Todt on World Rallycross
World rallycross is entering a seminal season. By Hal Ridge
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