NOT SO SIDE­WAYS

Does it have a fu­ture? De­spite a huge col­lec­tive fond­ness for ral­ly­ing, the sport seems to be in de­cline. How can it be saved? The evo team don their think­ing bob­ble hats to come up with a pos­si­ble so­lu­tion

Evo India - - CONTENTS - by ADAM TOWLER

Does ral­ly­ing re­ally have a fu­ture, abroad or at home?

HOW TO SOLVE A PROB­LEM LIKE RAL­LY­ING? That most noble of mo­tor­sports: not merely driver pit­ted against ri­val driver in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment, but a part­ner­ship of two hu­man be­ings, trust­ing each other im­plic­itly in the face of po­ten­tially mor­tal dan­ger. Man and ma­chine bat­tling not just to be the fastest of all from point A to point B, but to con­quer the con­di­tions and the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, too. Mo­tor­sport to the orig­i­nal tem­plate.

But some­thing’s not right with ral­ly­ing. Sure, it’s be­come al­most fash­ion­able to knock it, so we’ll aim to be a bit more con­struc­tive than that, but when Messrs Meaden, Barker, Vi­vian, Good­win, In­gram and Beaumont, and yours truly, get round a ta­ble, a pat­tern emerges. Well, apart from the wily old Viv, that is: ‘Still the only place you can wit­ness ge­nius driv­ing and the de­ploy­ment of gi­ant co­jones to­gether,’ he opines. ‘Splen­did. Wouldn’t change a thing.’ Some­how I think the rest of us are

It’s clear,

though, that what we re­ally don’t like ArE tHE

cars

going to have a dif­fer­ent view…

You’ll of­ten hear the phrase ‘I don’t know where to watch it’ ap­plied to mod­ern ral­ly­ing, a per­cep­tion based on the time when the WRC dis­ap­peared from main­stream pro­gram­ming. In fact, there’s a va­ri­ety of ways to watch: high­lights are on Neo Sports in In­dia, while there’s also cov­er­age on Red Bull TV (on­line) and on the sport’s ded­i­cated on­line por­tal (WRC+), which also en­ables all sorts of data to be ac­cessed – al­though you’ll have to buy a sub­scrip­tion.

Ral­ly­ing is cry­ing out for the sort of fan in­ter­ac­tion en­abled by the mod­ern world of smart­phones and so­cial me­dia con­tent. It’s a sport on a large scale, of­ten elu­sive to cover – and far too ex­pen­sive we’re al­ways be­ing told. But surely mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, from smart­phones to drones, of­fers so many so­lu­tions.

Will Beaumont makes a sound point about the na­ture of the cov­er­age: ‘I pre­fer the old style of rally cov­er­age, where you’d see each car go around the same cor­ner one after an­other be­fore mov­ing on to an­other cor­ner. That way you got to see how each car and driver drove, their dif­fer­ent styles. The mod­ern WRC show of quick cuts, on-board crash footage and slow-mo jumps is much more spec­tac­u­lar and more in­clu­sive, but it doesn’t sat­isfy the nerdy urge to com­pare the cars and drivers.’

There’s no doubt that ral­ly­ing has es­pe­cially suf­fered in the UK. In much of Europe, the sport’s top ech­e­lon en­joys a much health­ier fol­low­ing, bol­stered by the suc­cess of drivers from those coun­tries – the ‘Loeb ef­fect’ in France, for ex­am­ple. But UK ral­ly­ing had its guts ripped out with the tragic demise of World Cham­pi­ons Richard Burns and Colin McRae. Their loss, and that of their main­stream me­dia-at­tract­ing star qual­ity, still casts a shadow over the sport.

It’s clear, though, that what we re­ally don’t like are the cars. Specif­i­cally, the fact that they’re noth­ing like the ones we can ac­tu­ally buy. How ironic, given that the 2017 reg­u­la­tions, with their boost in power to nearly 400bhp and wild aero de­vices, were meant to put the Group B flavour back into the WRC. It seems all they’ve achieved is to turn us off.

‘What I loved about ral­ly­ing was the con­nec­tion be­tween road and rally cars,’ says Meaden, get­ting all misty eyed. ‘Group A was the zenith for me, but even Group B cars were road cars, al­beit built in very small num­bers. The first WRC cars were crack­ing things, but as soon as man­u­fac­tur­ers don’t have to build the cars they com­pete with, I tend to switch off.’

