When I started in rallying more than 40 years ago, there was little in the way of a future for an up-and-coming rally driver. Ford and Nissan had their stars - drivers hand-picked for factory drives on merit, and deservedly so.
Greg Carr in the late 70s got the chance of a lifetime to compete fair and square with the Ford works team, acquitting himself in the process, a fine top 10 result in the RAC Rally. He could have gone on for a career in Europe.
But what real chance do our local stars ever really have of progressing to the top level of our sport?
It’s my contention that they have only luck to help them on their way, along with some financial benefactors. No cash, no progression.
While many might contend that they rally for the fun and the friendship, some aspire to the top ranks of what is the most extreme form of motorsport, and rallying is the benefactor when they do.
Chris Atkinson made it. He drove for Subaru in the WRC, but it was a hard slog for him and without help he could have never made it.
The rally landscape at WRC level has changed in recent years. Drivers are not solely chosen on merit and driving skill, save for the top three. They command a position in the sport in works teams based on their ability. They have a legion of fans and followers too.
For everyone else it’s about “What do you bring to our team?”.
The 2020 WRC will see this new paradigm with drivers at M-Sport bringing sponsorship funds with them to compete. The WRC now has a number of top tier drivers, working behind the scenes, on the phones and emails, shoring up financial support for a few precious drives. Most will sit out rounds.
They will fall from the tree fast if they can’t get back behind the wheel. Missing a few rounds of the WRC is poison for your rally career. Except for S. Loeb.
2019 proved once and for all that you are only as good as your last rally, and we saw top tier drivers benched for certain events; manufacturers ruthlessly chasing the manufacturers’ championship at all costs. Picking specialist drivers can be expected now as part of the process of winning.
WRC stars like Alister McRae and Chris Atkinson have done their time in the APRC.
With WRC budgets reaching new and dizzy heights, you can expect manufacturers to optimise their driver line-ups for each event, and I think the days of a driver getting a 13 or 14 round contract will come to an end.
The speed at which the WRC is now conducted means that finding a driver that can excel on every surface in multiple countries is very difficult, if not impossible to find.
That leaves us with a conundrum. What does the future for a top-level driver look like in Australia? What is the progressive path he or she can take to advance their rally careers?
Is their future in some other form of motorsport? In my view more than likely. Drivers like Colin Bond made a solid career from both sports and I see a transitional path, perhaps to motor racing, for our top stars.
With over 20 other local series on offer, many with paid drives, maybe this is the future for some of our leading drivers.
TCR is a good example with Molly Taylor competing in selected races in 2019. Harry Bates competed in selected races in the Toyota 86 championship, and dad Neal was a successful race driver in his own right.
A long time in the sport often delivers some perspective and if there was an opportunity going begging, it’s the Asia Pacific Championship (APRC).
A regional series right in the middle of first world countries, a region that is the most populous in the world with manufacturers making R5 cars like Proton, Skoda, VW, Ford and others.
The APRC is the logical stepping stone for competing country’s top stars to compete against each other.
Australian Nathan Quinn has done many APRC rounds, but has yet to head to Europe because of budget constraints.
Supercars has a support category, with recent cars passed down at lower costs, drivers learning race craft and how to win in the same machinery. The main game often calls on drivers from this category for endurance pairings and we have seen a number of top line drivers come from the support category.
So, where is the support category locally for the WRC? Some will argue that’s WRC2 and WRC3 now.
In reality, WRC2 is a place where wealthy drivers end up, not all have the skill to make it to the main game. Is it really where new blood is sourced from?
For the first time in as long as I can remember, we have a class of car (R5) that is not too far removed from a WRC car. We have progressive classes globally, and we need a place to progress to locally, and it’s my view that should be the APRC.
The APRC should be promoted and nurtured far better than it is.
The steppingstone from ARC to WRC is, in my view, impossible. The step and the funding impossible. Rallying does not have close to enough commercial profile to deliver the funding needed to make this giant leap.
We need a strong and commercial APRC
Could you make a reasoned case for commercial support to a business active in the Asia Pacific region, if there was a well promoted APRC, with good media coverage?
Yes, you could.
I find it crazy to think that in the region of the world with the highest population, countries with top teams and with manufacturers wanting to sell cars, that we cannot have a strong APRC.
Why can’t the APRC be our region’s feeder category to the WRC?
Japan's Toshi Arai was an APRC regular in a factory backed Subaru Impreza WRX.
Better still, call it the “WRC - APRC region”. Make R5 cars the top category and use the series to blood new WRC drivers, learning their craft along the way. R5 cars are close enough to the WRC cars to make the series a hard-fought battle.
Our region is hampered with no real ability to showcase talent that would pique the interest of a Euro team manager.
If, as a country, we are ever to have a WRC driver, they will need more than talent, luck and money to succeed at WRC level.
The driver will need experience and that only comes from top level competition. As a sport we need to rethink our goals at the top end, we need to work hard to create a progressive path so that real talent can shine and have a real chance to make our country proud.
As things stand, I think it’s impossible for any rally driver in Australia to make it to the main game with our current event scenario. It’s not a matter of talent, it’s a matter of progression and opportunity and profile.
I think our rally stars deserve better from our sport. The APRC is the logical stepping stone to the WRC. Ask Lappi and Tidemand if it has helped. Ask Atkinson, Veiby and others did it help them in their careers?
I know the answer. The APRC is a marketing jewel being ignored. It shouldn’t be. The APRC region’s drivers deserve a regional series worthy of their talent.
And there is room in the market for a WRC and WRC regional series.
If our hugely talented local and regional rally drivers are to have any future at the top of the sport, we need a strong value-based high-profile regional series for them to learn how to win.
Expecting them to pack up and find 2 million Euros and move to Europe is just unachievable!
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