Would Official Tests Have A Place In The WRC?
While the WRC has been on its 6 week hiatus between Mexico and Argentina, I’ve taken the opportunity to fill the void with other forms of motorsport. Yes, there still is plenty of rallying going on in the world, most notably the upcoming Circuit of Ireland, but the warm weather of spring marks the beginning of several other motorsports series. There is of course Formula 1 which lately I have found myself watching more out of morbid curiosity than genuine interest. There is also the World Endurance Championship which is my preferred flavor of circuit racing. Much like rallying (used to be), endurance sports car racing is a battle against the elements: darkness, rain, the ever changing circuit. Outright speed alone doesn’t guarantee victory. It’s often the team that is most prepared, focused, precise, and detail oriented that usually finds itself on the top of the podium.
This weekend, the World Endurance Championship is conducting its “Prologue”, a 2 day officially sanctioned test for all participants in the championship. This type of event has several benefits. First, since it is championship sponsored, there is considerably less cost involved for the smaller teams than there would be with a private test. Secondly, while there has been plenty of testing going on through the winter, this is the first opportunity for the media and the public to see all the teams on the track at the same time. Lastly, the test brings commerce to a region that doesn’t reap the benefits from an actual WEC race.
With these things in mind, I began to muse over whether such a “Prologue” would work in rallying, specifically in the WRC.
Rallying is a bit different when it comes to testing. Compared to other forms of FIA-sanctioned motorsport, the WRC’s testing regulations are quite lenient. Teams are given almost unlimited testing at their permanent test site that must be declared before the start of the season. In addition, teams are given 42 additional days to hold tests on real roads as long as they are not actual stages in the championship. On top of that, with the new cars coming next year, the teams are granted an additional 30 days specifically to test the 2017-spec cars. When this is compared with the 4 official tests given to Formula 1 teams, the discrepancy becomes quite apparent.
I have one question however. Does all this testing benefit the sport? Most of these tests are carried out in secret, and the only footage that we see are the occasional YouTube videos of locals who stumbled across the test in progress. Now, I’m not saying that there should be a draconian ban on testing, but should it become a bit more regulated and public? What if there were a few official tests held before the WRC season? Perhaps they could be held in a region that currently doesn’t currently have the capability to host a WRC rally. While an official test would still take some logistics and coordination to put together, it would require a fraction of the manpower and financial resources required to put on a complete WRC rally. Think about the regions in Europe alone that have lost a WRC rally over the past few years: San Remo, Greece, Ireland, and Turkey. In most of these cases, lack of financial backing has led to the demise of these iconic rallies from the championship. Hosting an official test could be one way to bring a “taste” of the WRC back to these regions without requiring the financial burden of running an entire rally. It would also bring a commercial boost with both spectators and team personnel flocking to the region and patronizing it’s hotels, bars, and restaurants.
As attractive as this possibility sounds, however, there are some issues that need to be worked out. First, the current WRC calendar posts a huge obstacle to official tests. In a championship that barely has a 2 month off-season between Wales and Monte Carlo, there isn’t much space to fit an official pre-season test. Secondly, in almost every form of motorsport, when teams are testing together on the same circuit (or stretch of road), there is going to be sand-bagging. We see it every year in both F1 and sports car racing: teams don’t want to show their hand until the first race of the season. While this would certainly be an issue in rallying as well, I think that it would have less impact since the WRC doesn’t have the balance of performance issues that other forms of racing face.
So, what do you think? Would the WRC benefit from an official test or two? It would certainly be something to fill this down-time that we currently find ourselves in between Rally Mexico and Rally Argentina. Personally, as a spectator and an enthusiast, I’d like to see it happen. Any opportunity to get the WRC out in front of more eyes is a good thing. Official tests could be a low(er) cost way to make this happen.