Barker agrees: ‘The cars now look too lit­tle like road cars – or aren’t avail­able as road cars.’ Antony In­gram con­curs: ‘An­other se­ries hurt­ing from a lack of road rel­e­vance. Prob­a­bly more so than any other se­ries, since the WRC and its var­i­ous reg­u­la­tions over time has given us some of the world’s most ex­cit­ing drivers’ cars.’

I agree. There seems to be this mis­con­cep­tion from the pow­ers-that-be in mo­tor­sport that ev­ery com­pe­ti­tion car needs to have huge spoil­ers, mas­sive arches and so on. It wasn’t enough to just up the power with the new-era cars: down­force and chas­sis tech had to be in­creased too, so the speeds went up, and the cars are more ca­pa­ble than ever. But for what? They might be able to fly in Fin­land at a height that would make Eddie the Ea­gle wince, and drift around hair­pins with metro­nomic pre­ci­sion, but it’s too clin­i­cal, too per­fect.

As an an­ti­dote, head to YouTube and watch footage of the 1994 Tour de Corse rally. Look at the snarling, flame-spit­ting Group A cars in their pomp: the va­ri­ety of shapes and sizes; the dif­fer­ent noises they make; the way they need to be grabbed by the scruff and re­ally driven, and in turn dis­play the dif­fer­ing driv­ing styles of those be­hind the wheel. You don’t need to be told that’s McRae in the Im­preza, not Sainz, it’s bla­tantly ob­vi­ous. Look closely too at the Im­preza 555, the Group A ho­molo­ga­tion ver­sion of the Im­preza Turbo. It has nei­ther big arches nor a low front split­ter. It runs the meek ‘boomerang’ rear wing off the orig­i­nal WRX JDM and UK Turbo 2000 mod­els. And yet has there ever been a more glo­ri­ous, emo­tive com­pe­ti­tion car than this?

Good­win’s more of a cir­cuit rac­ing man, but as he points out: ‘I would like to see more va­ri­ety of cars tak­ing part in the WRC – like 911s and the Toy­ota GT86. Not much in­ter­ested in hatch­backs.’ Quite. By forc­ing all rally cars to ef­fec­tively look – and be – the same, we’re los­ing the va­ri­ety that gave us the Cel­ica GT-Four and the Mazda 323 Turbo, let alone the Skoda 130 RS and the Lan­cia Stratos. The FIA tried re­cently with its RGT class, but it got nowhere out­side a hand­ful of howl­ing 911 GT3s, so beloved in na­tional cham­pi­onships through­out Europe.

For years we were told that man­u­fac­tur­ers didn’t want the trou­ble and ex­pense of ho­molo­ga­tion cars. And yet there are more per­for­mance cars on the cur­rent mar­ket than ever be­fore, and a big­ger ap­petite than ever for lim­ited-run cars. Why not a Ford Fo­cus RS and VW Golf R on the stages? Cars that fans could have driven them­selves to come along and spec­tate, or even pre­pare and en­ter them­selves into events at a much more rea­son­able level. A new Group N, if you like, as in the days of the orig­i­nal Ford Sierra RS Cos­worth.

Ral­ly­ing needs that sense of ad­ven­ture, too. Night stages, long stages. More than one of our col­lec­tive men­tioned the loss of the old Sa­fari Rally – ‘ral­ly­ing’s Le Mans 24-hours,’ as Meaden puts it. When David Richards ush­ered in the World Rally Car era, the events changed too, with cen­tralised ser­vic­ing, shorter and fewer stages – all to make the se­ries more tele­vis­able. But ral­ly­ing lost so much in the process, in­clud­ing, iron­i­cally, TV cov­er­age.

So what have we learnt? Bring back the ho­molo­ga­tion spe­cials, per­haps with a mod­ern, slightly more ac­ces­si­ble twist; make ral­lies feel like ad­ven­tures again, and utilise new tech to spread the cov­er­age. Not an easy chal­lenge, but one that’s more than worth­while. The sport de­serves noth­ing less than all our per­se­ver­ance and at­ten­tion.

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