Australian Rally Museum chairman, Trevor Shelton, delves into the Rally Australia location topic, and weighs up the other options if the event was to move from its current Coffs Harbour base. * * * * * Well, what a fantastic and exciting end to the WRC season at Rally Australia, Coffs Harbour. So many twists and turns, with Ogier, Neuville and Tanak battling it out into the last day. The heavens then opened right on cue and the sub-tropical storm helped the cool head of Sebastien Ogier to take yet another World Drivers title. And all of this with a backdrop of breathtaking natural scenery. A promoters’ dream! I mean, who could ask for more? But hang on…… what’s this I hear … the organisers are looking for another venue to host Rally Australia. Are they mad? Well … the issues behind this push are very complex. There are a lot of fingers in the WRC pie, and of course, a lot of money at stake. It seems that the prevailing complaint about Rally Australia in Coffs Harbour over the last few years has been spectator numbers, or more specifically, the lack of. I believe this is the primary motivation behind a push to possibly relocate the event. Of course, money is always an issue, and with a NSW election due in March 2019, there are no guarantees that one of the current Rally Australia major sponsors, the NSW Government, through Destination NSW, is going to climb back on board.

This year's Rally Australia started on the beach in beautiful Coffs Harbour. Photo: Geoff Ridder

Although, having said that, I feel that there is also a very good chance that NSW could once again underwrite the event. Let’s face it, with WRC+ Live TV beaming the beautiful Coffs Coast into the lounge rooms of millions of people all around the world, and especially to the Europeans who generally have some affinity with Australia, Rally Australia has got to be good value for the Destinations NSW Tourism dollar. So, let’s take a closer look at the spectator numbers issue. Firstly, we need to take a step back and look at why the WRC bothers to come to Australia on the other side of the world at all. I think it safe to say that traditionally, the heart of rallying has been on gravel. It is commonly regarded that the Finnish round is the “Mecca of World Rallying”, and it is no doubt that the visual spectacle is far superior on gravel than it is on bitumen. WRC promoters love visual spectacles. If the WRC promoters were to run a World Rally Championship on bitumen, they would be spoilt for choice for amazing bitumen roads in a multitude of European countries in their own back yard, where the bulk of their fan base resides. But the reality is that they need good gravel events to ensure the WRC remains healthy and relevant. Unfortunately for them, the development and population of the European continent and its major countries means that there is a distinct shortage of good gravel roads. So, they are forced to look outside of Europe for countries that have enough good gravel roads that can be used to run a WRC event.

Rally Australia continues to provide some of the championship's most spectacular images. Photo: Matt Jelonek

However, it isn’t quite that simple. There are many other factors that must be considered. Ironically, the French themselves have come perilously close in recent years to losing their own bitumen WRC round, the Tour De Corse, because it does not satisfy all of the “WRC Players”. Enough money to run an event we have mentioned, but stability government rules out a lot of countries. Security. Safety of competitors, organisers, volunteers, teams and spectators is paramount for a good look championship, and potential terrorism certainly rules out some countries. Countries need knowledge and experience of just how to run a WRC event. When beaming live around the world, the WRC Promoter needs to be sure that all is run to a very slick and reliable schedule … not an easy task. And, of course, competitors. It’s no use running a rally with only the 13 or so WRC competitors in a country that has no knowledge of rallying, and no depth to fill the entry list with national or other types of competitors that fit the strict conditions set by the FIA. Without a doubt a great addition to the WRC roadshow is WRC All Live, but it adds major logistical challenges to the route, the running and timing of a WRC event for organisers. Well, so far, Australia has ticked all the boxes. Have I missed anything? I’m sure Wayne Kenny, Rally Australia Clerk of Course, could add a few more to the list.

World Champion Sebastien Ogier over the popular Weddings Bell jump.

Oh yes … the WRC has placed restrictions on the ratio of competitive/liaison kilometres run in the events. This essentially rules out starting in a large city that does not have enough good gravel roads on its doorstep. Quite a paradox really if you are not in a third world country. If I’m not mistaken, this ratio itself would now rule out the extremely successful WRC Rally Australia in Perth that was run there for 17 years. A great event, but long liaisons from Perth out to the competitive stages, and no option of a central service park in a major centre would, I believe, make such a rally ineligible under the present criteria needed to host a WRC round. Certainly, there are several countries vying for a spot on the WRC calendar, especially now that the WRC is thriving. However, all of those countries too will have an Achilles heel if you look closely. None will fit the bill perfectly. Japan, who is reported to be back on the WRC calendar in 2020, could only come up with a bitumen candidate event that suited all the criteria dictated to them. I’m sure Australia could do that easily. Australia has stuck with the WRC through thick and thin with what they really want … a unique gravel round. Here we are, back at Coffs Harbour again. So far, Coffs ticks all the boxes except the “Spectator Numbers Bar”, which seems to get raised higher every year. Now the WRC and others believe that starting in a large population centre in Australia will fix what they see as a lack of spectators at the Coffs Harbour event. Such a centre could also add the benefit of direct international flights.

Colin McRae launches over the famous Bunnings jump during the WA-based Rally Australia in 1997.

