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Opinion

The important WRC discussion triggered by Neuville's outburst

OPINION: Thierry Neuville’s outburst regarding his concerns over the future of the World Rally Championship has sparked plenty of debate, but it could prove to be an important and valuable discussion

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

No matter what the business, if you stand still and fail to innovate as markets change there is a risk of being left behind and the prospect of not achieving the potential. This is the crux of Thierry Neuville’s comments made in the lead up to Rally Portugal. The Hyundai driver claimed that the WRC is facing a critical point and needs to “react” and “change” to improve its appeal to current and prospective manufacturers, the media and fans.

His words have since triggered plenty of debate between stakeholders, but the situation regarding the future direction of the WRC is a complex one with many layers. There is enough evidence to justify that the WRC as a whole doesn’t need to completely reinvent the wheel, but there is plenty of room for improvement in several areas.

However, this isn’t a unique situation felt only by the WRC, but one almost all motorsport categories are currently facing. This pressure to evolve can be traced to some degree to the unprecedented boom in popularity Formula 1 is experiencing under Liberty Media’s stewardship, which has left other categories wishing for a slice of that pie.

In Portugal Neuville stated: “Before COVID I would say it [WRC] was reasonably OK, after COVID for me WRC went on the downhill slope. And I have the feeling like, nobody really realises it, how drastic it is.

“But as a driver you can feel it in terms of media attendance, I can feel it in Belgium, nobody really cares about WRC anymore. I feel that the manufacturers' involvement is not the same as it has been in the past. So there is a lot of things which gives it a feeling that yeah, we need to react.

"But not only this, we also see that Formula 1 is capable of changing the format, during the season, with the new format for the race in Baku with the qualifying on Friday.

"MotoGP is adding sprint races, and rally - there is no change. And we live in a time where nobody wants to follow anymore just cars driving through the forest. Yes it's spectacular when you go and watch, but when you are on the TV it's not the same.”

While Neuville made his views clear, he isn’t the only member of the service park frustrated by the current situation.

Neuville feels the WRC has been struggling since the COVID pandemic hit

Neuville feels the WRC has been struggling since the COVID pandemic hit

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

What triggered Neuville’s comments?

Neuville’s outburst actually stemmed from a positive news story published by Autosport, which reported that the WRC and FIA have identified three brands it wishes to continue discussions with, regarding the possibility of future engagement in the WRC.

Autosport subsequently published a social media post asking fans, ‘Which marque they would like to see join?’ This resulted in the Belgian responding with, “Can the WRC Promoter and the FIA keep the current 2.5 manufacturers committed to the WRC?” This was the prelude to Neuville’s comments when asked to expand on what he meant by the tweet.

At the heart of this is his concern over manufacturer involvement in the WRC. Retaining the current players, attracting new brands and ensuring a car maker receives a decent return on investment from competing in the WRC is a hot topic right now. Ideally, the WRC and the FIA believe four marques fielding three to four cars each is its optimum target for rallying’s premier class. However, following Citroen’s exit at the end of 2019, Toyota and Hyundai are the only full factory teams competing, while Ford is represented in a semi works capacity through M-Sport.

Increasing the pool of manufacturers was among the reasons behind the introduction of new Rally1 hybrid regulations last year. But this ruleset, set to continue until 2024 at least, has yet to achieve this goal although it has managed to retain Toyota and Hyundai. Rally1’s hybrid element, thanks to a control Compact Dynamics designed 100kW unit fitted to the cars, has proved a key factor for Ford to step up its support of M-Sport. But it has been suggested that the FIA mistimed its move to hybrid and is now playing catch up.

Last year the Rally1 entry list peaked at 12 cars for last year’s Acropolis Rally, which was relatively healthy for a first year. But a glance at entry lists this season shows that tally struggling to reach double figures consistently, with only eight cars entered in Portugal earlier this month. Clearly something needs to happen in the future to increase numbers, which in itself can help prove to manufacturers current and new that the WRC is indeed worth investing in.

Many have suggested that Rally2 should be adopted as rallying’s top tier. It is a valid argument and it could solve entry number problems but, while Rally2 cars are competitive and exciting to watch, they don't provide the Rally1 'X Factor'

One of the factors behind the low entry numbers is the cars are extremely expensive, costing close to a million euros each, a sizeable increase on a Rally2 car capped at around 200,000 euros. It therefore means only the wealthy businessman can afford to run private entries, excluding aspiring young talents hoping to make the next step from WRC2. For example, M-Sport ran as many as five Ford Puma Rally1s at events last year, but has now focused its significantly thinner pool of resources compared to Toyota and Hyundai to just two full-time entries.

Rally1 car costs aside, the FIA and WRC should however be commended on creating a fast and exciting product from the outside, and a car that has reached new heights in terms of safety, thanks to a tougher spaceframe chassis. The 500 horsepower hybrid monsters blasting through stages create an incredible sight for the spectator, are a challenge for the driver and the competition is incredibly close among the brands. The versatile chassis can accommodate a variety of shells from a hot hatch to a SUV, as represented by the GR Yaris, i20 N and the Puma, thus opening up the category to a manufacturer’s specific needs. These are all attractive features but, for some reason, it hasn’t lured any new players to the WRC.

The Rally1 class is yet to attract a new brand

The Rally1 class is yet to attract a new brand

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

In contrast, the scene in the second tier WRC2 category is enjoying a boom period. The cheaper, slower Rally2 arena, features customer rally cars produced by Hyundai, Skoda, Ford, Citroen, Volkswagen and now Toyota has joined the party. Entry lists regularly exceed the 40-car mark at WRC events.

