Todt on World Ral­ly­cross

World ral­ly­cross is en­ter­ing a sem­i­nal sea­son. By Hal Ridge

Motor Sport News - - In This Issue - Pho­tos: FIA World Ral­ly­cross and Tim Whit­ting­ton

t is said that if a band’s first al­bum creates a buzz, then the se­cond is likely to be suc­cess­ful too. How­ever, the third is of­ten not as straight for­ward. The dif­fi­cult third al­bum: do you stick with what you know works and risk peo­ple switch­ing off and los­ing in­ter­est as they seek the next thing, or do you make changes to your act and take the risk of los­ing your roots and orig­i­nal fans?

It’s a dif­fi­cult bal­ance that has to be man­aged. This year, the FIA World Ral­ly­cross Cham­pi­onship en­ters its third term with the cov­eted FIA World ti­tle that is only en­joyed by four other cham­pi­onships.

Af­ter two suc­cess­ful sea­sons of strong growth in terms of the quan­tity and qual­ity of com­peti­tors, spectators, me­dia ex­po­sure and live tele­vi­sion pres­ence, the third year will be cru­cial for World RX to con­tinue its up­ward trend, while also en­sur­ing sta­bil­ity for the se­ries.

Jean Todt, pres­i­dent of the FIA, played a key role in grant­ing the se­ries’ pro­moter, IMG, FIA World sta­tus for the 2014 sea­son. Speak­ing at his first visit to a ral­ly­cross event in 26 years, in Italy at the close of last sea­son, Todt told Mo­tor­sport News that he be­lieves ral­ly­cross is head­ing in the right di­rec­tion.

“I like it, be­cause there’s a lot of ac­tion and the races are short, so things go quickly. It’s well pro­grammed,” he ex­plained.

“I’m happy be­cause this is a cham­pi­onship that has de­vel­oped well. The com­pe­ti­tion is close, there are young driv­ers, pro­fes­sional teams and good cars. There are peo­ple work­ing ev­ery day to get more tele­vi­sion cov­er­age, more web­site cov­er­age, more spectators and it’s go­ing in the right di­rec­tion. You have a lot of man­u­fac­tur­ers who are in­volved. It’s good to have driv­ers like [Pet­ter] Sol­berg. It gives a level for the oth­ers. There are a lot of chal­lenges and there is tight com­pe­ti­tion.”

Todt is sat­is­fied with the di­ver­sity of the ma­chin­ery used in World RX, from both works-sup­ported and pri­vately funded out­fits. “All the teams are run in a pri­vate man­ner,” adds Todt. “Ford is rep­re­sented, Peu­geot, Citroen, Audi, Volk­swa­gen... for a new world cham­pi­onship it’s im­pres­sive, and es­pe­cially with cars that are sim­i­lar.”

Asked which ter­ri­to­ries he would like World RX to travel to in the fu­ture, Todt said those de­ci­sions lie with the cham­pi­onship pro­moter: “It’s not my job, my job is to give it di­rec­tion, to give it strat­egy. Of course there is a cham­pi­onship pro­moter, IMG, which is do­ing a good job to­gether with the ral­ly­cross com­mis­sion. First we need to sta­bilise the cal­en­dar. It’s very im­por­tant you cover a min­i­mum of three re­gions in the world to be a world cham­pi­onship.”

Since its grad­u­a­tion from the Euro­pean Ral­ly­cross Cham­pi­onship at the start of 2014, World RX has vis­ited eight new venues. The 2016 cal­en­dar fea­tures just one new event in Riga in Latvia. As man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of World Ral­ly­cross for IMG, Paul Bellamy is charged with guid­ing the sport to con­tin­ued growth. He agrees with Todt and has led the de­ci­sion to bring the num­ber of rounds back to 12 this sea­son af­ter a year of 13 events in 2015.

