Au revoir, IRC

This weekend in Cyprus brought the end of the Intercontinental Rally Championship, with its catchphrase of ‘New Rally – New Generation’ biting the dust after just seven years.

So, was it a success or a failure?

Since it was founded before the 2006 season, the IRC has lived and breathed as an expression of how rally people themselves wanted a major international series to be run. Although sanctioned by the FIA, it all-but removed itself from the governing body’s influence, and was allowed to grow in a way that quickly showed how much appetite there is for the sport around the world.

The IRC has been hugely popular with teams and fans

International rallying was in decline by 2005 but, in South Africa, Toyota and Volkswagen had been the first to explore the potential of Super 2000 regulations – the accepted standard for touring car racing – for building cost-effective and spectacular rally cars. These early experiments showed that the formula worked.

S2000 also caught the eye of Eurosport, which had endured a long and frustrating relationship with the WRC. It had the resources and gathered the expertise needed to put on a made-for-TV rally series, cherry-picking an outstanding calendar of events to televise across its global platforms and it put the whole show under the ringmaster’s whip of Italian promoter Marcello Lotti, with the FIA’s blessing.

Lotti, who also looked after the FIA-approved World Touring Car Championship, made sure that the events themselves felt the love of this ‘new rally – new generation’ known as the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Eurosport Events meanwhile ensured that the competitors felt the love too – bringing in such experienced hands as former driver and team principal Jean-Pierre Nicolas to nurture the competitive side of the series.

Fiat opened the S2000 floodgates in Europe with IRC success

The IRC was open to production-spec 4WD and 2WD cars, but it was the S2000 machinery which delivered the thrills – and they came en masse. In 2006 Fiat stole a march on the rest of the European competition to produce the Grande Punto S2000 as a means of bringing back the fabled Abarth name, claiming the inaugural IRC title with home-grown hero Giandomenico Basso.

Soon the cost-effective S2000 platform was pulling in the numbers as Peugeot, Skoda, Proton, MG, MINI, Volkswagen and Opel delivering cars that were soon vying for honours in the series. What worked for the manufacturers was that there was very little onus on them to do very much. Producing an S2000 car and stumping up the championship registration fee was a cheap and easy way to get major promotion from the Eurosport organisation.

Variety came courtesy of affordable formula

With the WRC losing teams like leaves in autumn, the IRC swiftly became the only viable place for emerging talent at the wheel, bringing real recognition to the likes of Nicolas Vouilloz, Anton Alén, Jan Kopeçky, Kris Meeke, Juho Hänninen and Andreas Mikkelsen. It also provided a relaxed yet completely professional forum for events of such quality as Madeira, the Safari and Monte Carlo.

That was, perhaps, the IRC’s greatest masterstroke. Under the FIA’s ‘rotation system’ it was proposed that events should alternate years on the WRC calendar with years hosting the IRC. When the biggest event of them all, the Rallye Monte Carlo, was forced off the WRC calendar in 2009 to make way for the Rally Ireland, it found that the young pretender was actually a very decent series to do business with – and flat refused to host the WRC again until this year!

Monte Carlo Rally clung to IRC status in 2009-11

Yes, there were issues – not the least being that IRC events were often twinned with those of the European championship and national series in the host nations. This meant that cars like Subaru Impreza Group N cars could be running strongly on the road, but not feature in the official results – causing no little friction in the editorial offices at Autosport magazine in the UK and elsewhere in the world.

But these were little issues. The fact remains that the IRC brought the spotlight to rallies, teams and drivers of impeccable quality who would have stood no chance of achieving such recognition without the series’ made-for-TV appeal. It also proved, in the depths of the WRC’s despair, that there was an appetite for top-class rallying not only among the competitors and organisers, but also among motor manufacturers and fans.

Rally of Scotland brought classic stages back to life

The curtain has now fallen upon the IRC, but its place in the sport’s history is secure. For the team behind this remarkable series, the future remains bright in the shape of the FIA European Rally Championship – a series which we shall be watching closely in 2013, along with the IRC’s many fans around the world.

Merci, boys and girls of the IRC. Merci mille fois.

 

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Goodbye IRC?

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.

WRC 1997 – 2012: a celebration

It’s always worth looking back before moving on…