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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.