Last week, the story broke of the growing debate over what is to be done with the current generation WRC cars due to be replaced at the end of the 2016 season. The last time the WRC faced this issue was at the end of 2010 when the 2.0 litre WRC cars were replaced by the current 1.6 litre specification. At that time, there wasn’t much of a controversy. The 1.6 litre spec was brought in to curtail the skyrocketing costs that had led to all but Ford and Citroen to drop out of the championship. There was no place in the WRC rules for the big, expensive 2.0 litre cars, and they were sold off to privateers in various regional and national championships.
So, what’s different this time around? Why can’t the teams do the same thing and be done with it?
Well, the landscape of rallying has changed quite a bit since 2010. At that time, ex-WRC cars were commonly used as the top class in national and regional rally championships. Since then, however, R5 has been adopted by many of these championships to serve as a more affordable option for their premier classes. With the proliferation of R5 cars, a benchmark has now been set that allows competitors to compete and gauge their performance against others on a relatively even playing field. There just isn’t as much of a market for used WRC cars as there used to be. A perfect example of this is the Irish Tarmac Championship. It wasn’t long ago when Ireland was known as the country having the greatest number of ex-WRC cars in the world. Five years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for there to be more WRC machinery competing on some of the Irish rallies than the WRC itself! However, with the organizers’ decision to limit championship points eligibility to only the R5 cars, it made running ex-WRC cars a far less attractive option than it was in the past.
There’s been some speculation on whether the European Rally Championship would make room for the current generation WRC cars next year; however, this is highly unlikely. Remember that the ERC was the first championship to pioneer the R5 cars back in 2013 on the Ypres Rally. Since then, the ERC has been one of the driving forces that helped R5 grow from a “proof of concept” to the flourishing class that it is today. If they were to include ex-WRC cars in their championship next year, the ERC would be turning it’s back on their loyal manufactures and competitors that have already invested so much into the R5 specification.
What about outside of Europe? Well, it’s been years since the Asia-Pacific championship ran WRC cars, and it’s not likely that they will return. Australia and New Zealand have no interest in expensive ex-WRC cars and have developed the AP4 class to deal with the rising cost of R5 cars. What about America? Well, the current spec WRC cars certainly could compete with some modification in Rally America’s Open Class. However, there isn’t just enough money in American rallying to bring these cars over. In my lifetime, I can only think of one time an ex-WRC car competed on American soil, and that was in 2013 when Antoine L’Estage ran a 2005 Lancer WRC in the Oregon Trail Rally. Unfortunately, that car was destroyed in a crash and we never saw it again.
So, as you can see, outside of the WRC, the options are pretty limited for these cars. So what’s to be done? In an effort to keep these cars running and recoup their development costs, some of the teams are proposing a middle tier, a “WRC1.5” if you will, that lies somewhere between the 2017 WRC cars and the R5 cars in the WRC2 class. The idea is that these cars can be used in junior teams for young drivers who aren’t quite ready to make the step to the more powerful 2017 WRC cars. I’m not so sure about this idea. The only comparison I can think of is the World Endurance Championship where there is a LMP1 “Lite” class that runs somewhere between the factory hybrid LMP1 cars and the privateer LMP2 cars. This sub-class has existed for a few years now, and never managed to take off. They are always caught in the middle… too slow to keep up with the factory cars, but too fast to fairly compete with the LMP2 cars. As a result, this class has only managed 3 or 4 cars and has been dominated by one team, Rebellion Racing. As professional as Rebellion are, over the past few years, they have begun to question whether they are getting enough return on investment by running in this class. At times, it seems like there isn’t enough competition or media attention to make it worth their while.
Do we want to see something similar in the WRC? Would including a “WRC 1.5” class provide enough return on investment to make it worthwhile for teams to field these cars? If you were standing stage-side at a WRC rally next year, would you still want to see these cars running? I understand why some of the teams want to pursue this option, but I can’t help but think that they’d do better selling these cars to be modified for rallycross or to be used as “hobby cars” for some rich enthusiast. It’s a tricky situation without a clear answer… any ideas?