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.

Toyota 2014 round-up

A little over three years ago, the then-president of the FIA, Max Mosley, took one of his decidedly rare appearances at a WRC event to announce his plans for a single 1.6-litre ‘world engine’ to power everything from Formula One to foundation-level rallycross under the FIA’s governance. If manufacturers wanted to support motor sport, they could brand this lump and any leaps in performance would be attained through their various hybrid/KERS/greentech programmes.

As ever, in Max’s reign, the opening gambit was aimed at stretching the point so that in the bartering process among the sport’s stakeholders – commercial and sporting – would end up at an acceptable compromise… namely swapping to small capacity turbo motors.

Five 1.6-litre engines have been built so far for WRC use

So far we have seen Ford, Citroën and Volkswagen produce contemporary WRC powerplants. With the original unit being shared by BMW and Peugeot-Citroën models, the MINI and the DS3 have effectively the same powerplant, while a restricted version is due to go into sister company Peugeot’s new 208 R5 and Citroën DS3 RRC. VW is meanwhile reportedly lending its motor to the proposed Škoda Fabia R5. Hyundai will now be busily preparing its own unit when it opens for business, while in Cologne a sixth 1600cc turbo is in development at Toyota Motorsports GmbH (TMG).

A foundation-level Yaris R1A appeared at this year’s Rallye Deutschland as the ‘double zero’ course car as a precursor to a one-make series as part of the new WRC3 in 2013. R1A regulations that permit only limited performance modifications to production vehicles with engines up to 1.4-litres, but it has – and continues to tantalise with the possibility of a full return.

Speaking before the Yaris appeared, back in August, TMG President Yoshiaki Kinoshita, said:

“It is a great thrill for TMG to return to rallying, a discipline in which we enjoyed a great deal of success in the past…  I hope this is the start of a new rally dynasty at TMG.”

Yaris R1A drew plenty of attention on Rallye Deutschland

Toyota has had an enormous purpose-built motor sport facility sitting idly by since it quit the Formula One circus in 2009. While often mooted as a venue for hire to aspiring F1 teams, the facility has instead been pointed squarely back towards the Japanese giant’s old stomping ground of the WRC, with confirmation that a 1.6-litre engine was on the bench.

“Of course the final target is the WRC programme but to get back in WRC program we need several steps,” Mr. Kinoshita said. “Because we stopped rally programme in 1999 after that most of the people are gone, there is no knowhow inside the company… we hope we are ready in 2014, but of course we need official approval from TMC (Toyota Motor Corporation)”.

A full return to the WRC from Toyota would bring huge fan appeal

Following Mr. Kinoshita’s early enthusiasm, an unnamed Toyota source spoke further to wrc.com, saying: “We’re leaning towards an S2000-style of car which would be available for customers first. This is a development project, but it’s very early days – the engine only fired up for the first time a few weeks ago – at the very earliest, a car won’t be available until next year.

“Obviously, this being a Global Race Engine, it could go in any car, but the Yaris seems to make sense.”

Max Mosley is doubtless thrilled…

M-Sport moving on

In quitting the WRC, Ford of Europe has elected to break its contract with M-Sport, the team which has built and run its cars since 1997, with a year still to go.

Clearly there will be some financial compensation for Malcolm Wilson and his Cumbrian concern, but the team – and its suppliers and staff – will no doubt have a troubling few weeks ahead.

“I would like to thank Ford of Europe for their enthusiastic support and the faith shown in the team over the past 16 seasons. We understand that tough decisions have had to be made and look forward to continuing our strong technical partnership into the future,” Wilson was quoted as saying in today’s mutual announcement.

In the short term, M-Sport will weather the storm reasonably well. Throughout its time running the works cars in the WRC, Wilson’s organisation has enjoyed an enormously profitable business from building, servicing and selling Ford rally cars for a host of disciplines.