Many have suggested that Rally2 should be adopted as rallying’s top tier. It is a valid argument and it could solve some entry number problems but, while Rally2 cars are competitive and exciting to watch, they don't provide the Rally1 'X Factor'. If the WRC wishes to attract more marques and inspire a new audience, it is a lot easier to achieve if the product is immediately eye catching.

But herein lies another layer that has added to the service park frustration. As it currently stands, the regulations for WRC’s top category beyond 2024 are yet to be ratified and announced by the FIA. Considering it takes approximately 18 months for a new marque to commit and develop a car for a WRC programme, these regulations need to be communicated now to current and prospective brands contemplating an entry.

It is widely expected Rally1 hybrid rules will continue until at least 2026, but again this hinges on a new agreement being reached with control hybrid unit supplier Compact Dynamics, or another provider. The FIA’s technical director Xavier Mestelan Pinon admitted to Autosport/Motorsport.com that if a deal was in place now, the regulations for 2025 and 2026 would theoretically have been announced.

The WRC’s future regulations beyond 2026 are more pertinent if it is to retain and increase manufacturer involvement. It is an incredibly challenging task being undertaken by rulemakers the FIA, and one that is incredibly challenging given the automotive market isn’t exactly sure which direction it is heading in either.

At this point, a move to full electric, hydrogen power or e-fuels are among the methods of propulsion on the table and being discussed as the base for the next set of regulations. But, as this discussion continues, F1 has for example managed to lure Audi, Honda and Ford to join as engine manufacturers to coincide with its new 2026 engine regulations that were announced last year. Predicting the future is incredibly difficult but this decision is critical for the WRC’s long-term prospects, hence why it is not being rushed. But it has left the WRC seemingly in a limbo phase until a call is made.

Another strand to Neuville’s outburst was the championship’s ability to engage with a new audience that aren’t watching stage side. It is a fair comment to raise. If you are a die-hard rally fan you couldn’t be better served. 

Rally television coverage has come a long way, with every inch of a stage broadcast live now

Rally television coverage has come a long way, with every inch of a stage broadcast live now

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Gone are the days of listening to rally radio to keep track of the live action, followed by end of day television highlights packages. Today, the rally fan can watch every stage live through the championship’s impressive OTT platform, WRC All Live. This service has expanded into a new 24/7 Rally.Tv channel this year, which includes bespoke features and archive footage.

But it’s attracting new fans and transforming casual viewers into the next generation of rally supporters that is where the WRC has to develop a strategy. The rally format has largely remained unchanged for 20 years, so maybe it is time to try a new approach, whether that be a radical one or simply shorter days.

Many believe a more strategic focus on promotion is the answer, which again F1 has led the way with, largely thanks to its Netflix Drive to Survive series. There is merit to this thinking, but simply copying F1 is, in my view, not the answer.

The reaction and the path ahead

To be fair to the WRC, it has taken Neuville’s outburst onboard and in fact welcomed his views. It is fully aware of its current situation and isn’t sticking its head in the sand. Plans are already underway to address many of the challenges it faces.

Firstly a meeting at next week’s round in Sardinia is planned to open dialogue between drivers offering a forum to share their views to improve the category. An encouraging step that could lead to positive change as the drivers are a key part of the product.

The WRC has moved to allay fears with senior sporting director Peter Thul stating that he isn’t “worried” by the situation regarding its future regulations and overall direction. Although a clear direction on future regulations, particularly 2025 and 2026, is imperative before progress can be made on the manufacturer front.

“I'm not worried, we have a lot of things to do,” said Thul. “We also have a lot of things to do to work on the format. Format means marketing, PR, social media. We know that. On this we are already working on, and on this you will see changes. We cannot change everything from one day to the other, but we are working on it.”

Many agree Rally1 cars have to be more affordable

Many agree Rally1 cars have to be more affordable

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

The majority are in agreement that the cost of the Rally1 cars has to be more competitive. Thul openly admitted that the cost of the cars have “drifted” away from what was intended. Of course, there is a fine line to tread here when it comes to cutting costs to ensure the product is not compromised in terms of safety and appeal.

The prospect of enforcing a budget cap as seen in F1 or a technical cost cap to lower the car costs is now being investigated, which in my opinion would be a move in the right direction.

It is clear crowds at events - particularly strongholds such as Sweden, Mexico, Portugal and Finland - are currently mightily impressive and proof the core product for rally fans isn’t broken. As Neuville says, watching stage side, it’s a “spectacular show” but away from the stages more can be done to lure in the casual fans in terms of promotion.

There is no silver bullet to this, and the following is by no means the answer, but it would be interesting to see the impact of livestreaming the end of rally Power Stage on YouTube or other free social media platforms, for example. This is often one of the most mesmerising parts of a rally and an excellent entry point for a wider audience.

Likewise, a strong social media presence is critical. The WRC is beginning to enjoy the fruits of its labour from investing in the arena over the past 18 months, which can only increase its impact and help it progress forward.

Whether you agree with Neuville’s outburst or not, it has at least provided a platform for discussion and perhaps a springboard to help the WRC improve and reach its desired potential.

Can Neuville's outburst really spark meaningful change in the WRC?

Can Neuville's outburst really spark meaningful change in the WRC?

Photo by: Romain Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport

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