To China or not to China, WRC ponders

04 Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT, Ostberg Mads, Andersson Jonas, DS3 WRC, Action WRC RALLY POLAND 2015 - PHOTO : CITROEN RACING/AUSTRAL

First of, this could get a little long and a little incoherent… I wasn’t going to write an essay, merely wanted to list some thoughts.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but don’t you think World Rally Championship calendar should include as many regions, continents and countries as is realistically possible? In such case, we would have events in Europe, both Americas, Aussie and Kiwi region, Africa and of course Asia. Such calendar would be composed of no less than 13 events (which is what we have now) and it would be a true testament to the “world” portion of the WRC name. Granted, it would also be insanely expensive, at least if manufacturers and teams insist on whining about limited budgets and lack of cash. Perhaps they did not fully understand the meaning of the word “world”, as in, countries and regions not within a spitting distance from their company HQ. If you can afford it, do it, if not, well…

Of course, it would be very wrong to send out such a message to teams and manufacturers. Of course we understand the budget issues, especially if those same manufacturers or brands are competing in at least one or two other major motor sport series at the same time. They want to keep it cheap or at least bearable, especially if they’re not 100% sure on what the return-of-investment might be. In motor sports, it’s all vague anyway, you can twist and turn the numbers around as you see fit, TV audience numbers, stage or race spectators, it’s all numbers and estimates. But on the other hand, manufacturers do have a point in making sure that their efforts and investments are seen by potential buyers, especially in key markets. Until recently, WRC had big issues with visibility, but thanks to WRC+ and TV contracts around the world, this is now looking much much better. Yet, World Rally Championship still has no palpable presence in the so-called emerging markets and growing regions. We’re talking China, Russia, India, Brazil and so on. Manufacturers want to go there, they’re very keen, but while we may think it would be easy to simply add one more event to the calendar, everyone who is in charge of the sport is telling us it’s very very difficult, expensive, complex… in short, almost impossible.

So, we have companies, manufacturers and brands eager to bring their motor sport programmes to new markets and audience. Those same manufacturers are also issuing warnings, often in same interviews or statements, about the risks involved in calendar expansions. That, I suppose, means that we could include, say, China into existing calendar only if we drop one event, but which one. This is where WRC Promoter steps in, but also this is where FIA should have a major word. Just like they vary in character, surface and location, WRC events vary, to some degree, in execution. Some are literally flawless and some are less than perfect, but there is usually always enough “pro”s to counter the “contra”s. Which event do we drop, so we can add China, as (almost) literally requested by Citroën and Volkswagen?

Do we drop Sardinia, because it’s on an island, and those are almost impossible to reach in 21st century? Do we ditch Spain because it’s close to Portugal and whose tarmac is too smooth? Perhaps it’s time to give Mexico some time to think about their divers and spectator safety, or should that be Argentina? How about Poland, sure they have Kubica, but their stages are all 6th gear and male spectators don’t wear shirts, which upsets some visitors? Maybe we should go full bore and throw Finland out, it’s been there long enough? France, France, what is their excuse? They have a world champion and a team, but it seems that team is ready to commit an act of national treason and go China over homeland. It’s tough, who do we kick out?

Or is it really all about events and not about teams? I fully believe that WRC should expand to new territories and do so in a sustainable way, but not because of some veiled threats and ultimatums, blackmails even. As David_VDB suggested on Twitter earlier today (embeds aren’t working at the moment, suggestion was get China in, ditch Sardinia & Spain and return to San Remo), simple solutions could see current calendar reshaped in a way to preserve similar character, add some more variety and also include China, so it’s not impossible, on paper at least. But should WRC, its promoters and ultimately the FIA, bend too far down in order to meet teams’ requests and wishes? Especially if said teams are using dubious tactics to enforce their agendas. We’re talking team(s) with no clear long-term commitment to the sport. They literally said they’d consider long term dedication should WRC decide to visit China, otherwise they’re going to have to choose between WRC and their other programme, which is WTCC and which already has China on their calendar. Are they losing interest in WTCC, winning without any challenge and recognition beyond the initial “wow” effect? The idea of Citroën claiming to ditch one programme and listing China as a very strong (yet, of course, not a decisive) factor, sends confusing messages. If you’re about China and winning in front of Chinese spectators, then WTCC is your choice and, well, good bye. But if you are fed up with WTCC and wish to ride the much more popular WRC wave in front of same spectators, then why such language, why veiled blackmailing? Isn’t there a more constructive way to do things? Apparently not, if we listen to Dietrich Mateschitz and his Red Bull gonna go statements concerning Formula 1.

Come to think of it, shouldn’t Citroën be doing more about teams’ performance and results in the World Rally Championship, as it is? Surely wins and regular podium finishes would do a lot for their brand image, especially since we’re talking team with such a huge history of being super successful. Are they pushing for China because merely getting there would yield so much potentially lucrative buzz, regardless of the results? I personally love that, I love the idea of refusing to give up (I am also a Kimi Raikkonen fan), but Citroën is currently being decimated by Volkswagen and every fan or spectator anywhere in the world will know who won and who lost?

In the end, it’s not the fans or spectators or teams or drivers that need to be satisfied and convinced and reassured. It’s the boards, the directors, those CEOs, shareholders, people actually wielding actual power in their hands and wallets. They see number of Citroën cars sold in Mexico and then compare it with number of Citroën cars sold in China, then they check the WRC calendar, see no China there and next up we have those “blackmails” and “ultimatums”. It’s as simple as you want it to be, keep us on the charts in the key markets or you’re off the hook. I must praise them for not caring about results, understanding that competition means winning AND losing.

It could also be that Citroën knows something we don’t about the new tech rules? Maybe one current team will leave the arena soon, making it easier to return to winning ways in near future? I would hate to lose Citroën, I really would, especially after they went through a very rough period since team parted ways with Sebastien Loeb. But I also hate seeing such language in media, reading statements from WRC Promoters, saying how difficult it would be to meet all the requirements, yet trying to ensure at least some kind of stability for long term investors and backers. Only to be slammed by the FIA for doing so (the infamous 9-events-list, anyone), because only FIA can have the final word in shaping of the calendar.

Is there a way for constructive changes and sustainable growth, including the number of events?