In the aftermath of Wales Rally GB, much of the chatter has focused on VW’s decision to pull out of the WRC, but the rally itself was one full of talking points. I’m sure you’ve all seen the results and you don’t need me to harp on about Sebastien Ogier winning, which I think we all expected. The only real sporting surprise of the weekend for me was Ott Tänak finishing second. The Estonian has demonstrated his speed before but, this time, managed to keep his cool and get on the podium in the DMACK Fiesta. This drive could secure his place in a pukka M-Sport Fiesta in 2017, depending on what those unemployed VW drivers do of course.
But, what I really want to talk about is the rally itself, the nuts and bolts of it. Like a lot of rally fans, I’ve read the gushing media reports, telling us all what an outstanding event it was, but is that really how it was? I’m not so sure. Now, before I go any further and you all accuse me of being a miserable git, I want to make it clear that I really support the work that Ben Taylor and the rest of the organising team have done in recent years. They’ve revived the faltering British Rally Championship and got Rally GB back into the north of Wales, where it should be. I'm sure Ben and his team would be the first to admit that no event is perfect and I hope that, if they read my comments, they will be taken as the positive criticism they are intended to be.
The WRC returned to Chester for the first time since 1999. Rallying seriously needs to do more of this. Much more.
The event this year was a bit of a mix for me. Friday afternoon was spent helping a friend set up at Cholmondeley Castle, before a trip into Chester in the evening to watch the regroup. It's great to see Rally GB back in the city, as I think these types of PR sessions are vital if rallying wants to raise its profile in the UK. We arrived late in the afternoon, while the national field were gathering. We grabbed some food in a local restaurant, before soaking up the atmosphere as the cars trickled through. There were plenty of people around, which is just what is needed but, once the national cars moved out, there was something of a gap and the crowds dwindled. I know there were some delays that meant the WRC crews arrived late, but this gap seemed an unnecessary pause in proceedings.
People in fancy costumes trying to fill time between the national and WRC runners coming through Chester was just, well, weird to be honest.
There was a bit of an interlude from some arty types walking around in some rather bizarre costumes, but I wonder if this time could have been put to better use. Maybe some of the guests could have been interviewed, some of the display cars looked at more closely, or just some cars running up and down could have helped. This did all happen, but only once the WRC crews had started to arrive, so it felt a little rushed. Doing this in a more staggered way, eliminating the people in irrelevant costumes may have been a better approach. There were plenty of people there when the WRC stars arrived but, if more had been done to “smooth” the gap, those crowds might have been even bigger. Also, the whole thing was a little calm for my liking. If you watch these types of event in Ireland, the cars are revving their engines and doing burnouts as they pull up to the ceremonial ramp. These kind of antics make the whole thing more exciting for everyone. Good old health and safety Britain strikes again there though I suspect.
Saturday saw a return to Cholmondeley for the RallyFest event, where I spent the day milling about among the display cars and generally enjoying the atmosphere. Cholmondeley Castle is a much better venue than Chirk Castle and, although the stage itself was perhaps a little tame, the day certainly attracted a decent crowd; proof again of how important it is for rallies to try and engage with the public. While it was a good day overall, I do have one big criticism – the autograph session. I was stood amongst some fans as the first handful of WRC cars came through and then.... nothing. People stood around, wondering what was going on, before they found out from a marshal that there was a 40 minute break while the top crews signed autographs. This left most of the spectators I was around feeling very disgruntled and many of them dispersed, using it as an opportunity to make an early exit to avoid the inevitble queues.
I am a great believer in getting people closer to the cars and drivers so I absolutely understand what the organisers were shooting for, but why not set this up so the rally can continue for those that don't want an autograph? There were vast areas of empty grass; a friend of mine questioned why the entire WRC field couldn't have regrouped together, allowing the crowd to look at the cars and meet some of the drivers. The gap made things feel a little disjointed, which is a shame given that the rest of the day was very enjoyable.
On Sunday, I finally got to venture into the forests proper, taking in the second run through Clocaenog for the WRC cars and the sole run for the national field. It was busy, so busy that there were some spectator issues but it was typical Rally GB otherwise; great to watch and well organised. The only downer was the amount of rubbish that some people chose to leave behind, along with a number of unattended fires. Every big event attracts its share of morons but, if you call yourself a rally fan and think it's acceptable to leave empty beer cans and coffee cups in the forests, then I'm pretty ashamed to be associated with you. It doesn't take a lot to carry it back to the car with you. Actions like this just make it even harder for those that put in the effort to organise these events.
Overall, my experience on Rally GB 2016 was a positive one. It remains one of the most iconic events on the WRC calendar and, while it's not the mammoth test of endurance that it once was, it is still a really unique rally. There was a lot to be applauded, but there is nothing wrong with some reflection and constructive criticism - it's essential if we want things to improve. Getting the forest stages right is vital to keeping the hardcore fans happy, but reaching out to a new audience is the key to tempting more people into those forest stages and building for the future. The return to Chester and the improved RallyFest are definitely another step in the right direction but I don't think we're quite there yet.