Old cars generate income from privateers

Customer-owned WRC cars have competed in national and regional championships around the world as well as in the world championship itself, plus there is now a complete staircase for drivers and teams in M-Sport’s range of Fiesta rally cars which begins with the humble R1 ‘grass roots’ car to the more potent R2 and R3 front-wheel-drive machinery.

Furthermore the architecture of the current Fiesta WRC has been developed into the ‘Regional Rally Car’ platform: a basic package which can be tailored into either WRC or Super 2000 spec for competing in the FIA’s big regional series around the world.

Let’s not forget also the less regulated cars that have been campaigned by Marcus Grönholm and others in rallycross, and that have featured in Ken Block’s celebrated Gymkhana movies.

M-Sport’s most famous car? Viral star Block’s Fiesta

At the Paris Motor Show last month it was also revealed the Fiesta Regional Rally Car would provide the foundations for an R5 model to enter the WRC2.

When launching the car, M-Sport’s commercial director John Steele said: “We are predicting that the build numbers will be similar to the S2000 and we are working to make the car as economical as possible – the target is to make it half the price of the WRC. But this will only be confirmed once the test programme has been completed.”

As such, M-Sport has plenty of business to take the sting out of Ford’s announcement, but it is going to face a much tougher world in 2013. For a start its longtime rival, Citroën Racing, is being forced to become more self-sufficient and launching a range of customer rally cars of its own, from the DS3 R3 through to a new DS3 R5.

Citroën Racing now making customer cars to make up for lost budget

Peugeot has also revealed its own R5 car based on the new 208 model, and already has an R2 version ready to roll. Škoda meanwhile has enjoyed one of the most successful competition programmes in modern history with its Fabia S2000 which remains a potent force and will be joined by a Volkswagen-assisted R5 car in future. And if that weren’t enough, Toyota has announced a new Yaris R1 series at the foothills of a new era in rallying.

As such, M-Sport and its Fords are no longer going to be the ‘go-to’ outfit for privateers wanting the best machinery. Also, with no manufacturer interest, the selling point to aspiring stars of buying into a relationship with one of the big names in the sport will not be there.

Let’s face it – on the strength of results at the top level in recent years, a customer might well be swayed by Citroën’s record over Ford in the WRC or by the prolific successes of both Škoda and Peugeot in recent seasons.

Peugeot’s customer cars have scooped many European honours

If things are likely to get tough in 2013 they will almost certainly get tougher unless M-Sport’s commercial department can woo another motor manufacturer before long. Between the abrupt end of Subaru’s WRC programme and the smaller-scale reboot with MINI, Prodrive suffered a decimation of its workforce – and it is that which will doubtless be keeping Malcolm Wilson awake at night in the aftermath of Ford’s withdrawal.

Lots going on… so here’s something special

We’ve got all sorts coming up on the European Rally Championship, Citroën’s customer car plans and the new generation of R5 cars.

But while that percolates through, take some time to enjoy Carlos Sainz in his prime at the wheel of a wedge-shape-but-oddly-sexy Toyota Celica in 1989.

If you’re pushed for time, just check out the first 45 seconds and take that little bit of car control to wherever you’re hurrying out to… any chore will seem much better, we guarantee.

Enjoy!

A dirty little secret

It’s not the sort of thing that you can say in polite company, but there’s just something about the Toyota Corolla, isn’t there?

You know how it is. You know that you shouldn’t. You know that you will be stigmatised, ostracised and possibly lobotomised. And yet while some people would look at the picture above and see the automotive equivalent of a Rich Tea biscuit that’s been left on the driveway for 14 years, what you see is…

Yes, that’s what you see, isn’t it?

At this moment there is no known cure. Corollaitis has been identified as a strain of infection that’s from a family of viral epidemics that includes Escortitis, Octaviitis and Lanceritis. The symptoms are that you see ugly, colourless cars the same way as other people, but they appear different. They draw your eye in the way that no Scaglietti-bodied coupe or sonorous V12 ever could.

It’s OK. We understand. We’re not judgemental here at WRF. Together we’ll work our way through this…