Since announcing their 2019 calendar the World Rallycross Championship social media feeds have been AWASH with negative RESPONSES from fans.
Complaining on the internet is nothing new – and it only takes a handful of voices to make an awful lot of noise online – but just a few years ago the Championship was garnering nothing but praise from its supporters, so what has changed?
Rewind back to 2014 and the inaugural World Rallycross season. When initially launching the Championship there was some dissatisfaction amongst older fans that series promoter IMG had opted for too many “temporary” tracks over established rallycross venues.
Although I didn’t share the same level of concern as some, I was worried that the World Championship might eventually head down the same road as the (now defunct) Global Rallycross Championship, with a season consisting entirely of featureless layouts based on the infield of much larger circuits. For the first year though, the traditional tracks outnumbered the new arrivals and it seemed a reasonable balance had been struck.
I think it’s fair to say that many of the new circuits utilized in 2014 were not without their flaws, but most were varied enough to provide close racing. Both Mettet and Trois Rivieres had looked unnecessarily hard on cars, but it was reassuring to see both these new tracks moving to address complaints during the off-season.
In subsequent years I really warmed to Mettet and, with the traditional circuits forming the backbone of the season, the balance remained relatively consistent in 2015 and 2016.
Perhaps I was more forgiving than some Europeans fans as, in the early years of the Championship, the gradual transition from old-to-new didn’t directly affect me. However in January 2017 it was announced that World Rallycross would be leaving Lydden Hill in favour of Silverstone and the shift really hit home.
Although I could understand the reasoning behind leaving Lydden, the choice of replacement venue left me cold: I have visited a number of circuits in the UK and, to me, none are as unappealing to spectators as Silverstone which feels more like a business park than a race track.
Now, no matter what the discipline, I am aware that any major motorsport Championship needs money to survive and this is especially relevant at the World level. Growth, and the need to appeal to a wider audience, is a part of that.
However, with a fan following as fervent as that found in rallycross, it would be nice to see some consideration shown for the existing fanbase and, with each passing season, it is hard not to feel like the long-term supporters are being neglected.
Don’t get me wrong. I have enjoyed the 2018 season – and I’ll still happily talk about rallycross all day – but the unavoidable fact is that the Championship this year has, for me, been the least memorable to date.
Of course it could be argued that there are other factors at play. Although I don’t think Johan Kristoffersson has dominated this season to the extent that some media outlets have suggested, there is no doubt that his incredible performance has taken some of the unpredictability out of the Championship. That said, I view his feat with awe rather than anger and I think his achievement this year is the most distinctive aspect of the season.
Personally I feel that it is the shifting nature of the circuits that has been most detrimental to the 2018 Championship, as the new tracks have had a negative effect on the quality of racing throughout the field. Silverstone, although better than expected, was still very slow (an opinion supported by the drivers) and the much vaunted layout at the Circuit of the Americas was, in my eyes, the dullest track the Championship has ever visited.
I could be unfairly jumping to conclusions as, like the new arrivals back in 2014, these new circuits may be improved before the World Championship visits them again next year. However I am struggling to see any potential in the latest additions and, with the full 2019 calendar now confirmed, I have a horrible suspicion that the situation is only going to worsen. Spa Francorchamps could add some variety, but Abu Dhabi looks likely to contribute another flat, featureless, layout in the same vein as CotA.
And the traditional circuits? Just three appear in the 2019 Championship and, although I accept the argument that every historic circuit was once new, I think the World Championship is in danger of running before it can walk.
As things stand at present my hopes for the future of international rallycross currently reside with the European Championship and the arrival of electric supercars to World Rallycross.
The latter portion of the above statement may surprise you, but allow me to elaborate: 2019 will see the first standalone European Championship event since the inception of the World Championship, a division which has been hinted at in previous years. With electric rallycross currently scheduled to debut in 2021, I am hopeful that this separation will continue through 2020 with the European Championship eventually running a standalone calendar at traditional venues – and thus catering for the established fans – while the World Championship continues its focus on reaching on a wider, more mainstream, audience and satisfying the whims of the big sponsors. In theory everyone could win: but only if that’s the direction IMG decide to take.
While we wait to see how the situation pans out, fans may have an alternative option next year. MJP Racing team principle Max Pucher recently launched GRC Europe, a brand new Championship which aims to visit seven, traditional, rallycross circuits across Europe.
Of course the big question is if there is a strong enough driver base to sustain this new Championship alongside the existing series. Division was detrimental to UK rallycross in the early 2000’s and, although there is a bigger pool of drivers to draw from in Europe, I wonder if it is enough to sustain two major European Championships. Rallycross has enjoyed a massive resurgence in the last decade and, after all that hard work, I hope 2019 isn’t the year the bubble bursts.
Opening picture: IMG/FIA World Rallycross Championship
Words and pictures: Steve White