Okay, let’s look at our options ….. Perth we’ve already dealt with. Brisbane/Gold Coast. No longer even run an Australian Rally Championship event. Simply not enough choice of roads to run a WRC without stepping over the border into northern NSW. This scenario negates support from either QLD or NSW governments, as neither want to spend money to feather the nest of the other state. A WRC event such as this was tried in 2009, and most of us would remember the (not so pleasant) welcome that was given to the WRC by the extreme green element in the hills of the Tweed Valley. Sydney/Newcastle/Wollongong. Simply not enough suitable gravel roads around Sydney, without travelling large liaison distances. To the north of Newcastle, many of the state forests that were traditionally used for rallies in the 80s and 90s have now been transferred to the care of National Parks, which do not see rallying as compatible with their objectives. There are good roads to the south of Wollongong, but again, I think that liaison distances would eliminate this option. Adelaide. An outside chance. With a population of 1.29 million, that may satisfy the major centre criteria. From all reports the new Adelaide Hills Rally was a success and reasonably compact. Most likely new major sponsors would need to be found, however, and the problem of having to enter through connecting flights and not direct international flights still remains. In fact, as compared to Coffs Harbour, where all WRC cars and WRC long haul freight comes in through Brisbane, the logistic costs for teams would most likely increase significantly. And of course, Melbourne. There is no doubt that there are enough suitable roads to the north east of Melbourne. However, not even any recent Victorian ARC rounds use Melbourne as a starting base due to the liaison distances concerned. Once again, the Perth syndrome. We all know that Melbournians would turn up to a Tiddlywinks Tournament in their hordes. Is this the answer to the WRC spectator numbers issue? I say no. I believe that supposedly sports mad Melbournians only really have an appetite for stadium Sports. Yes, I think a Super Special Stage run within Melbourne would be extremely well patronized, but as far as greater numbers than what we see at Coffs Harbour out on the stages themselves, I’m not so sure. I have spectated at a few different Victorian based rallies in recent years, and have seen no difference in numbers out the bush to other similar rallies.

Rally Australia continues to attract overseas spectators, including this group of Argentinians.

One major advantage Melbourne has, besides its obvious second largest Australian population base is, well … remember that Tiddlywinks Tournament … they’d find a corporate sponsor for that. So where are we now? We’ve been right around Australia, and landed right back at Coffs Harbour. We know the down side, so let’s take a good look at the positives at Coffs. Reportedly the spectator numbers were up considerably at Coffs this year. A good sign. A quick Google tells me that Coffs Harbour, or more accurately the entire Coffs Coast, over which the WRC is run, has a population catchment of around 200,000. To put that in perspective, the “Mecca of Rallying”, Jyvaskyla, Finland, has a population of around 140,000. Of course, Finland is a much more compact country than Australia, and is quite accessible from Europe. They get massive crowds. Australia is isolated, and does not enjoy the benefits of crowds from other countries crossing the border to bolster its spectator numbers … except of course our friends from across the ditch. I am confident in saying that the lion’s share of WRC competitors love coming to Coffs Harbour. It is a different style of event to what they see elsewhere, and I would think that this must be a plus for WRC. There is no doubt that the scenery is easy on the camera. As far as car sales go, Citroen is the only WRC manufacturer team that really has anything to moan about in Australia. Although not a massive market in overall terms, Australia is affluent, and car ownership is high. Look at Mexico and Argentina for example. They have large populations and large spectator crowds, but the reality is that only a small proportion of those spectators will be able to afford motor vehicles. Toyota, Hyundai and Ford all enjoy high sales here in Australia, per percentage of spectator/population. Twenty minutes gets you from the centre of Coffs Harbour to a choice of spectator points.

The WRC's best drivers put on a show for the ages on the Coffs Coast.

The Coffs Coast is a tourist destination, so it has more than enough accommodation to cater for an event the size of the WRC, some 5 star. Although it has no international flights, it does have a sizable provincial airport five minutes from the centre of Coffs Harbour. It is strategically placed almost midway between two major capital centres, Brisbane/Gold Coast and Sydney /Newcastle. Gold Coast 3.5 hours drive and Newcastle 5 hours is not seen by Australians as a major drive. To Europeans, it may seem major, but not here. This reasonably exposes it by road to a massive slice of the Australian population. So what’s the problem? Well, to be honest, my take on this whole conundrum is something that my Dad brought to my attention many times … this seems to be a classic case of the WRC wanting their cake and eating it too. Let’s throw another one in … sometimes you don’t really know what you’ve got till it’s gone! To relocate is a big gamble. To go through the massive logistical exercise of moving an event as large and complex as Rally Australia and then to end up not having a large increase in spectator numbers to what it has now, would no doubt jeopardise our standing on the WRC calendar. Some say it is in jeopardy now. To those people, I say there are other ways to anchor ourselves on the calendar that are less of a gamble, and certainly less costly.

The WRC's three-way fight once again went to Sebastien Ogier, who won his sixth title.

Tommi Makinen, Team Principal of the Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC Team, recently criticised the fact that Australia had the last round of the WRC. I agree with Tommi. I believe that we come under unnecessary scrutiny, and thus pressure, by having the final round. I understand that one of the reasons that Rally Australia was placed to the end of the season was for logistical reasons and so that organisers could take advantage of the longer daylight hours and NSW Daylight Saving, but surely Coffs Harbour could hold a late slot in the calendar which would give it these advantages, without it being the final round? Being the last round brings with it certain responsibilities and costs, such as required television presentation Crowds and the Sydney Gala Presentation. Pressures which, I believe, we simply do not need. Sure, interest in the rally this year was up due to the Championship going down to the last round, but in reality, how often does that actually happen? This was the first year that it has done so at Coffs Harbour, yet Australia has come under persistent criticism for being allowed to host the last round. I say give the last round gig back to Europe where it probably belongs, and get on with running the fantastic event that Rally Australia Coffs Harbour has grown into, and which is an amazingly worthy asset to the WRC calendar. My dad was a builder and told me that the most important part of the house is the foundations. Coffs Harbour WRC has got a solid foundation. Let’s keep building on it! – by Trevor Shelton
  • The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of RallySport Magazine.
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