Hasn’t been a good week for rallying, has it? First, Suzuki decides that it can’t continue with its all-too-public development process on the SX4 WRC, and cans its team. And now Subaru, a long-time supporter of rallying and the brand with which Richard Burns and Colin McRae both won their world titles, has announced that it will not be present in the forests in 2009.
It’s easy to blame the economic crisis for this, of course. Subaru and Suzuki both cite falling sales and the need to focus on their core products as the reasons behind their withdrawals. They’re both relatively compact manufacturers who desperately need to cut costs and concentrate on producing more competitive offerings for regular car buyers, not Petter Solberg.
The sad truth, though, is that Subaru’s withdrawal is as much about the World Rally Championship being on its knees as it is about poor car sales. Here is a series that has been dominated by in-fighting over the last few years, as people driven by marketing (and the returns on manufacturer dollars) have squabbled with people determined to sell and develop cars. And when agreement was finally reached – last week, as it happened – the technical regulations amounted to a thumbed nose at Subaru, because it was going to be forced to develop a brand new car for 2010.
Were the WRC a well promoted championship with a comprehensive global footprint in major car markets and slick, efficient television coverage with massive viewing figures, then perhaps someone in Fuji Heavy Industries might have considered signing off an Impreza built to the new rules. As it is, I’d say it probably took them a matter of minutes to scribble out the budget line marked ‘WRC’.
Those who are left – Citroen, Ford and the FIA – should take note. Subaru’s brand has been transformed by rallying, so if it can axe a programme at a couple of months’ notice, then something is badly wrong. The sport’s recovery will be long – longer, I’d say, than the economic rebuilding process – but it must be considered, planned and actioned in the very near future if it is to happen at all.