Last weekend I rekindled a love affair with the World Rally Championship, a series I wrote about from 1999-2001 and which I hadn’t really been around for five years.
My trip to Wales reminded me why I loved the sport; from the anticipation while waiting in the stages to the fireworks of the actual action and the mastery of the mechanics at work in the service park, it was a wonder to behold.
Yet this most spectacular of sports is now more of a footnote in most car and motorsport fans' minds than ever before. The forests were near-empty compared to a decade ago; the service park (on a weekend, in the heart of Cardiff) was nigh on deserted. And, as all WRC fans will testify, it wasn’t because all the fans were at home following the action on television (for those who don’t know, the WRC has nigh on no television coverage these days).
Truth be told, WRC fans have long bemoaned the lack of coverage the sport gets, especially relative to Formula 1. Even so, it has fallen a long way from its decade-long mid-1990s heyday (in terms of coverage, lest the bands of Escort Mk2 or Group B fans protest) when Colin McRae and Richard Burns were in their pomp.
Yet following my trip, I’m now convinced of two things: the sport itself remains spectacular to watch and thrilling to be around, and it is on the brink of total extinction. Why the bad news? Because Ford and Citroen, the two main players, can only be struggling to justify their involvement against a backdrop of losses in Europe and a championship that doesn’t even have a promoter in place.
More positive people than me will say I’m wrong, citing the fact that VW is in the wings, ready to launch a full assault on the series. But given its mooted mega-budget, I can only conclude they will scare potential opposition away rather than encourage it in. Hyundai, too, is reported to be on the brink of entering the series, but even if it is ready to battle VW, I don’t rate either brand as a match for the heritage of Citroën and Ford, which will presumably be steamrollered if budgets are allowed to rise.
Sad times, then. People who knock the WRC are wrong. Its cars, drivers and stages are still awesome, even if they are not as awesome as when the world was a freer, less health and safety-obsessed place. Its organisation and promotion, though, are woeful. The FIA should be as ashamed of its efforts here as it is proud of its work in F1. History shows that fans will flock to events if they are given a good enough reason to get excited – and at the moment that simply isn’t happening.