Future of the WRC Format

In a recent interview the FIA rally director Jarmo Mahonen gives out some opinions on the current format of WRC rallying and its future. Some things that he said have caused a rage on social media and forums. Let’s look closer at what he actually said.

Long legs and liaisons

First of all, Mahonen criticizes the format of the recent Wales Rally GB where the stage mileage on the legs between two services was rather high. On Friday there were six stages, with only a remote service (=tyre change) between them. On Saturday another seven stages were driven without even a said tyre change before return to the service and back for two night stages.

I’m not sure whether it’s a problem or not. I thought it would be quite rough on the cars and we would see lots of drivers troubled with technical problems halfway to the day with no service in sight, or maybe someone rolling their car and having to drive with no windscreen for a few stages. But in the end none of the front runners had any problems either day, which was quite surprising actually.

Another thing Mahonen says is the service park should have more action during a day. In the case of Wales, the service was all quiet from mornings to evenings, while the teams had invested a lot in the hospitality.

Image by Yamboo from Wikimedia Commons

The reason for the remote service or lack of visits to the actual service park must lie in the fact that often there’s no reasonable place for a service park near the legendary stages. The distance from the Wales Deeside service to the start of Myherin is around 130 km. This also plants another seed of Mahonen criticism, he doesn’t like the rallies to have so much liaisons. Of course, this is easy to agree with, but obviously it’s a balance between having the service park in a reasonable place, having legendary stages or having both but with long liaisons.

Shortening the stages

Another thing Mahonen proposes is shortening the length of the stages. He implies a larger number of 10 km stages would be better than a few long stages, taking the 2016 Rally Mexico 80 km Guanujato stages as an example, stating that “nothing happened” on that stage, whereas every stage finish creates social media buzz. Well, at least his opinion created some buzz from the top drivers:

Having an 80 km stages can be interesting competitively, but also it’s risky if the stage is cancelled, as it would drop almost a fourth of all stage kilometres of the whole rally distance. However, I think stages of various length up to 40 kms are still a part of modern rallying. I like it when there’s a good varying mix of sprint stages and more enduring stages. I wouldn’t change much the stage lengths from this year.

Putting the fan goggles on

If I were to pose some critic for the rally formats, it would be giving more content for a fan during a day. A typical WRC day consists of three stages driven twice, in the morning and in the afternoon. What bothers me is that the stages are run very close to each other, with the first drivers starting the next one before the last ones have finished. This means a spectator can see only two stages and for the fans at home there’s no driver interviews on WRC radio for all drivers, and following split times gets complicated.

Image by anaberan from Wikimedia Commons

This also results in a lot of waiting time. Three stages are completed in two hours, then another three stages many hours later. A converse example is the Friday of Rally Finland 2017, where there were 12 stages driven from morning to noon with the service being the only break longer than an hour. A spectator could easily see four stages and the action kept going on for the whole day non-stop on the radio.

Times they have been-a-changing

Of course, I grew up in the time when rallies lasted for days and services could be done anywhere.  For many people this represents the true nature of rallying and some even claim the current clover leaf format is what has alienated people from following rallying.

I have to disagree. Would we have any rallying at all anymore if it hadn’t evolved to be more compact and cost-efficient? The car industry is not as wealthy anymore, and there’s not as many major supporters such as the tobacco companies. The current WRC cars are now very complicated and expensive to run. You don’t fix them anymore with a sledgehammer in the middle of nowhere while the driver smokes a cigarette.

The reason for the reduced popularity lies elsewhere. For starters one driver and team dominating the series for years was a bummer for many people including myself. Now that we had the most exciting and even season in a long time, the popularity of the series actually reached a boost.

As a route enthusiast, of course I’d love to have longer routes with more stage material to choose from. Having longer rallies and movable services would allow more interesting routes and old stages not driven in a long time.

Also, I understand the times have changed.

Cover Image by Richard Simpson / Flickr 

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