Motorsport is an integral part of the automotive world. Think of all the memorable moments we still talk about. James Hunt's F1 championship, Dale Earnheardt's crash at the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, Jason Plato flipping Matt Neal off at Rockingham. Okay, maybe not the last one but you get the idea. And which sport provided some of the greatest spectacles, and on every surface for that matter? Yes, rallying, one of the most impressive acts of motorsport, consistently offered us memorable moments. Who can forget the battles of such great drivers as Carlos Sainz, Ari Vatanen or Walter Röhrl in machines that could go flat out on every surface? The WRC was always the go-to place for breath taking highlights and then... everything stopped. For the better part of fifteen years rallying has been losing its appeal and its audience. In other words, the WRC has fallen from the top, and the worst bit about that is that no one has really noticed.
Take a look at 2003, in what some consider the last great year of rallying. You have many manufacturer's with mostly equal opportunities (unless you're Hyundai or Skoda) of winning the Manufacturer's title and of course you have highly charismatic drivers with bucket loads of raw talent and with personalities almost as loud as the cars they're driving. Think Colin McRae, Marcus Grönholm or Gilles Panizzi; think "bigger than life". And then to top it all off you have memorable rallies and locations with fans that love the sport as much as they love seeing the cars blast through mud and rocks. Who can say that rallies like the one in Monte Carlo or the Acropolis aren't iconic? Then think of what is happening today...
2003 World Champion, Petter Solberg
After 2004 things changed though. Sebastian Loeb's domination that lasted till the early 2010s played a huge part in the drop of interest and like that wasn't enough car makers were abandoning the ship one after the other. In 2005 Peugeot and Mitsubishi left and in 2008 Subaru shockingly said goobye too. Yes, Suzuki might have joined in 2008 but I'm sure you barely remembered that to begin with. In what was the lowest point of the sport, sometime in 2009, Citroen and Peugeot were the only two manufacturer's on the championship.
But that on its own didn't kill the interest of fans. What ultimately managed that was the lack of drivers with personalities and rallies in locations that had no actual fans, like in Turkey or Indonesia. Opening up to new markets is one thing. Completely giving up on established locations in favor of new ones is a different one though and it can only be described as a foolish business decision at best. And the drivers? Tell me if you'll remember anything Dani Sordo did in 10 years time or if Ott Tänak's title reign will be as memorable as anything Richard Burns or Tommi Mäkinen ever did..
The WRC Hyundai i20 used in 2019
And that only leaves one variable. The cars. The new crop of gravel beasts is indeed better than ever, with hints of the long lost Group B cars. They have the grip and the looks to match their ridiculous speeds and it's a great shame their drivers, while extremely talented and capable, are just so... well... bland. I know that times are moving on but if there's one reason people are still interested in Formula 1 it's because of people like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel; people with both presence and tremendous talent.
If we want to be honest, WRC has all the tools to be something great. More interesting characters might join the sport and the new locations will eventually create a new generation of fans, but the true question is whether the fans want to return to the WRC after such a long time of sheer blandness and of constant disappointments. Only time will tell but so far things are not looking good..
What do you think? Is the WRC still interesting or does it desperately need some deep changes? Share your opinion in the comments!