To say the least, it’s been a difficult few weeks for the World Rally Championship. The future of the WRC’s promoter, North One Sports, has hung in the balance. Its parent company, Convers Sports Initiatives, went into administration following the arrest of its backer Vladimir Antonov.
Just days before the start of the 2012 season, it was not been clear who will promote WRC this year. North One Sports had hoped to secure backing from Qatar, but the deal fell through after the FIA said assurances were not forthcoming.
Autosport quoted a North One Sports source as complaining that the FIA would not answer their phone calls. My first reaction was that I probably wouldn’t answer the phone to them either.
This sorry state of affairs is just the latest nadir in the decade-long decline of the World Rally Championship. It was once indisputably one of the most popular motorsport championships going. In the late 1990s it had astonishingly good TV coverage for a sport that is difficult to televise. At its height, Channel 4 was broadcasting daily highlights shows at prime time for the duration of each rally.
But since those highs, WRC has slipped painfully further and further into obscurity. Far from having decent TV coverage, it started to be shunted around between the channels found at the nether end of your digital TV listings.
A new low was reached last year when it was broadcast on the subscription channel ESPN. For the first time in the UK, Eurosport’s rival (and nominally less prestigious) Intercontinental Rally Challenge was available to watch in more homes than WRC.
I became a big fan of IRC. Meanwhile, with WRC on ESPN, I had no access to watch it — even assuming I could muster up the interest.
Eurosport do a good job of televising IRC. Meanwhile, North One’s WRC highlights programme was slick, but deathly dull and formulaic.
Apparently the situation is not much better in other countries. Mini’s status in the WRC has hung in the balance, with parent company BMW citing concerns over the championship’s poor TV coverage in Germany.
Autorsport’s North One source said they had been “working so hard for 11 years on the WRC”. Working hard on driving it into the ground? There is no doubt in my mind that the decline of the WRC began exactly 11 years ago. Sure, North One can’t take all of the blame for WRC’s sorry state. But they were surely a major factor.
I guess after 11 years of declining fortunes, the latest turn of events involving North One’s ultimate backer was perhaps the final straw for the FIA.
The FIA have apparently now decided that Eurosport will be the new promoters. It is recognition that Eurosport have shown the way with IRC.
The situation seems bleak at the moment. It is a last minute rush. Eurosport have only days to put together a plan of action for broadcasting the Monte Carlo Rally, as well as setting up the vital timing and tracking equipment.
But I think this is the best news WRC has had in a long time. A big shake-up was needed. In the end, it was forced upon them and for a brief period it was panic stations. But with Eurosport now in place, it’s the best chance in a decade for some fresh air to be injected into the WRC.