Rallycross is a perfect sport for the modern television age. It features short, sharp races that virtually ensure non-stop excitement. It features hugely powerful four-wheel-drive cars, which can be driven at crowd-pleasingly lurid angles. And it features action-packed courses, that mix jumps, bumps, gravel and asphalt sections.
In short, rallycross is pretty spectacular stuff. And that’s because it was designed for television, albeit back in 1967. On February 4 of that year, the first rallycross event was held at Lydden Hill in Kent, to fill some airtime on ITV’s World of Sport programme. A fusion of racing and rallying, it was fitting the inaugural rallycross event was won by Vic Elford, one of motorsport’s greatest all-rounders. Elford convinced Porsche to loan him a 911 from a nearby showroom, drove it to the Kent track and won. He would go on to race in Formula One and sportscars, and won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1968.
Rallycross grew quickly, and in the UK became a staple of BBC Grandstand, in the 1970s and 1980s. But it has faded since then. The on-track product remained spectacular and it had pockets of support – particularly in Scandinavia – but the huge potential of the sport wasn’t being realised.
That is quickly changing – and 2014 could be the year the sport realises that potential. Major sports and media business IMG spotted the potential of rallycross, and last year snapped up the promotional rights to the FIA European Rallycross Championship.
It made an immediate impact, securing Monster Energy as a title sponsor and drew in star drivers including former World Rally champion Petter Solberg and guest stars such as Sébastien Loeb. Most importantly, it secured decent television deals and started streaming the sport on the internet.
The growth in the championship has been notable, and that was rewarded when the FIA handed IMG the rights to run a new World Rallycross Championship this year – one of just five world championships the FIA sanctions. That’s a huge step for the category.
Over in America there’s the Global Rallycross Championship. That series focuses on spectator friendly venues, and is closely tied to the X Games extreme sports event, which now includes both rally and rallycross events.
The American series has drawn in some big names from the world of extreme sports, including internet sensation Ken Block, motocross legend Travis Pastrana and stunt driver Tanner Foust - who this year will be driving a 560bhp Volkswagen Beetle.
The growth of both series has made rallycross a category that drivers and manufacturers aspire to compete in. In the last week, Peugeot has secured a tie-up with top team Kenneth Hansen Motorsport to run works-backed Peugeot 208 Superscars in the World Rallycross Championship, while Volkswagen is teaming with IndyCar Series squad Andretti Autosport to enter Beetles in the GRC.
The real key to the potential of rallycross are the truly spectacular 600bhp Supercars. I had a passenger ride in a VW Polo Supercar at Lydden Hill last year, and it was everything you’d expect: ridiculous acceleration, breathtaking cornering and painfully impressive braking. Truly spectacular: there’s a reason why more than two million people have watched Autocar’s drag race video featuring Liam Doran’s Citroen DS3 Supercar. They are cars people want to watch – and now they’re getting the chance to.