Is the WRC’s Development System Finally Gaining Some Momentum?
While rallying and the WRC is my strongest interest, in the down-time between rallies, other forms of motorsport do capture my attention. At the moment, I have developed a bit of an interest in motorcycle racing, and specifically MotoGP. While watching the Moto3, Moto2, and MotoGP races this weekend in Austin, Texas, I was impressed with how developed the motorcycle ladder system is. Dorna Group, the organizers of MotoGP, have done a great job of creating a clear progression for young riders while at the same time putting on a great show. Watching the racing this weekend got me thinking about the current state of the ladder system in rallying and the WRC.
It was back in 2013 when the WRC adopted a similar system to what is currently used in MotoGP by intruducing the WRC-3, WRC-2, and WRC class structure. Before then, the WRC had the Junior WRC for 2wd cars, the PWRC for Group N cars, and the SWRC for S2000 cars. With this new system, the WRC-2 became a bit of a “catch-all” for any 4WD car that wasn’t in the WRC. It included S2000’s, N4’s, RRC’s, and the very first R5’s. To be honest, while this all-inclusive structure provided the opportunity for plenty of entries, it made the class a bit “privateerish”. Now, there is nothing wrong with having a privateer class, but I don’t know if it does much to promote new talent through the series.
If you look at most of the new young talent in the WRC, most of them competed in the Intercontinental Rally Championship (IRC), now re-branded as the European Rally Championship (ERC). Off the top of my head, I can think of many drivers who spent at least one year in the IRC, some of whom won the championship. This group includes Kris Meeke, Andreas Mikkelsen, Thierry Neuville, Robert Kubica, and Bryan Bouffier. During the time that these guys competed, the IRC offered a much better option than the WRC’s ladder system. A mainly European-centric schedule and the use of S2000 and N4 cars kept costs down. At the same time, Factory involvement from manufacturers such as Fiat, Peugeot, and Skoda gave young drivers an opportunity to experience a works drive. Lastly, these drivers gained experience competing in the top class which gave them a taste of the pressure they would encounter upon arriving to the WRC.
With Skoda’s announcement that they will be running the new R5 Fabia in the WRC-2, I believe that the pendulum is beginning to swing back towards the WRC’s ladder system. My theory is that the growth of the R class structure is the primary reason for the resurgence of the development system in the WRC. What other forms of motorsport has taught us is that the best way to develop new talent is to create a formula with an even playing field. The R5 class has done just this. While the potpourri of N4, S2000, and RRC cars was certainly interesting to watch, it didn’t offer the opportunity for young drivers to compete head to head in equal machinery. No matter how good a driver was, the S2000 cars would often come out on top despite all efforts to balance performance between the classes. The same can be said for the R3 class used in the WRC-3. It offers a variety of machinery on an even playing field where talent can be the determining factor for success.
Skoda’s involvement now adds another dimension: the opportunity for junior teams in the WRC-2. At this point, three of the four WRC teams currently competing now have an R5 car that they can use to develop talent. Being in the same parent company as Skoda, VW can now use the Skoda R5 to groom young drivers in the WRC-2 alongside of Ford and Citroen with their R5 versions of the Fiesta and the DS3. This means that instead of depending on a privateer team to scape together enough finances to run a season, deserving young drivers can be rewarded with a semi-factory drive in the WRC-2 through one of these potential junior teams.
Where does all this leave the ERC? Well, I think that it is going to become more of a privateer championship, and there is nothing wrong with this! During the recession years around 2008-2012, the IRC served as a cost-effective option for manufacturers to continue to rally. However, with recovery, and the potential for increased corporate funding, I think that the manufacturers are beginning to look back to the WRC to showcase their products. There will still be room for privateers in the WRC-2 and WRC-3, but I think that the ERC will be the perfect place for the smaller teams to compete. The rules still allow for a greater variety of machinery than the WRC, and this allows a privateer’s investment in a rally car to go a lot further than in the WRC. In addition, the compact schedule that allows dropped rounds and 2 day events helps keep costs down.
The future certainly looks bright for the WRC-3 and WRC-2. With more and more cars being homologated to compete, there are plenty of options for an up-and-coming driver. In addition, the potential of competing in a factory-supported team is certainly a tasty prospect. Last but not least, the WRC’s ladder program allows young drivers to learn and compete on the same stages used by the big boys in the WRC. It may have taken a few years to sort out the kinks, but I think that the WRC is finally starting to pull it together with their development system.