The World Rally Championship has been revelling in a golden era since its most recent regulation change in 2017. The combination of extra power and unprecedented grip pitched battles between Sebastien Ogier, Ott Tanak and Thierry Neuville to greater heights. But has three remarkable seasons hidden the growing vulnerabilities of rallying’s premier series?
Aggressive aerofoils and knife-edge car control draw comparisons between today’s World Rally Cars and their fabled Group B ancestors. The glory of Group B was of course blighted by the regularity of fateful accidents. While safety is paramount in the modern age of motorsport, it is the excessive costs currently required to run a WRC team that could prove to be its downfall.
Furthering the teams’ financial challenges is the necessity of integrating hybrid technology into the WRC.
For fans across the world, a hybrid power unit isn’t going to add to the spectacle of rallying. But will they notice if additional costs push M-Sport beyond the scope of survival? They most certainly will.
The championship will be back to two manufacturers. It has been there before and it can’t afford for it to happen again.
Perhaps we need to look at it from a different angle.
Formula 1 adopted its hybrid regulations in 2014. Formula E’s inaugural season started in the same year. Meanwhile the World Endurance Championship was already in its hybrid era.
As for the World Rally Championship, 2022 is set to be its big year of change. World Rally Cars will be no longer, instead the top teams will be rolling out their new “Rally1” cars. The exact details of the hybrid technology are still to be revealed but the cars will retain the aggressive aerodynamic features while simplifying suspension and transmission systems.
Electric vehicles are the future but they’re still unfeasible. This is where hybrid provides a reasonable stop-gap and this is what the WRC will have missed out on for the guts of a decade when they roll out the new cars in two years.
Hybrid technology will increase costs for the teams but it provides a much-needed marketing avenue for manufacturers. After all, rallying is the ultimate test of a car. It’s time to craft rallying machines out of the current crop of hybrid production cars.
The WRC must seize the opportunity to sell its all-terrain, fast-paced competition to every automotive manufacturer.
Which leads me to my final bug bearer.
The current World Rally Cars look nothing like the production cars you can buy in the showroom. The Toyota Yaris was invincible under Ott Tanak’s control throughout the 2019 season. The speed, commitment, and sheer power brought delight to fans around the world but would that have led you into temptation to buy a Yaris from your local car dealer? I doubt it.
Go back 20 years to the battles between Subaru, Mitsubishi, and Ford. The Impreza, Lancer, and Focus looked like beastly rally cars but they were all recognisable compared to road-going variants.
There was no need for fiddly winglets or circuit-style spoilers. Tasteful body panels and unpretentious rear wings were more than enough to embellish such cars.
Is it time to reign things back to move the WRC forward? Call time on the outlandish aero and change the base-chassis to something more substantial? The British Touring Car Championship is thriving on its family-sized market. A full grid of cars that look like the road-going equivalent.
So here is my conclusion.
Market the hybrid, save on aerodynamics and return to cars that the WRC demographic can once again fall in love with both on the stages and in the showroom.
Photo by Jaanus Ree / Red Bull Content Pool
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