Thursday, 27 September 2012

The lows...and highs of the WRC

Going into the 2012 season, the WRC found itself in a rather unusual position. North One Sport's contract as promoter was terminated by governing body the FIA after their parent company, Convers Sports Initiatives, was placed in administration. Later, World Rally Championship commercial chief Vladimir Antonov, who was also backer of Convers Sports Initiatives, was arrested as a result of bank fraud in Lithuania. These developments left the WRC in a tricky situation, with the new season just around the corner. North One Sport was said to offer 'no assurances', leaving their job as promoter completley untenable.

With no promoter or broadcaster secured, an unusual solution was found. Each individual rally had to secure it's own promoter and broadcast deal until a series promoter could be found.

Jean Todt refused to give up on the WRC
The hunt for a new promoter was on with Eurosport the favourite to land the promoter deal whilst other companies were interested. FIA President Jean Todt refused to reveal who the other companies were. The WRC was also desperatley in need of investment after negotiations with a Qatari Bank worth millions of pounds broke down after the FIA terminated the contract with NOS. Rally organisers had also been offered 1 year deals by the FIA and were expected to pay higher fees to host an event. The aditional £80,000 was said to cover the cost of timing, safety, and production and distribution of television broadcasts. Many threatened to walk away from the championship in 2013.

Todt failed to secure a new promoter before Rally Sweden, leaving it, and subsequent ralliues to organise thier own events individually. Despite this, the championship stayed together and was still governed by the FIA, but the lack of a promoter was affecting the number of entries. Rally Sweden showed the WRC's struggles, with just 11 cars registering whilst that number was 36 in 2011.

Red Bull already had a strong presence in the WRC
Prior to Rallye Deutschland, things finally began to look up for the WRC. The FIA had shortlisted 3 promoters - Eurosport, Red Bull Media House, and an unknown South African company. Red Bull media house was selected, expanding their involvement in the WRC after already sponsoring select events and the factory Citroen team in recent years. Citroen team principal Yves Matton was positive about the new promoter, stating "I think Red Bull Media House promoting the championship would be a good thing. When they do something, they do it properly and they don't just want to make a good name with the promotion.". The WRC's long term future was seemingly secured.

Timing was an issue at the start of the season
Further problems meant that the series' regular timing and tracking equipment could not be secured for the season opening Monte Carlo Rally after the WRC's previous promoter had failed to pay close to £1 million to timing and tracking supplier Stage One Technology. A basic solution was reached just in time meaning the rally could go ahead. Luckily, the FIA struck a deal with Stage One Technology to return, supplying timing and tracking equipment from Rally Sweden onwards.

The WRC was clearly falling appart, but despite the struggles, the FIA stayed deffiant and commited to the WRC's long term future, at the same time ruling out a merger with rival series, the IRC.

However, despite all the turmoil surrounding the WRC, there was massive interest from manufacturers looking to join the series. The new 1.6 Super 2000 regulations introduced in 2011 provided a more economically viable platform for entering the world championship, something that the previous regualtions had struggled to do in the global financial crisis. By 2009, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Peugeot and Suzuki had all left the WRC, but there was now fresh interest from elsewhere.

Hyundai announced a return with the i20 WRC
VW's Polo R has undergone extensive testing
MINI returned in 2011 with a part time schedule, with Volkswagen and Hyundai set to follow as soon as 2013. This more than doubles the WRC's factory teams, which had been frozen at 2, Citroen and Ford, since 2009. Citroen's dominance didn't deter new entrants either, with Volkswagen aiming to be competitive from the off after undergoing an extensive test program throughout 2011 and 2012 and winning the Dakar rally in 2009, '10 and '11 with the Touareg. MINI obtained regular points and podiums with Dani Sordo behind the wheel immediatley upon thier return. Hyundai has set no deinitive date for their WRC return. However, they have said that their new in house effort could be seen as early as 2013. The Hyundai i20 WRC was unveiled at the 2012 Paris Motor Show. There has also been talk of other manufacturers joining, namely Toyota, but only time will tell if these rumours are true.

They say 'things can only get better'. WRC seems to have hit rock bottom in recent years, and provided new promoter Red Bull Media House can keep a steady ship and the new regulations remain sustainable, the WRC is set to thrive once again.

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