I just watched some footage from the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Eurosport were doing it live. Carlton Kirby was a great choice as commentator, waffling his way through the dull bits, giving limelight to his expert co-commentators when required.
The series is well on the up, with manufacturers falling over themselves to throw cars into the S2000 mix.
By contrast, the World Rally Championship is dying on its legs. Successive changes to the rules in the name of reducing cost have destroyed the series. They’ve robbed it of what made it unique, of the challenge of the events. Picture it, the British Rally a 5 day winter event, through the Midlands, Wales, Yorkshire and Scotland. Long forest stages sorting the men from the boys. Making sure that the successful drivers understood when to push and when to take care. And the British wasn’t even the killer event. Monte with its concentration runs, the semi-enduro “Safari” event in Kenya, Australia’s ballbearings through the trees. All were awesome events full of genuine challenge, and they did not stand up to the neutering.
Successively, manufacturers became disillusioned with the poor quality of the events. With still spending millions to pursue success on a decreasing stage (no pun intended). They left. The Japanese, whose breed of rally rockets provided a generation of aspirational giant-killers for twenty-somethings. The French, whose souped-up superminis added some chic. Even the Citroen Xsara.
Taking the magic away from the events, and a dwindling supply of TV coverage combined in a perfect storm with the loss of key competitors. As Auriol, Sainz McRae, Makinen, Burns and Gronholm all left the category (sadly due to a brain tumour in the case of Richard Burns), so Sebastien Loeb came to the fore. Put simply, Loeb is Rallying’s Michael Schumacher, plus Juan Manuel Fangio, Richard Petty and Alain Prost all rolled into one. The tower of his driving skill is comic-book-stuff compared to those driving the other cars. The six-time champion has cleared up, demolishing records in his wake like the aforementioned Schumacher.
Where does this leave rallying then? Well, far from going through the ignominious split that afflicted America open-wheel racing, it rather looks like WRC will die and IRC will ascend to the throne at the same time, probably at the end of 2010.
But what will then happen to IRC? Watching the footage from the Monte Carlo rally, which Ford had entered with Mikko Hirvonen and the new S2000 Fiesta, I became slightly concerned. It just looked like Hirvonen was a league ahead of the other drivers. Sure, Kopecky, Ogier, Wilks etc are good drivers. But how will they fare when Loeb shows up? When Citroen rock out an S2000 car for the greatest rally driver ever?
Interesting times ahead for the tree dodgers.