The plight of the World Rally Championship

Ten years ago, the World Rally Championship in the United Kingdom was a fairly popular form of motor sport. Boasting terrestrial television coverage and audiences of millions of viewers and beyond, the championship enjoyed a high profile status. Fast forward ten years, and currently, the rights are non-existent. But why has this great form of motor sport experienced such a sharp decline in this country?

From the 1980’s through to 2001, the World Rally Championship alongside other forms of rallying made part of BBC Sport’s Grandstand programme. It was not all plain sailing for rallying on the BBC though. Two series’ of Mobil 1 Rally Challenge were produced and shown for BBC Two in 1989 and 1990, but this was not enough to persuade those high up to commit to rallying full time. The next opportunity for rallying to break out came with British stars Colin McRae and Richard Burns later that decade. This succeeded, somewhat, thanks to the Top Gear production team, with interesting being reignited in the product. Despite this, BBC’s motor sport portfolio was spiralling downwards, leading to Channel 4 winning the rights from 2002 onwards for an estimated £20 million over three years. At the time, then Channel 4 chief executive Michael Jackson said “The World Rally Championship has always been a thrilling and hugely popular event. However, new technology means we can now transform the coverage of this classic sport and make it accessible to a wider audience.” That statement, is such a stark contrast to what the World Rally Championship faces in the UK ten years on.

Unfortunately for Channel 4 though, their first season did not provide an exciting championship race as Marcus Grönholm stormed to championship victory in 2002. 2003 provided better luck with the championship going down to the wire. With neither Burns and McRae in the 2004 championship however, interest dropped. This did not stop a bidding war though for the broadcast rights between ITV and Channel 4, with ITV unexpectedly winning the rights at the start of 2004. The channel broadcasted the championship as stand-alone programmes, and as part of their Speed Sunday strand. Like Channel 4 before them, the ITV press release boasted about trying to “bring a wider audience to the sport”. That didn’t happen. It was a case of ‘wrong place, wrong time’. 2004 marked the beginning of Sébastien Loeb’s domination and, as was the case with Formula 1 at the same time, audiences dropped along with the interest that went alongside it. Unlike with Formula 1 however, where Michael Schumacher was challenged and eventually succeeded by Fernando Alonso, followed by the emergence of Lewis Hamilton, over in rallying there was no one to challenge Loeb, no one to ignite the interest of the British audience. The picture was stagnant, and a stagnant picture means that casual fans, such as myself, become less interested in the product.

It was with that lack of interest that ITV’s interest in the World Rally Championship dwindled. Despite still attracting healthy audiences, such as the 1.57 million viewers that watched the culmination of the 2006 championship, ITV made the decision to move the championship over to ITV4. In terms of viewership, the decision was catastrophic. Audiences slashed, with only 297,000 viewers watching the conclusion of the 2007 season, and average audiences hovering in the mid 100,000. At the start of 2008, Dave bought the rights to screen the championship in a deal lasting three years. Not being on a terrestrial television station continued to hurt the championship with audiences failing to reach the highs it had many years earlier. In 2011, coverage moved to ESPN. The official World Rally Championship promoted the move as giving fans ‘more coverage than ever before’. Whilst, technically, that is a factual statement, the reality was that the coverage was now available to fewer people than ever before. Viewing figures were below 100,000 and the World Rally Championship in the UK had hit its lowest point. By now, it had gone from being a mainstream sport with millions of followers to one where you would have to dig deep into the TV guide to find out just when and where it was on. Alongside the aforementioned, British Eurosport would provide coverage of the events, but that too has come to a grinding halt.

Today, the World Rally Championship in the UK is currently without a rights holder for this season. The championship has been hit by its failure to evolve with the times to those who demand to be closer to the action and see everything live nowadays instead of in highlights form, and also by being dominated by one man for such a long period. Steve Rider discusses this point fantastically in his new book, noting how broadcasters’ still have not got a grip on rallying: “The challenge for television, then and now, is also to add that ingredient and portray rallying in a far more competitive tone, and not just as a series of disjointed ‘up and past’ shots linked together by prolonged ‘in-car’ sequences. [..] Then there is the biggest question of all: could all this be done live? Can live coverage of rallying ever make practical, economic or editorial sense?”

For the sport, it will be a long road to recovery. Has Loeb caused more damage to the championship than anyone could have imagined? I think so. When one man dominates for so long, it is inevitable that interest drops worldwide. Formula 1 was lucky. Alonso, Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel emerged at the right time and thankfully for that form of motor sport, Schumacher retired. Rallying has not been so lucky. Loeb has not retired, and no one has emerged to sufficiently challenge Loeb to create a ‘great battle’ to bring back the lost fans. As a result, rallying finds itself in a sad state. Let’s not take anything away from Loeb, he will probably be remembered as one of the greats with nine championships. But the damage caused will not be rectified soon. With Loeb announcing his retirement at the end of 2012, 2013 needs to be the start of the recovery process for the championship in this country. No British drivers’, no future McRae or Burns, means that the recovery process starting this season is highly unlikely.

