A brief history of WRC promotion

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…

Bernie and Balestre – an unlikely double-act

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 brought order – and coverage – to the WRC in early 1990s

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.

FIA fell foul of EU competition laws under Mosley’s reign

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.

David Richards went from co-driver to team owner to ringmaster

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.

The days before Loeb: big guns battling in different cars

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.”

Erm… right.

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.

Simon Long, North One Sport. Smiling.

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.

Vladimir Antonov – a colourful character!

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.”

Jean Todt – FIA president un’appy with WRC in 2012

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.

Both M-Sport and Citroën Racing should celebrate their survival

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.


S2000? WRC? R5? R2-D2? WTF!

If there is one thing that rallying has consistently managed to do, it’s create an utterly bewildering class structure that leaves all but the most dedicated anorak-wearing car spotters aghast.

A Formula One car is a Formula One car. A NASCAR is a NASCAR. A rally car is subject to different homologation requirements for the multitudinous sub-species of the genus. Let’s get this straight: it is geeky beyond words.

We are very fortunate, therefore, that the current FIA president is engaged to a Bond girl. You see, it pays not to get too geeky about the types of car that are taking part in a motor sport event. That’s something which Jean Todt understands only too well, with the result that a new and clearer-than-ever class structure now exists for rallying around the world so that Michelle Yeoh and other Bond girls worldwide can now breathe easy. Rallying is sexy again… and here’s our little guide:

1) Production-based ‘R cars’

The vast majority of rallies around the world will be contested by the various categories of Group R – namely production-based kit based on models of which no fewer than 2500 examples have been built in the previous 12 months. Group R will consist of six classes, designated R1, R2, R3, R4, R5 and RGT; some of these groups will contain their own sub-groups, with cars allocated to each group based on their weight, engine size and powertrain.

DS3 R3T one of the new generation of rally machines

NGT is the random factor in all this, being for production-based sports cars competing in asphalt events in Europe. While there have been a number of teams over the years who have run Porsche GT3 Cup cars and Ferrari 360 Challenge cars on asphalt rallies, the class is pretty well dead at present. You never know, however, and maybe an enterprising team could produce a Porsche to rival those of Almeras, Prodrive and others that enlivened the sport in the 1970s-1980s!

An NGT revival could bring fans some GT action like the 1980s

To be honest, however, you really don’t need to worry too much about the difference between an R1A or an R1B, whether an R3T could be developed into an R5 or what the future holds for R4. Basically the two-wheel-drive cars of the foundation classes R1-R3 are where aspiring talent is to be found at a national level and form the WRC3. We then get to 4WD turbos with R4-R5 which will contest the WRC2 – these cars also being among the front-runners in regional series like the new-look FIA European Rally Championship.

So far so good? OK then…

2) S2000 cars

Super 2000 rally cars have been with us for seven years now, producing a heap of cars either direct from the in-house workshops of big maunfacturers such as Škoda Motorsport and Abarth, or by enterprising privateers who have got manufacturer blessing, such as the Chris Mellors-produced Protons. They have 2.0-litre normally aspirated engines, low-tech suspension and 4WD transmission systems are more bespoke in construction than, say, a 1.6-litre turbo R5 car.

Modern WRC cars are S2000 with upgrades

The current generation of WRC cars are based on Super 2000 rules, with additional freedom on their aero kit, suspension and transmission as well as, of course, their 1.6-litre turbo engines. This means that the cars have an element of top-flight elite motor sport design in them, but that the fundamental architecture is that of affordable competition cars developed within the S2000 framework.

3) Regional Rally Cars

RRC cars don’t actually exist. Yes, we’ve seen them. Yes, they’ve won events – but they are NOT an official class. RRC is a phrase coined by M-Sport in order to sell what are effectively de-tuned Fiesta WRC cars, with less exotic suspension parts, a Super 2000 aero package and a bigger restrictor on their 1.6-turbo motors. They were allowed to market these cars for use alongside S2000 cars in regional series provided that parity could be achieved with the S2000 crowd. Citroën has now created a car to the same specification, which made its debut in the Rallye du Valais last week.

