Will the IRC be the New WRC?

Sanjay KumarCorrespondent IJanuary 15, 2009

This article written in partnership with Bleacher Report writer Stephen Spackman.

The WRC became an official series in 1973 with the merger of many prominent rallies and the International Championship for Manufacturers (IMC). The early years featured excellent cars such as the Ferrari-powered Lancia Stratos and the Alpine 110 and exciting rallies. Audi revolutionized the face of rally racing with the introduction of the Audi Quattro in 1980 and in 1982 the Group B era officially began.

Group B allowed manufacturers to experiment with technology without much restriction at all, but it came to an end in 1986 with the deaths of two Lancia drivers, three on-lookers and the injuries of many drivers and fans alike. The Group B era however, marked the true blossoming of the WRC with incredibly large crowds and great amounts of money being spent by manufacturers for development.

Group A took prominence after the 1986 season, and ran till 1997 when the WRC-car specifications came into effect. Between 1986 and 1997 Group A provided exciting racing with some of the biggest names in rally racing. Lancia dominated the manufacturer’s arena with six championships using the Delta Integrale.

Drivers such as Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae, and Tommi Makinen came to the forefront in exciting rallies. The WRC-car era continued much in the same way as Group A, but in 2004 it began to take a different turn. In 2003 an exciting season saw Petter Solberg bring Subaru its third driver’s title in less than 10 years. Citroen Total was three cars strong, with former WRC-Champions Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae, and JWRC-Champion Sebastien Loeb. Loeb lost out to Solberg by only one point.

He was determined to not allow that to happen again. From 2004 onwards, Loeb has won five consecutive championships, smashing the records set by Finns Tommi Makinen and Juha Kankkunen with a dominance never seen before.

The economic situation currently affecting the entire world, as well as waning TV audiences, spectators, and sponsors is ushering a WRC not seen before. David Richards, owner of ISC as well as Prodrive (which runs the Subaru World Rally Team), has been accused of being responsible for TV audiences significantly lower than could be had. In the United States, the WRC used to be broadcast via SPEEDTV, but due to poor time slots and the high cost of using the video from ISC, SPEEDTV opted to not carry WRC content.

In Europe WRC content continues to be available on television, but is not garnering high-enough ratings. Ratings have gone down in markets such as Great Britain and Scandinavia due to the dominance of Sebastien Loeb and Citroen with little competition from other manufacturers.  

The 2009 season marks a new era in the World Rally Championship even though many may not think so. With the surprise withdrawal of the Subaru and Suzuki World Rally Teams, there are only two official manufacturer teams, the first time there have ever been this few manufacturers in the WRC.

Officially, there are six teams: Citroen Total World Rally Team, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team (M2), Munchi’s Ford World Rally Team (Privateer), Citroen Junior Team (M2), and the Adapta World Rally Team (Privateer).

The format of the 2009 Championship has also been drastically altered compared to previous years. There will only be 12 rallies run in an effort to minimize cost, the fewest rallies since 1996. Removed from the WRC calendar are staples to rally racing, the Monte Carlo, Sweden, and France rallies, which have been a part of the WRC calendar since the creation of the WRC back in 1973.

Also dropped are favorites such as Germany and New Zealand. However, Portugal and Australia rallies have returned to the calendar despite poor attendance and ratings in prior years. The 2009 Championship will begin in Ireland, and span Europe, South America, and Australia, with no rallies being run in North America or Asia. The season will begin at the end of January and end unusually early at the end of October.

With two official manufacturers, and 12 events, the WRC is showing that it is in trouble. With ratings going down every season, there is a dire need to revamp the WRC, but instead the FIA has decided to limit the scope of the WRC in favor of niche markets, a move that had previously never been done.

The Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) is a rallying series organized by the FIA aiming to "give new opportunities to young or amateur rally drivers competing in recognized regional and international rallies, while offering organizers an innovative TV format concept, created by Eurosport." This series focuses on Group N and Group A spec cars up to 2000cc (including Super 2000, R2 and R3))

The series began in 2007, and will soon be celebrating its third year in existence. Since its inception, it has attracted a lot of attention not just from the public, but a huge interest from car manufacturers such as Fiat, Skoda, Volkswagen, Toyota, and Peugeot. This is due to the amount of rallies that are run per season and also it’s a big factor of cost cutting, but still retaining the spirit of rally and it’s going back to the "good ol' days" of the rally scene.

You will also find that Skoda, Mitsubishi and Peugeot are makes that used to run in the WRC, which now has hit an all time low with the likes of Subaru and Suzuki halting their WRC campaign due to ever increasing cost and lack of coverage etc. The WRC now has only Ford and Citroen, compared to the IRC which has Skoda, Opel/Vauxhall, Fiat, VW, Peugeot, and MG.

With the WRC adopting new rules for the 2010 season onwards, more manufacturers are interested in S2000-spec cars which the IRC already features.

The 2009 IRC calendar features 12 rounds continuing the tried and trusted formula of combining well-known classic rallies with new events in emerging markets. Next year, there is a roughly 50-50 mix of asphalt and gravel rallies, as well as five exciting new events joining the existing line-up. The changes reflect the increasing prominence of the IRC in world motorsport, following yet another successful and highly-competitive season this year.

The 2009 series will start with the world famous Monte Carlo Rally in January: the oldest and most prestigious event in the history of the sport which shall be airing a mammoth 6 hours of live coverage on Eurosport, which the WRC has never been able to do on any rally at any event of its kind.

Other events joining the IRC calendar this year for the first time include the all-new Rally of Curitiba in Brazil, the Sata Rally Acores in Portugal, the Rally Japan and finally the RAC MSA Rally of Scotland in the United Kingdom.

Geraldine Filiol, Managing Director of Eurosport Events, commented: “The IRC has taken a number of major steps forward throughout 2008, with the levels of competition and ground-breaking live television coverage underlining the spectacular rise in the profile of the series. For 2009, the IRC is embarking on its most ambitious season yet.

The year begins with the legendary Monte Carlo Rally—which is an emblematic event on the world sporting calendar – but we visit the South American continent for the first time, making the IRC a truly global series that is accessible to everyone.” 

With the popularity of the WRC on the decline, the IRC posts not only a very real alternative, but an entertaining one. For more information on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge visit www.rally-irc.com

• 21-24 January Monaco Monte Carlo Rally (a)
• 05-07 March Brazil Rally Internacional de Curitiba (g)
• 03-04 April Kenya (TBC) (*) Safari Rally (g)
• 07-09 May Portugal Sata Rally Acores (a)
• 18-20 June Belgium Ypres Westhoek Rally (a)
• 09-11 July Russia. Rally Russia (g)
• 30 July-01 August Madeira Rali Vinho Madeira (a)
• 21-23 August Czech Republic Barum Rally Zlin (a)
• 10-12 September Spain Rally Principe de Asturias (a)
• 24-26 September Italy Rally Sanremo (a)
• 22-24 October Japan (**) Rally Japan (g)
• 19-21 November United Kingdom RAC MSA Rally of Scotland (g)
(*) To be confirmed
(**) Dates to be confirmed