Is the FIA’s “R” Class Structure Too European-Centric?

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It may have been lost in the lead up to WRC Rally Portugal, but the Australian Rally Championship announced its draft regulations for 2016 in a press release last week. (A link to the release can be found at the bottom of this article) To be honest, I am not very familiar with this championship, and it took me 2-3 reads through to begin to comprehend their new regulations. However, as I read through the release, one thing stood out to me loud and clear. As well as the “R” class structure has worked in Europe, it doesn’t necessarily fit the needs of rally championships in other regions of the world. This was a concern of mine when the FIA began to phase out the Group N cars of the early to mid 2000’s. While there are plenty of R5 cars to go around in Europe, there aren’t so many outside of the continent. When the Group N class reached the end of its homologation, it meant that hundreds of cars around the world were made obsolete to compete in FIA events.

I know that Group N had its problems. Towards the end of the homologation period, the class that was originally designed to control costs became a very expensive way to go rallying. Semi-factory entries such as Mitsubishi in the British Rally Championship pushed the development curve in that class much further than it was ever intended to be. As a result, privateer cars while in theory competing in the same class, were more than 1 second/km off the pace of the factory built cars. What was supposed to be a production based class morphed into a pseudo-factory competition. However, the Group N class meant that when the WRC came to town, there were plenty of regional and national entries who could compete against the regular crews in the PWRC. This helped supplement the field to ensure that the “fly-away” events still received plenty of entries.

I would like to take a moment to step away from the world of rallying and examine another style of racing: sports cars. Way back in 2005, the GT3 class was introduced by the group, SRO. Since then, the class has grown to include cars from nearly 20 manufacturers. In addition, GT3 cars are raced in regional and national championships all around the world. In theory, an owner of a GT3 car can race in America in the Pirelli World Challenge, Europe in the Nurburgring 24 hours, Australia in the Bathurst 12 hours, and the Middle East in the Dubai 24 hours. While some of the cars may be showing their age, there are GT3 cars spread across the world that are eligible to compete in major national and international competitions. Like Group N, GT3 is beginning to face cost-control issues. There is a huge difference between the development of the fire-breathing Mercedes SLS GT3 that was introduced this year and a GT3 car from 2010. However, even though these two cars might have a big performance discrepancy, they are still eligible to compete together in major blue-ribbon events around the world. A privateer could still use their 5-6 year old GT3 car in events here and now in 2015.

Let’s face it, when it comes to finances, things are better than they were back in 2009. However, even though the world economy has begun to recover, there still isn’t much spare money lying around to go racing. In all forms of motorsport, it is difficult for professional drivers to find a paying drive that allows them to cover their everyday expenses. With this in mind, I think that rallying needs to move towards a global specification that can be used regionally, nationally, and internationally. Is the “R” class structure an answer to this need? Maybe, but if this class structure is going to be relevant for the rest of the world, it needs to include cars that are made outside of the European continent. As far as I know, at the moment here in the USA, the only existing rally car that is eligible to compete in FIA international rallies is the Fiesta R2. There are no VW Polo’s, no Hyundai i20’s, no Citroen DS3’s, no Skoda Fabia’s. Australia is facing the same problem, and that is why they made the decision to develop their own classes rather than forcing their competitors to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire R5 machinery just to comply with current FIA regulations.

The current lack of “R-class” cars around the rest of the world is definitely hurting the World Rally Championship, and this is clearly illustrated by the difference between the entry list of Rally Mexico and last weekend’s Rally Portugal. In North America, there is a vacuum of cars that are eligible to compete in WRC events. Rally Mexico featured only 23 cars and Rally Argentina suffered the same issues with only 26 entries. When contrasted with the 69 entries in Rally Portugal, the issue becomes quite apparent. If the WRC is going to succeed outside of Europe, it has to create a platform that allows “wild-card” local entries to supplement the car counts for the fly-away rallies. On paper, I like the R3 and R5 cars, but they need to exist outside of Europe if the WRC is going to become a true World Championship.

Link to the ARC Press Release:
http://www.rally.com.au/australian-4wd-rally-series/arcom-announces-draft-new-generation-regulations

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