JANUARY 19, 2006
Ironies and history
There is a certain irony in the fact that the FIA World Rally Championship, which kicks off this weekend with the Monte Carlo Rally, is short of manufacturers. The FIA is keen to get new car builders in to bolster the series and is creating new rules which it is hoped will achieve that goal. At the same time there are rules going through in Formula 1 which, depending on their philosophy in relation to the sport, will do nothing to encourage manufacturers to stay.
In real terms there are just two manufacturers in the WRC this year. Peugeot, Citroen, Mitsubishi and Skoda have all pulled out. The term "manufacturer" has been cunningly re-defined but it is not quite the same thing, even if Citroen is promising to return with a full works effort in 2007. Being generous one can say that Citroen's effort with Kronos Racing is a works team diguised as a privateer but if that is the case it is hard to see why people are getting excited about the number of possible winners this year. Citroen has dominated the WRC for the last couple of years and if this is a works team there is no reason to suggest that the domination will not continue. It is a Catch-22 situation.
One can argue about what is best for the future forever but the fact is that at the moment WRC programmes need to be cost-effective for manufacturers because the WRC delivers far less than F1. Budgets in F1 are extraordinary but they are sustainable because up to now the sport has a broad enough reach to keep manufacturers and sponsors interested. The FIA says that this cannot continue and it is trying to cut costs in F1 to make sure that the cost remains sustainable. Others would argue that the sport is financially self-levelling because if it becomes a spending competition the public interest will eventually wane and the value of the sport will drop and manufacturers will depart. This does not mean that the sport will come to an end. There are always new ambitious teams wanting to get into F1 and as long as that is the case there will always be someone to pick up the pieces left behind when the manufacturers shut up shop. And if one wants evidence of that look back in history and see the excitement there is still about the racing in the 1930s. The reality was that there were two government-funded teams from AutoUnion and Mercedes-Benz. The Italians were trying half-heartedly to stay in the game with Alfa Romeo. The French were out but competing at Le Mans and the British never left their own shores, content to be big fish in a very small pond.
That came to an end with the war and the rebirth of the sport came from small teams, first in France and Italy and later in Britain. Manufacturers do much to raise the profile of any sport and so it is hard to argue that they are not a good thing but we should not waste too much time worrying about the dim and distant future. We should worry more about making sure that money that is generated within the sport stays within the sport. That would help everybody.
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