starters the exodus of manufacturers was already taking hold. SEAT was gone at the end of 2000, Mitsubishi’s full-house effort ended in 2002, Hyundai abandoned ship in 2003, Peugeot and Škoda in 2005. Suzuki came and went in a season, as BMW brand MINI later would, but commitment to the cause was signally lacking.
Worse still, the WRC’s star drivers, who did so much to propel it in the 1990s, were also falling by the wayside. By the end of 2005 it had lost Tommi Mäkinen, Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae, Richard Burns, Markko Märtin, Francois Delecour, Gilles Panizzi, Didier Auriol and the sport had entered an age of complete supremacy for one man: Sébastien Loeb.
In October 2007, North One Television purchased ISC from Richards, promoting Simon Long from within the company to become CEO of the newly-renamed North One Sport. ISC was in trouble, reporting a £2.2m operating loss for the series – but North One saw something special.
“We’re moving in a dizzying and vastly different media world than when we first came into the sport,” said North One Television CEO Neil Duncanson. “Together with the teams, the events and the FIA our aim is to ensure the sport takes its rightful place in the digital era.”
From that point on, the one drum that the remaining manufacturers repeatedly thumped under North One’s control was that nothing was being done to modernise the WRC’s promotion – it was not being taken online, out to the public or indeed doing anything much at all.
The reason was that it cost around £8 million a season to film the WRC, and without the substantial promotional funds previously provided by the manufacturers and sponsors, North One Sport was reliant on the income from its baseball caps and computer games rather than substantial corporate investment.
Without big brands to invest in the promotion or buy TV advertising around the WRC programmes, the great slump towards pay-to-view TV obscurity accelerated, while sourcing vital funds needed to develop the WRC as an online product were never found. A new recession loomed in which Subaru departed, Ford cut its budgets and Loeb’s grasp upon the title was unshakable.
The advent of cheap and plentiful mini-cameras meant that the vast majority of WRC footage was shot from inside the cars, rather than from expensive helicopters flying overhead and remote camera crews out on the stages. Quality plunged in line with expenditure.
At the start of 2011, North One Television sold North One Sport to Convers Sports Initiatives (CSI), a company belonging to the ambitious Russian entrepreneur and investor, Vladimir Antonov, who had recently purchased the Dutch supercar concern Spyker and the troubled Swedish giant Saab as well as Portsmouth Football Club.
Some dubious noises had been made by the Swedish police about their investigations into Vladimir Antonov’s purchase of Saab, which were subsequently disproved in the USA. Nevertheless it was clear that this was going to be a colourful chapter in the WRC’s history. For his part, Simon Long was extremely upbeat about his new bosses, saying:
“Well, there’s going to be no shortage of action or momentum… Over the course of the current season you can expect to see a number of new innovations being unveiled. I can’t go any detail right now but it’s safe to say they will create a huge buzz when they are launched.”
How right he was!
On 23 November 2011, it was announced that a Europe-wide arrest warrant had been issued for Antonov by Lithuanian prosecutors wanting to question him as part of an investigation into alleged asset stripping at Snoras Bank. He was arrested in London the following day and appeared in Westminster Magistrates’ Court, while his properties were seized. A court hearing regarding Antonov’s extradition will be held in London on 21 January 2013.
In the absence of Antonov and CSI’s funds, North One attempted to continue as WRC promoter into 2012, but was stripped of all responsibilities on the eve of the Monte Carlo Rally by a furious FIA.
“The FIA sought urgent unequivocal assurances from North One Sport (NOS) that it could fulfil its contractual obligations and deliver the promotion of the upcoming Rally Monte Carlo and the Championship for 2012 and for the future,” it said.
“It is with regret and disappointment that no such assurance has been given to the FIA, and therefore today the FIA has been driven to terminate its contract with NOS.”
So it is that the 2012 WRC season has been promoted through a cobbled-together mix of budgets hastily thrown together by each event, ranging from small to tiny. There has been considerable rancour pointed in every direction, and it is this that the new incumbents at Red Bull Media House have inherited.
In all honesty, the WRC should be dead and buried. It is only the spectacle, the sport and the fans who have kept it alive – as defiant in the face of the odds as Petter Solberg’s dreams of winning a second title during the ‘Loeb era’. But here we are… now is not the time for the divisive comment being made before the new era is ushered in.
The FIA has given Red Bull Media House all the oxygen it can, in the shape of a calendar that strenuously avoids date clashes with the Formula One world championship at every possible turn. It also has the pick of the most famous events in the world, with the demise of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Then there’s the all-star Volkswagen Motorsport team arriving in a huge parade of elephants and dancing girls in Monte Carlo, with the existing and highly-professional setups at Citroën Racing and M-Sport saved from extinction by an influx of Middle Eastern cash.
As if all that weren’t enough, the 2013 will not be won by Sébastien Loeb. The old boy will turn up and sprinkle some magic on a handful of events, but leave the title race to a new generation, including Sébastien Ogier, Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov and Andreas Mikkelsen. These youngsters will keep established men like Solberg, Mikko Hirvonen, Dani Sordo and Jari-Matti Latvala on their toes.
Beyond 2013 a team from Hyundai is coming, while teams from Toyota and Subaru are expected. Plus there is plenty more young talent out there to be discovered and new stars to be born in the public eye.
It’s been a terribly sad decade for the sport, but the WRC can go in only one of two directions. It can be great once again or it can finally founder and die – and that responsibility is upon all of us who purport to care about it.