“Less is more in terms of quan­tity of events, and to not let costs run away that make it pro­hib­i­tive and ex­pen­sive for both com­peti­tors and also the fans,” says Bellamy. “I don’t see the value in putting loads and loads more events on the cal­en­dar. The bot­tom line is that this is a world cham­pi­onship sport and it’s grow­ing very quickly. This is a great spec­ta­tor sport and po­ten­tially a great TV prod­uct, but it’s not there yet.”

Speak­ing about cur­rent ral­ly­cross venues and po­ten­tial new ter­ri­to­ries, Bellamy ex­plained: “The anal­ogy I would use is a bit like golf. Golf tour­na­ments are at com­pletely dif­fer­ent venues through­out the year that make up the tour. A mix of tra­di­tional venues and new ones in the Middle East and China for ex­am­ple,” he says.

“The abil­ity to test ath­letes on dif­fer­ent types of tracks or venues, just like golf cour­ses, keeps World RX ex­cit­ing. It would be bor­ing if we had 12 F1 venues, but by the same to­ken it would be bor­ing to have just tra­di­tional ral­ly­cross venues. In or­der for teams and us to bring more peo­ple on board out­side the tra­di­tional ral­ly­cross fans, you’ve got to go to fa­cil­i­ties that they’d be used to with watch­ing other sports but, at the same time, not to alien­ate the loyal fan base.

“Europe’s in pretty good shape, we’ve got a lot of peo­ple in­ter­ested in hav­ing an event in Europe. What that al­lows us to do is up the stan­dard: the tracks, spec­ta­tor and broad­cast fa­cil­i­ties. We’ve started to build up a suc­cess­ful event in Canada. Ar­gentina has had some dif­fi­cult starts, but things will be more chal­leng­ing as you go fur­ther afield. I don’t think we should put a lot more events in the cal­en­dar, but have stronger events. It’s dif­fi­cult to say how many that should be.

“We want to look at North Amer­ica in some de­tail, Asia, China par­tic­u­larly would be very in­ter­est­ing, and there’s al­ways in­ter­est from the Middle East for mo­tor­sport. The other con­ti­nent that doesn’t have much mo­tor­sport is Africa. There are a cou­ple of chances there that could de­velop over the next six to 12 months.”

While work­ing to en­sure the core sta­bil­ity of the cham­pi­onship, new tele­vi­sion pack­ages and au­di­ences are key to Bellamy’s plan. Last year, the World RX fi­nale in Ar­gentina was shown on free-to-air TV in the UK on Quest. It was the first time ral­ly­cross was shown on free-to-air TV since BBC Grand­stand’s last ral­ly­cross cov­er­age in Septem­ber 1986.

“Our in­ter­na­tional broad­cast foot­print is re­ally im­por­tant,” adds Bellamy. “That’s why I’m de­lighted we’ve an­nounced a deal in Swe­den with SVT, that’s very im­por­tant as a key mar­ket for us. The strat­egy is to get more eye­balls on ral­ly­cross, and to work with free-to-air part­ners where we can be­cause I think that’s the way for­ward to get this sport in front of more peo­ple.

“We’re work­ing with broad­cast part­ners who have a pas­sion and mo­tor­sport strat­egy. In some coun­tries that may not be free-to-air, but there’s a live and a high­lights show as well.”

If any mo­tor­sport can work on tele­vi­sion, it’s ral­ly­cross. Af­ter all, that’s why it was cre­ated in the first place. With in­ter­est­ing new driv­ers like Ken Block, ex­ist­ing com­peti­tors promis­ing to up the ante and new teams in the shape of JRM Rac­ing and Gigi Galli’s new Kia out­fit look­ing to join the party full time, that will only help with the amount of eyes view­ing the sport on the box.

The third term of World RX will be im­por­tant, but with both in­creased TV cov­er­age and sta­bil­ity for com­peti­tors high on the list of pri­or­i­ties of those in charge, all the signs are that 2016 will be at least as good as its pre­de­ces­sors. ■

“It is a great spec­ta­tor sport” Paul Bellamy

Todt meets Rei­nis Ni­tiss and An­dreas Eriks­son

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