Does Spectating the WRC Still Offer the Best “Bang for the Buck”?
I know that I might take some flack for this one, but after recently perusing the finalized entry list for this year’s YPF Rally Argentina, I have to put it out there. When it comes to spending the money to travel to a rally for a live spectating experience, does the WRC really deliver the goods? Having spectated at last month’s Rally Mexico and now seeing the pathetic 26 car entry list for Rally Argentina, I have to be honest and say that I’m not so sure anymore. Up until now, I’ve always considered spectating at a live WRC event to be the best rally fan experience possible. The WRC is the pinnacle of the sport, so I always assumed that it would bring the best spectating experiences. However, when I consider the effort to spectate at a WRC event with the current size and variety of some of the rallies, the cost-benefit ratio just doesn’t quite add up. I’m not sure the WRC offers the best “bang for the buck” anymore when it comes to spectating a rally in person. Here’s why.
Before I go any further, I acknowledge that entry lists vary greatly between the European rallies and the “fly away” rounds. With the additional cost and logistical concerns of picking up the championship and moving it across an ocean, it is logical to expect a smaller field of cars on the more far-flung events. That being said, just a few years ago, rallies such as Argentina and Mexico were still able to muster entry lists in the mid 40’s and 50’s. Sure, even back then, the top class WRC cars only made up the first 10 or so cars. However, there were plenty of local entries after the WRC came through that made you feel like it was worth hiking 3 miles into the wilderness and then waiting 2-3 hours for the stage to start. As things stand now, a 1 hour hike and 2-3 hour wait barely delivers an hour of rallying action. I’m just not sure that’s enough. Not only has the size of WRC entry lists dwindled, but so also has the variety. The R5 class has done a lot of positive things for rallying, but one negative byproduct of the explosion of R5 has been the loss of variety on WRC rallies. Even on the European events with 70-80 entries, it is hot hatchback followed by hot hatchback. However, R5 has also pushed out a lot of rally cars that are no longer homologated for FIA events. That’s fine in Europe where there are plenty of R5’s go to around, but this void is especially felt on the “fly away’ events that are held in regions that don’t have a huge availability of R5 machinery. In Mexico, after the top 12 WRC cars came through, there were only 5-6 R5 cars that followed. Of those, only Pontus Tidemond and Eric Camilli were really on the pace. After them came a few local Group N cars, a few R2’s, and that was it. There weren’t any historics or privately entered older spec cars to keep my interest. Once again, I was left wondering… was this really worth it?
The New Cars:
Yes, yes, yes… I know… they have big wings, they’re loud, they’re fast… there so great. That’s what we’ve been told about the latest specification WRC cars. I’ve got to be honest, they’re not that great in person. At the end of the day, they behave the exact same way as the prior generation cars, but just a bit faster and wider. I’m not even convinced they look much better anymore after seeing them in person. At the end of the day, the modern WRC car is still a hatchback, just with a lot of pointy aerodynamic elements bolted onto it. All the downforce does is keep the cars glued to the road even more than before. All the horsepower does is make them go past you slightly quicker so that they’re in view for even less time than before. The cars are so quick that it is almost impossible to see the weight transfer between corners. These cars might look cool on TV in slow motion, but having seen them in person, I wasn’t blown away. I’ve long held the belief that fast doesn’t equal spectacular, and what I saw in Mexico this year only cemented that opinion.
I fully admit that rallying is a sport that requires effort to enjoy. Long hikes through the wilderness in the pouring rain or hot sun and perilous trips through barbed wire fences and brambles are part of the experience. When you finally find that perfect (safe) spectating location, it feels like an accomplishment. However, when a rally makes things deliberately difficult for spectators to access the stages, it leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. I can’t speak for all WRC events, but in Mexico this year, we were not allowed to walk on the stage to a location 3 hours… 3 HOURS before the 0 car came through! I’m all for spectator safety, but I felt that this was rather excessive. I felt especially upset because we made the effort to wake up early and skip breakfast to make sure that we got to the stage with plenty of time to find a safe spectating location. I understand if we showed up 30 minutes prior to the start of the stage and tried to walk on the road… that is unacceptable… but 3 hours? Really? What made it even more upsetting was watching accredited media walking on the stage road with impunity WHILE THE STAGE WAS STILL HOT and choosing very foolish places to stand. I have to hand it to the Mexican fans though… they made their displeasure with these individuals very clear! When faced with the realities of this double standard, however, it made the money I spent to see this rally in person very difficult to stomach.
So, I’ve laid out my gripes… what’s the solution? For me, I’m beginning to realize that with all of the great technology available today, the WRC might be a better product viewed at home than in person. With the live stages on WRC+ and Red Bull TV coupled with the fantastic coverage by the WRC radio team, it is easier to follow the WRC remotely than ever before. In addition, these tools make it possible to understand the event as a whole instead of having to wait to get back to the hotel room to piece it together. Case in point: We were less than 1 km from Kris Meeke’s car park excursion on the power stage, and we had NO IDEA that this happened until we got back to Guanajuato that evening. So what’s the point? Do I still love the WRC? Absolutely! Will I still spectate rallies in person? For sure! However, I might be more inclined to drop my hard earned travel money a high quality regional or national event such as Barum, Ypres or Ulster instead of the WRC next time. Even if the access is still difficult and limited for safety reasons, I’ll at least be guaranteed to see a greater number and variety of cars than the WRC events currently offer.