SIT, SOT and pure cobblers

This week, we at WRF Towers we are perplexed to hear of rally organisers allegedly moaning, wailing and gnashing their teeth about the plans to run the WRC in 2013 that are being outlined by the FIA its and new promoter Red Bull Media House. This in turn has prompted an outbreak of mild hysteria on the fan forums, decrying the as-yet unannounced package being put together by the FIA and Red Bull to stage and promote the WRC as a shambles.

A little prematurely, we think.

On Wednesday, for example, the British website Autosport reported a major brouhaha when the FIA announced that, after a decade, it was electing to switch the provision of timing services from British firm Stage One Technology (SOT) to Spanish concern Sistemas Integrales de Telecomunicacion (SIT).

Undeniably, Stage One did a brilliant job in its tenure. It also committed to supporting the WRC in 2012 at cost to itself, rather than allow the quality of service to participants, fans and media to fall off a cliff. The FIA is also in the doghouse in many quarters for how it has handled the outstanding debts left to suppliers in the wake of the previous promoter, North One Sports, going into administration.

Nevertheless, none of that affects the rigours of the FIA’s tender process – and nowhere can a sane person find evidence that it would possibly be in the interest of the sport’s governing body to sabotage its product. Neither can SIT’s experience of  timing, tracking, results, broadcast transmission and real-time Internet services on the Spanish Rally Championship, Rally Cataluña, Rally de Portugal, Baja España and Race of Champions be called into question.

There is simply no substance behind the rumpus.

Fans respond to news of the WRC timing supply deal

A sample quote from the coverage of the appointment of SIT to provide the new timing service reads: “…we are like the [guinea] pigs, aren’t we? Let’s hope it is good, because, for us, we never have a problem, not one, with Stage One.”

This quote was given to Autosport by an unnamed senior official from a rally early next season in what must be said looks like rather a French way of speaking. Yes, Monte Carlo will be the first WRC event for SIT and, yes, doubtless that makes for a few pre-event worries – but does this quote call into question the whole basis of promoting the sport? No.

Yesterday this was followed – again in Autosport – by Rally Mexico director Patrick Suberville talking in what is reported as a gloomy fashion about the prospects of the WRC’s promotion as a whole in 2013, saying: “We have to go back to the level we were at two years ago before we seriously start to move forward.”

Autosport took this statement as an endorsement of  ‘the standards and levels of publicity achieved under former promoter North One Sports’.

Huh??

Autosport is British. Britain is a country in which the TV coverage of the WRC went, under North One’s promotional ‘care’, from the BBC to Channel 4 in 2001 – thence to ITV in 2004. It went to the satellite channels first ITV4 in 2007, then Dave in 2008 and finally ESPN in 2011. The result was that the WRC’s British audience fell from 1.5 million in 2001 to 10,000 in 2011.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of ‘the standards and levels of publicity achieved under former promoter North One Sports’, is it? And that was on home soil. Everywhere else in the world – with the possible exception of France – the downward trend of WRC coverage has been no less catastrophic in the last decade.

Of course there are going to be a few nerves jangling among rally organisers, who may be the feeling that those few parts of the structure which worked are being flushed away with the rest. That is understandable, but much less so than some supposed ‘golden era’ of the WRC in the course of the last decade – because it’s been a disaster. Nothing more: nothing less.

There is an opportunity for the entire sport to reboot in 2013. Some companies and individuals will profit from this, others will feel ill-served by it. Everyone will have their point of view… but there’s no obvious reason for talking down about the future.

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.

It’s not rocket science…

The date today is – hold on, let me just check – yes. It’s October 2nd in the year of our Lord 2012.

On this day in history I was doing a little extra research into the Abu Dhabi sponsorship of Citroën in 2012, when I googled a quote about the deal which inadvertently brought up Abu Dhabi’s page in the ‘partners’ section of http://www.wrc.com.

That’s odd, I thought. Abu Dhabi hasn’t been a partner to the WRC for a couple of years, has it? So I clicked on the link – and was amazed at what I found. And I quote:

The emirate has joined forces with the FIA World Rally Championship as an Official Destination Partner to the series, arguably the world’s most dramatic form of motorsport. This fits perfectly with Abu Dhabi’s goal of becoming a centre of motorsport excellence in the Middle East, which will also see the emirate host its first Formula One Grand Prix in 2009 on the purpose-built Yas Island complex.

In addition, Abu Dhabi is partner to the reigning World Rally Champion Ford, represented by the BP-Ford World Rally Team from 2007 onwards. The emirate also has a national team competing in the Middle East Rally Championship, Team Abu Dhabi. The team’s leading driver, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi leads the 2007 series and also drives the third works Abu Dhabi-branded Ford Focus RS WRC in the BP-Ford World Rally Team.

Five years out of date.

Five years.

Children are now at school who weren’t even born when this information was valid. Amy Winehouse developed a drug habit and died from it in less time than this, one of the most visible sponsorships in recent WRC history, has had accurate information on the series website.

I mean, the other hot news in 2007 was that something called an iPhone had been invented.

Having spent more hundreds of million dollars on building and maintaining a track and hosting a Formula 1 race than any other nation in history, perhaps some mention of the rip-roaring success of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2009 might be nice. Or 2010. Or 2011.

I don’t know in which direction my flabberghastedness should be pointed first.

To the WRC’s old promoters at North One, who managed to convince many people who should know better that they were world-class communicators? To the PR agencies who have been on what can only be described as EPIC retainers for the past five years whilst doing diddly-squat?

I am trying to think of any branch of serious international sport that could let this sort of thing happen.

And, you know what? I can’t.