OK, stick with me here, this is going to be a long one. The 2016 WRC has wound down for the short winter break and Sebastien Ogier is deciding which car he wants to drive, so we have a moment to think ahead to the 2017 season. Big changes are coming and there seems to be a lot of excitement surrounding the 2017 cars, but are they really the shot in the arm the WRC is looking for? I think I am in the minority when I say that I am not convinced. Before you jump up and down shouting "heretic!" I suggest you grab a brew, sit down and hear me out.
I'm sure most WRC fans have seen footage of the new generation cars from Ford, Hyundai, Toyota and VW (err!) on test stages all over Europe but, for those not in the know, let's first look at what the changes are. Essentially, from a performance perspective, the turbo restrictor is being increased in size, from 33mm to 36mm, which means the cars will jump from their current 300-ish-bhp, to around 380bhp. Teams will also be allowed more freedom when it comes to suspension and aerodynamics, so the rear wings will be bigger, the arches wider and the front bumpers deeper. Finally, teams will be allowed to run an active centre differential, rather than the spool they're currently using.
The next-gen WRC cars are certainly not shy; with more power, more aero and wider body work (pic courtesy of Rally Captures).
So, what does all of this mean? The FIA and WRC are hoping that it will mean that the cars are more spectacular. They're hoping they'll slip and slide around more like the Group A and Group B cars of old. An extra 80-odd horses under the bonnet certainly isn't going to hurt but, I can't help but feel that some of the regulation changes are actually a little contradictory. Around a year ago, I went to Prodrive to interview their Technical Director and former Subaru World Rally Team engineering god, David Lapworth. I was actually there to talk to him about the active differential element of the new regulations but, as is often the case with these types of discussion, we ended up chatting about the regulation changes more widely.
It's fair to say that Mr. Lapworth knows a thing or two about how rally cars behave, having spent over 15 years turning agricultural Japanese saloon cars into multiple WRC winners. His lack of enthusiasm for some of the new regulations was telling and I can certainly understand why. The problem seems to be that, while adding a chunk more power is likely to make the cars a bit more of a handful, adding more aero and a fancy centre diff is going to have precisely the opposite effect. In reality, the active centre diff isn't actually likely to have an enormous impact on the way the cars perform. It will allow some fine tuning, but the difference certainly isn't going to be night and day. Similarly, the enormous aerodynamic devices that can be seen sprouting from the 2017 WRC prototypes are likely to have an effect, but we are not talking about F1 levels of downforce here. When we get into real aerodynamics, the air going under the car is every bit as important as the air going over the top of it. The problem with a rally car is that the amount of air going under the car is constantly changing by virtue of the massive suspension articulation, limiting the potential benefits.
Despite all of this, it does make me wonder why, when the FIA is aiming to improve the spectacle, they have introduced regulations that, if anything, are going to reduce it. If teams want to get the most from their aero devices, they'll be encouraging their drivers to drive as cleanly as possible. A stonking great rear wing won't be doing much when the car is sliding sideways after all. Another thing that Lapworth noted was that, the more aero freedom you allow, the more the cars tend to look the same - where is the spectacle in that?
Fundamentally, a rally car can only go as fast as its tyres will allow it to. The less grip the car has, the more spectacular it is likely to be. As the cars have become further removed from their production origins and suspension and tyre technology has developed, they have become less and less grip limited. The power increase for 2017 is certainly going to go some way to addressing this and making the cars a bit wilder but, like Lapworth, I have my doubts about the benefits of the other changes. That’s before we get into the increased costs, which will mean less privateers, so less potential competition.
Call me crazy, but these changes to the technical regulations appear to be a sticking plaster to cover some of the more fundamental problems that the WRC is suffering from. Rather than the promotor spending money, they’re making the teams spend money. If the spectacle doesn’t increase, they can just blame the teams and change the regulations again – it’s a win-win for them. The hype being stirred up around the new cars makes me feel like I'm the only person left who thinks the current WRC machines look fantastic. They don't need bigger wings or active diffs. Wind them up to 380bhp and we'll have all the spectacle we need, with a much smaller bill for the teams.
I don't think the WRC are really worried about the cars not being spectacular, I think they're worried about the growth of Rallycross.
