15 Dec: Rallying – The Future?

Motor sport … The Future … Does it have one? …

The world as we know it didn’t change the other night (12 Dec). We all got up and went to work as usual the next morning or took the weans to school (13 Dec). Even the weather didn’t offer anything different. Farmers still had to milk their cows and Greggs still had its early morning breakfast queues. And that was despite what the nation’s public and commercial broadcasters, mainstream press, social media and anti-social media would have had us believe. A new dawn? A new beginning? Don’t hold your breath.

Nor have we regained any trust in our politicians, our senior civil service, or those in senior managerial positions who seem to care more about their remuneration, pensions and severance packages than they do about the businesses they manage, the workers they employ and the services they provide whether public or private.

The country was in a sorry state before the election and it’s still in a fearful muddle, so I don’t see any reason to be joyful. Bah, humbug.

Similarly the outlook for motor sport remains bleak. Next month (Jan 2020) the new regime at Colnbrook will ‘celebrate’ its first anniversary. What has been achieved over the past 12 months? Outwardly, precious little, although we shouldn’t yet lose faith in the new incumbents and remain ever hopeful.

The same issues continue to blight our sport too. Rising costs, increased regulation, litigious fears, insurance charges, a lack of volunteers, plus of course the advancing age and reducing numbers of those who organise, officiate and motivate. And then there’s apathy, if you need an example, look no further than the Club Development Day that Scottish Motor Sports organised free of charge the other week . Out of Scotland’s 60 or so car clubs only one bothered to turn up. You’d think that in this current fragile climate we should be taking every opportunity we get to try to improve our lot.

And there’s more. Petrol and diesel powered vehicles are now being demonised as environmentalists queue up to condemn transport in all its fossil fuelled forms.  Meanwhile our elected politicians seek to ban such vehicles from the road while tinkering with air and maritime travel and doing little to improve the frustrations of rail and bus passengers. Methinks Thomas and the Fat Controller could do a better job.

Electricity may well be the answer, just not yet. It’s not ready and neither are we.

Which brings us back to motor sport. We are an easy target. Unlike other sports which rely on diesel and petrol to get athletes and their kit around the country or across the globe, motor sport is seen to be using this precious commodity directly to fuel competition and participation.

For instance earlier this year (May) we had the ludicrous example of two London  based football teams playing the 2019 UEFA Europa League Final inthe Olympic Stadium – in Baku, Azerbaijan. The clubs, officials and spectators therefore each faced a 6,000 mile round trip to play a game of football. Where was the sense in that? If they wanted a neutral ground, they could have played in Manchester, or  Cardiff, or even Paris, and if really stuck, Hampden. That would have saved a lot of grief and cost and time all round. And where was the environmentalist outcry then?

Nope, football is too big a target to tackle, so picking off the smaller sports presents an easier goal. On that basis motor sport needs a more positive image to present to the wider public, but no-one is willing to stand up and carry the banner.

Our sport is far too introverted. That’s why we struggle not just to have a positive social image but also struggle to attract newcomers and the young to participate. The number of competition licence holders has been falling for the past 30 odd years and there are no signs of the flow being stemmed – yet!

The sport is dying the death of a thousand cuts and we’re fast running out of plasters! Perhaps a bit of surgery is needed before the gangrene sets in.

Circuit and track based motor sports are in a slightly safer position because of their more ‘permanent’ facilities, but the off road sports will suffer first. Rallying as we know it is likely to be the first casualty. Forest use is being limited and choice of available roads reduced. The alternative is closed public roads, but the great British public will only stand for so much before clamouring for a halt.

This is where the sport’s governing body should step in and lead the way. After all, they are the professionals in an amateur sport. If they can’t or won’t do it, they’ll be out of a job, so it is in their own interest and not just ours to help attract, encourage and promote but they can’t do it alone. The clubs and the fans need to do their bit too. If we fail, then so will the sport. Simples.

We also need to get the Press on side. They could help to promote a more positive image and publicise our winners and champions. That won’t be a easy task, but is that a reason not to try? The previous MSA administration screwed up their own media accreditation system and the new system is not fit for purpose, so there is work to be done there.

Starting with karting, or age restricted off-road events, motor sport could be promoted at school level too. Engage the youngsters now and make them better and more responsible drivers on public roads in the future, and perhaps even encourage them to take up competition. Make that competition more accessible, cheaper and less regulated and we might have a chance.

The sport isn’t very good at ‘social media’ either, but it is getting better. Instead of showing the crashes, let’s concentrate on the personalities and the skills, the technical elements and the competition. Spontaneous interviews at stage finishes and in service areas with drivers, co-drivers and service crews will add interest and information for the viewers . We don’t need expensive broadcast cameras and crews any more, just someone with a bit of gumption, flair and ‘the craic’ and a really smart phone with an internet connection!

Some events and championships are having a crack at this and doing a grand job, but it’s just a start. Could Motorsport UK institute a programme of ‘media training’ for clubs, events and championships to help them with such an exercise? Could Motorsport UK create one central internet location where all such links could be accessed and then promote it nationally? Could Motorsport UK simplify the technical regulations and event regulations. Could Scottish Motor Sports (SMS) have their brief expanded to include sport and event promotion?

No doubt many folk will have better and brighter ideas than those above, but we don’t have much time before the new season kicks off next year.

Electric car racing is now getting established with Formula E and the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy series leading the way. Similarly Rallycross is looking at electrical power and Opel in Germany is currently testing their new Corsa Electric Rally Car to take over from the current one-make Opel Adam series machines.

This is perhaps the biggest problem that rallying as we know it will face. Currently batteries have limited range and re-charging times are unacceptably long for off-road and long range sports. The sport will have to adapt and adopt. It can’t afford to sit and wait till the technology catches up otherwise it will run out of steam – now there’s an idea!

The sport needs leadership, guidance and practical support if it is to have a future. It also needs to be fun and affordable. Motorsport UK  is surely facing its biggest challenge since the RAC MSA was founded way back in 1905. But it’s not just a ‘them’ thing, it’s ‘us’ too. We all individually need to do more to encourage family, friends and colleagues to get involved.

Otherwise rallying will be reduced to reminiscing. Memories of midges and damp days in the forest, frozen feet on snow covered ground, ankle deep in a mud filled ditch and drenched to the point of personal saturation, and for what? The uplifting sight of McRae in a battered Sierra, Gallacher on full opposite lock, Wood in a bellowing Rover V8, the sound of wastegates chattering, engines backfiring, and the beat of a BDA, added to the heady mix of burning rubber, hot clutches, boiling brakes and the fresh smell of an early morning conifer forest.

You can’t get that while sat on a sofa with a keyboard.