It will be a long road to recovery for the World Rally Championship. And I, for one, hope to see it standing tall again soon.

The quote from Steve Rider’s book ‘My Chequered Career’ comes from page 94.


5 thoughts on “The plight of the World Rally Championship

  1. i watch the bcc program about colin mcrae last night. Back then i could have told you at least ten rally drives then. now i can only say one ‘seb leob’.

    This is example of how to kill sport in terms of fan access and sporting challenge.

    Also it all seemed to go wrong when it left the bbc. coincidence or just bad managment of the wrc. hope f1 dont have same fate

  2. I think the main problem with broadcasting the WRC is how to make it exciting. I would say I’m a casual fan, because I buy every rally game that comes out and would love to try rallying for myself, but from a spectating perspective I don’t find it very interesting. The problem is the concept of rallying itself (racing against the clock, usually through the middle of nowhere) doesn’t leave to very exciting viewing in my opinion. Not that I think the concept should be changed, as otherwise it wouldn’t be rallying, but as a result it doesn’t have the excitement and tension that F1, BTCC and other circuit racing offers. Also due to its usual scenic surroundings of the WRC stages, it makes it difficult to set up cameras, therefore seeing the same few corners over and over isn’t very interesting. Yes there are helicopter shots and onboards at times, but the helicopter is restricted on where it can film and the onboards don’t tend to be very clear.

    The other issue is the lack of manufacturers. The casual fan doesnt want to see just Citroens and Fords all of the time. Maybe its just me, but I find the more variety of cars there are, the more interesting it can be (Its one of the reasons I find the BTCC more interesting than the WTCC). For example in the 80s and 90s there were the likes of Audi, Peugeot, Ford, Lancia, Toyota, Mitsubishi and many more. Even in 2005 there was still Subaru, Ford, Peugeot, Mitsubishi, Citroen and Skoda, but by 2009 it was only Ford and Citroen left. Mini appeared in 2011, they were never really competitive, but it was a start, and with the introduction of VW this year and Hyundai making a comeback next year, it looked promising. Then suddenly, Mini and Ford announced they were leaving, and with Loeb and Citroen looking to go into the WTCC in 2014, it will be interesting to see if they will continue their support in the WRC. If not then we will be back to step one with only two manufacturers again, providing that VW and Hyundai plan to stay long term and that no others join. I can see the issue broadcasters have here. From there perspective, if even the manufacturers don’t want to continue their support, than why should they make the effort of televising it.

  3. The FIA are really to blame here. They’ve done nothing to encourage new teams to join. Even the new regulations designed to make it cheaper have done nothing as some of the classic teams, the Subaru’s of the world, don’t have a car small enough to compete. Where as the likes of Audi and Mitsubishi do, Audi are highly unlikely to enter as they’re owned by VW who have their own team, and a company is highly unlikely to enter two competing teams from it’s own umbrella.

    I’m not sure I necessarily agree with Loeb damaging the sport, although yes, like when F1 had Schumacher at the top, audiences dwindled, but Rallying is a more driver sport. The lack of a good British driver hurts over here more. Where as McRae had huge panache, the likes of Justin Wilson just seem boring and untalented in comparison. WRC is in need of a global superstar, and is severely lacking one. Ken Block tried to be it, but ended up failing and giving up. And where are the Valentino Rossi’s we were practically promised 6 or 7 years ago who were supposed to migrate to WRC from other forms of racing?

    Going back to the FIA I think they are just abandoning the sport. There have been too many changes over the last few years, and just like with F1, the casual fan who will tune in for half the season has no idea what is happening from one year to the next. The cost for TV rights has to be considered too. It’s quite possible that the FIA still expect to receive around £10m a year for the rights (It really wouldn’t surprise me) when in actual fact, a broadcaster wouldn’t want to pay more that £1-£2m a year.

    The lack of an exciting spectacle doesn’t help either. Back in the glory days of the 80’s and early 90’s there use to be night stages. These were ditched in favour of all day time stages so they could be viewed on TV, but everybody used to love seeing a WRC car tear through the forests in the GB Rally at night at 100mph+.

    A factor for me in not tuning in so often, was that the stages are the same from year to year. Okay so we have that in F1 with the same tracks, but Rallying used to move around, here now certainly, it’s on the same stages in Wales every year. It almost presents no new challenge for the drivers as they will remember it from the previous year. Surely moving it around and introducing new stages would create more uncertainty in the sport and a bigger spectacle. ie: crashes.

    The cost of entering the sport – whilst I don’t know it – must also be extortionate and teams have to seemingly enter a minimum of two cars. Why not introduce the possibility of 1 car teams? That way (almost) halving the cost for the likes of Ford and Peugeot, and would encourage other manufacturers to enter the sport to test it out again.

    The FIA have to shoulder the blame for all but killing off a sport which used to be one of the most exciting, unpredictable and incredible to watch, both on TV and in person.


  4. I am so glad that itv4 has the rights, i only miss any race due to motors tv showing it at 2.30 am so i record it to see it next day only to find they have put something else on instead also fridays may be there but no sat or sunday or vice versa. keep up the good work freeview and avid wrc viewer

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