So, if the changes aren't just about making the cars more spectacular to watch, what are they about? Rallycross, that's what. In terms of the WRC, the FIA WorldRX is a little bit like comparing Professor Stephen Hawking and Professor Brian Cox. No one can doubt that Hawking is brilliant and a pioneer of physics, but Cox's ability to present it in easy-to-digest chunks is always going to make him more appealing to the masses.
This is the problem that the WRC is suffering from – Rallycross is easy to promote. It has a short, sharp format, all run out of a single venue. The WRC is strung out over several days and covers an enormous area, making it much harder to film and much more difficult for spectators to access. However one thing worth considering, and going back to the strange physics metaphor, is that when Stephen Hawking is presented in the right way, he is easily a match for the “cooler” Cox. This, when it comes down to it, is the root of problem for the WRC; it isn't doing a very good job of presenting itself. In fact, it's doing a terrible job.
The coverage in recent years has been a little lacklustre to say the least. The footage is generic; the top handful of cars, all going through the same stretch of road, so the viewer barely gets to see any of the event. This footage is then thrown out to various broadcasters who lay their own commentary over it. It makes it pretty difficult for viewers to get excited and want to venture into the forests to watch for real, when they can't really get hooked by the drama unfolding on their screen. Of course, adding more cameras adds more cost but let us not forget that it's Red Bull behind the promotion of the WRC. These are the guys that can make soapbox racing or jumping off a pier on a cardboard glider popular, so why are they struggling so much with the WRC? The spectacle is there, they just need to find a more effective way to show it to us.
I think it's also important not to get too distracted by the young upstart that is WorldRX. Sure, it's good for spectators, but the WRC has enormous heritage and prestige on which it can draw. There have been fears recently about the future of Rally GB and uproar when the Tour de Corse tried to do something a bit different with their route in 2015. Like F1, it is these historic events that give the WRC its appeal. They should be jewels in the crown of the series, not lambasted as being old-fashioned and backward-looking. Like F1 needs Spa, Silverstone and Monza, the WRC needs Monte Carlo, Rally GB, Finland, New Zealand and the Tour de Corse. They symbolise what the WRC is all about, they give it its identity and should be used to wow the crowds. If the promoter wants the sport to be a profitable enterprise for them, they need to invest in showing the world just how amazing it is. This means proper TV coverage, proper use of social media and getting beyond generic in-car or on-stage footage.
Finally, and I think this is something that afflicts sport of all kinds, is the sanitised way in which the media interact with teams. Every major FIA championship is now a slick PR machine, where the drivers always have their overalls done-up, have their sponsors baseball cap on and spout the same stale PR nonsense every time they are interviewed. If you want fans to really feel connected and enthused about a sport, let them see who the stars really are. Every rally fan of a certain age will remember the TV cameras following a furious Colin McRae after he was forced to relinquish victory in Spain in 1995 to ensure that the title battle with team-mate Carlos Sainz went to the last round in Great Britain. This raw emotion won McRae countless fans and the way he reacted, with a truly untouchable performance on the RAC Rally to take his only WRC title, showed just what intense passion he had for the sport. The drivers are a huge asset in PR terms. The last decade has seen big names like Kimi Raikkonen, Ken Block and Robert Kubica take part in the WRC, all of which were opportunities squandered. These global names are just one tool that can be used to raise the profile of the WRC and rallying more widely. Block’s videos get tens of millions of views and the WRC is way more unpredictable than a guy skidding about on an industrial estate, so why not take advantage of his brand?
I understand why the teams only want their drivers to say the right thing, they're in it for the business after all. But, the irony is, if the driver's had more free reign to show their emotions, the sport would be better to watch and the teams advertising would probably reach an even wider audience. It's no good running a super-slick PR machine if no one is actually watching...
The WRC remains a fantastic spectacle. It's one of the toughest forms of motorsport in the world, where some of the best drivers have tried and failed to make a mark. However, it is struggling to find its place in the motorsport hierarchy as people demand ever-more instant gratification. I hope that I am proved wrong and that the new technical regulations revitalise the series, but I think they are really only scratching the surface. The real problems lie in the promotion and PR side. Get the promotion right and there is no reason that the WRC can't enjoy the frenzied excitement of the Group B era. Get it wrong and the WRC will continue to fade into obscurity, regardless of how big a wing you nail to the back of the cars.
Thanks to Rally Captures for the images of the 2017 WRC car images, check them out at facebook.com/rallycapturesphotography or @RallyCaptures