Saturday 9 September 2023

Rally - Thinking out loud

Thinking out loud - Part Two (see previous post) … It’s easy to criticise Motorsport UK, it’s not so easy to come up with answers. The sport of rallying in this country faces two big problems. Venues and spectators.

Venues such as race circuits, hillclimbs, stadiums and ovals are mostly  clearly defined and spectators can be more easily managed. But when it comes to rallying, the nomadic nature of the sport means there are countless venues but none of which are owned by or managed by motorsports companies. When it comes to managing spectators, it is much easier to control the numbers in a 150 acre small site and even up to a 3000 acre permanent major race circuit site. Compare that to the task facing a bunch of amateur volunteers looking at a 400 acre wide open public forest like Craigvinean or a 200,000 acre forest like Glentrool, more than one of which is likely to be used in a one day rally.

So if a venue cannot be managed, how can spectators be controlled? That is the biggest worry and the biggest fear faced, not just by Motorsport UK, but by every rally right up to the World Championship. You only have to look at recent TV and news coverage including this weekend’s event in Greece to see that the ‘eedjit spectator’ is alive and well and causing frustration and concern to all really organisers.

Unless we can own/control the venue there is little chance of controlling the spectators. For sure managed spectator areas have been a big help but there are still thousands of enthusiasts across the country who flock to the forests and find their own way in. Fortunately the majority are mostly sensible but it’s the minority that cause the problems and the stage cancellations.

As cars get quicker, so the consequences of things going wrong assume more serious magnitudes.

That’s one of the reasons behind the creation of rallycross almost 60 years ago. Invented by the TV companies, one of the ideas then was to bring rallying to the punters and to smaller venues. It didn’t work. The sport evolved into its own discipline whilst folk continued to trek for miles to see rally cars in their natural environment, on gravel private roads or closed public roads.

This is intrinsic to the very appeal of rallying. Coping with the unknown. For sure, frequent use of some stages/roads will become familiar to regular crews but every time they visit, conditions are different, be it surfaces, weather, time of day/night, direction or variations in length and route. So whilst the terrain may be familiar, the challenge is still there.

This is such a huge problem for the sport that it is easy to see why it is easier to walk away and ignore it rather than sit down and address it. That’s why the common perception is that motor racing gets more support from our governing body than rallying. But until a philanthropic entrepreneur comes along with the resources to buy up chunks of ‘public forest property’ to run a business and a sport while still allowing public access on a regular basis then clubs will have to deal with the various Forest Enterprise government bodies.

However, private ownership/management will still have additional demands to manage like wildlife habitats and on-site water quality while trying to grow and harvest timber in a profitable manner. On the other hand roads could be built of a better quality and maintained to a higher standard. If managed properly then the sporting side can also remain profitable - but if not managed properly then the sport is doomed.

And yet that remains the most viable option. As Yorkshire's Kris Hopkins noted, there is an ‘All Party Motorsport Group’ in Parliament, which offers a route by-passing MSUK, but that will require a concerted effort from the clubs and associations nationwide to come up with a business plan and the funding to take such a momentous step. It will also require leadership from a calm, persuasive and business-minded group of individuals unlike such rabblerousers as myself and many of my generation. The future is in the hands of the younger generation while memories remain the property of the older generations.

So it is easy to see why MSUK may find it easier to talk with and manage race circuit owners and private facility owners about the issues they face, unlike having to deal with amateur rally clubs who own nothing but a stack of arrows, stakes, stage boards and a pile of tabards.

There is a way forward if anyone thinks there is merit in such an idea. Sit down at a table with MSUK high heid yins. Hugh Chambers is a sports management professional and David Richards is a successful businessman and if they won’t sit down and discuss the issues then a trip to Westminster is called for. But for that to happen will require a much more considered approach.

The first thing such a group will ask for, having listened to the reasons for requesting such a meeting, is a Business Plan. At this point the majority of folk reading this will roll their eyes and switch off, but for anything to happen on such a momentous scale, a Business Plan is an essential tool. Without it the idea ain’t getting out of the Stage Start Time Control.

Just as rugby and football share many similarities they are completely different sports. So it is with rallying and racing. On that basis maybe they too should have different governing bodies to manage the unique circumstances that each discipline throws up. If two separate governing bodies are a bit much, perhaps MSUK could create two separate sporting entities within their organisation each with equal prominence on the executive – one for rallying and one for speed events.

Of course, there is one other big problem with which Motorsport UK has to deal, and that is based across the Channel in Paris. When it comes to making decisions and rule changes, the FIA could teach our own MSUK a thing or three!

At a time when rallying is facing its biggest threat from multiple directions maybe this is the wrong time to think such radical thoughts, or perhaps this is the right time for a single minded focus group to break away. Whatever route is chosen will not be easy, but organising a rally ain’t easy either.

If such an idea was to gain traction the biggest immediate problem would be identifying the specific individuals with the drive, energy and passion to see it through.

Volunteers or nominations anyone?

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