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This weekend sees the running of the fourth round of the NEC Computers Australian Rally Championship, the Subaru Safari Tasmania, and while the leading crews will battle for victory, the national championship is at the crossroads in terms of competitor involvement and media interest.


Tasmania’s round of the ARC has usually had a lower number of competitors than rounds in other states, simply because Bass Strait lies between it and the mainland, however this year’s entry – just 18 cars for the ARC component – is an astonishing 30% decrease from the 2005 event.

In total only 23 cars have entered the rally, with the other five running only for Tasmanian Rally Championship points. That event alone has seen a drop in competitor numbers of more than 50% since last year.

Not so long back the Australian Rally Championship was, in many eyes, the premier national championship in the world. Our Group N-only format saw the likes of Subaru and Mitsubishi going head to head with crowd favourite Possum Bourne leading the way. The performances of our drivers in international events proved the point, and Australia were recognized as real leaders in the field.

But things can change quickly. Possum Bourne was tragically killed, Chris Atkinson got whisked away to the World Rally Championship, and Subaru Australia took long service leave after an unbeaten 10 year run in the ARC, preferring to go tarmac rallying instead.

As a result, Toyota and Mitsubishi have been left to carry the torch. Toyota, with their Group N (P) Corollas have proven to be the class act of 2006, with Simon Evans and Neal Bates leading the way, closely followed by the single Mitsubishi entry of Scott Pedder. Ford, too, have run a single factory car, but it’s probably fair to say that their rear-drive, normally aspirated Focus hasn’t attracted the attention of the media or the spectators that they would have hoped.

Privateer entries have made up the bulk of the fields in events so far this year, with drivers such as Dean Herridge, Stewart Reid and Darren Windus performing best.

But the question is, where is the Australian Rally Championship heading? Falling entry numbers and doubts over the future of the Rally of Canberra and Safari Tasmania has thrown things into turmoil of late, and unless the Australian Rally Commission (ARCom) can come up with some quick-fixes in the near future, the short term future of the championship (let alone the long term future) is in serious doubt.

While the V8 Supercar Championship continues to go from strength to strength, rallying remains a very poor relation. TV networks were fighting each other to secure the rights to next year’s V8 series, and subsequently paid millions of dollars for the privilege, yet in rallying we expect the manufacturers and leading privateers – those who are putting on the show – to foot the bill, just so they can see themselves on television.

Rallying in Australian remains one of the only sports where competitors have to pay to put on the show – in TV dollars and in event entry fees – yet many of us still question why ‘the most exciting sport in the world’ continues to struggle to make its mark.

Without a doubt rallying needs a Tony Cochrane (V8 Supercar chief), it needs a team of dynamic marketers behind it, and it needs a good kick in the teeth to wake it out of its self-induced coma that the success of the past 10 years has brought on. Unless that happens, the tail-spin the sport now finds itself in may continue out of control.

Peter Whitten

Editor

RallySport Magazine

July 14, 2006 



 


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