That’s where we stand in the big scheme of things.

Pure S2000 machinery is likely to disappear within a season or two, with either detuned 1.6 turbo engines making them ‘RRC’ specification or investment in R5 cars taking over. Similarly R4 is already all-but extinct, with the production-specification Mitsubishi Lancer Evos and Subaru Impreza WRXs now increasingly uncompetitive in all but club rallying.

The competing cars and teams will therefore evolve down clear routes: R1-R3 for low-cost front-wheel-drive cars, R5 for regional competitions and WRC2 and full WRC at the top of the tree.


Hyundai WRC round-up

There was a show car in Paris, but then auto salons are known for some pretty optimistic announcements – so what’s the deal with Hyundai’s burgeoning WRC programme?

Certainly FIA president Jean Todt is cock-a-hoop at the planned new entry for the WRC, saying: “We are delighted to welcome Hyundai back into our rallying family. This is a great boost to our championship and underlines the faith global manufacturers have in our sport, despite the difficult economic times we all face.”

It certainly is, and in the giddy whirl of flashlights playing over the white and blue show car, ST Kim, Hyundai Motor Company senior executive vice president said: “You already know that we care about developing the performance of our cars, and we’re taking our commitment to performance to a new level.

“I am happy to announce that Hyundai will race in next year’s World Rally Championship. We’re back, and we’re ready to compete.”

Crikey! Ready to compete, eh? So rather than opting for a Volkswagen-style programme of developing a car on the quiet, getting its driver line-up sorted and putting tens of thousands of kilometres on the odometer, does the Korean giant plan to just plunge straight in?

Erm… no. There may well be a genuine i20 spotted on European roads and forest tracks next year but as of now the team is still in the process of building its new base camp – in Germany. Yes, you Englanders, don’t get dejected but it seems that  ‘motorsport valley’ is no longer the first choice for factory motor sport programmes… the Germans are taking over.

According to Germany’s Rallye Magazin, Hyundai is looking to put a race shop in the neighbourhood of its European head office, located in Offenbach near Frankfurt. Heading up the operation is Michel Nandan, a 54 year-old French engineer with a fairly significant history in the WRC.

Michel Nandan brings real pedigree to the design team

In the mid-1990s, Nandan was based in Cologne with Toyota Team Europe, where he worked on the design and development of the ST185 and ST205 Celicas and the Corolla WRC. From there he moved to Peugeot and made the title-winning 206 WRC, following up with the unique 307 WRC.

After Peugeot pulled out of the series in deference to Citroën, Nandan took the lead in developing Suzuki’s ill-fated WRC car, the SX4. He’s been a bit quiet since then, but who wouldn’t be? It turns out that he’s been gainfully employed as Technical and Quality Manager of the FFSA, the French sanctioning body for motor sport.

All this is, of course, in marked contrast to the last time the words Hyundai and WRC were uttered in the same breath. That was in 2003 when the FIA slapped the Koreans with a $1million fine for quitting the series with four rounds to go, while it was also taken to court by British preparation experts MSD, who built its cars, for non-payment of bills.

Hyundai’s last WRC effort was average in life, ignominious in death

With MSD forced to make 100 staff redundant and Hyundai promising to be back in 2006 with a self-developed car, the whole thing disappeared into murk until the end of last month. Now we have a manufacturer with a show car, some Photoshopped pictures of the show car in action and some youtube footage of a test hack.

But there’s room for optimism in the appointment of Nandan, and presumably it won’t take too long to get a race shop set up in or around the European HQ. WRF thinks that the announcement that the car might compete in 2013 is ambitious, but a full-scale programme for 2014 could well deliver a tonic in terms of the competing manufacturers.

Of course the main topic of conversation among the fans is who might be recruited to drive the little beastie, once M. Nandan has declared it ready to start rolling in earnest. Well, that largely depends upon the game of musical chairs that’s currently being played out at fever pitch – presumably to some high energy disco music of the kind beloved by dodgy European nightclubs – among the existing teams. And for now that’s where our attention is being kept…