Sydney’s Jon Thomson is the chairman of the Australian Rally Commission (ARCom), but many fans have no idea who ARCom is, or what they do.
RallySport Magazine spoke to Thomson about his role in the sport’s future, as he speaks at length on how ARCom plan on improving rallying, and their plans for a young driver program, similar to the one which unearthed Sebastiens Loeb and Ogier.
He speaks of the challenges ahead for Australian rallying, of the forestry and environmental issues, of Rally Australia’s return in 2021, and how Motorsport Australia can do a better job of leveraging off our World Rally Championship event.
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Peter Whitten: Somebody mentioned to me the other day that they thought ARCom had something to do with the Australian Rally Championship (ARC). That's probably the first question for the unknowing, who is ARCom, what do they do?Jon Thomson: Okay, so the Australian Rally Commission’s brief is to oversee rallying as a silo in the whole Motorsport Australia family, if you like. There's an Australian Motor Racing Commission, there's an Australian Officiating Commission. There's one for basically every sector of the sport. We're charged with looking after rallying, we oversee the rally code, the rules of rallying and any changes to that, and the overall strategy for rallying going forward.
When I was asked to take over the chair of ARCom, (Motorsport Australia’s) Andrew Papadopoulos said to me: "We really want to get a strategy together for rallying." Now, we're working through that at the moment and we're close to having a strategy, but we're refining that a little bit at the moment.
My view is we need to set ourselves some goals. We need to set ourselves some targets for the number of participants we can get into rallying, where we want rallying in five and 10 years’ time and how we can get more people started back into rallying; whether that's through a pathway, through khanacrosses and rallysprints, into sustainable club level rallying. And then hopefully, we get more people in the bottom end of the sport.
ARCom is tasked with the overseeing of rallying. But ARCom doesn't have direct control over the ARC. The ARC is run by Motorsport Australia with an ARC manager, and that's Justin Hunt, who works directly with Michael Smith and MA administration.
Now, as the chair of ARCom, I have some involvement in that sort of management of the ARC, but that's only just starting, I'm just starting to get involved in that now. It hasn't been in the past. It sort of was when Gary Connelly was with both the ARC management and ARCom.
I don't think ARCom has to have a watching brief over the ARC and be involved in it necessarily. I think the people that run that should be given the power to run it, manage it, merchandise it and commercialize it as much as they can. ARCom really is, as I say, tasked with that overseeing of rallying and where it's going, how it's run and getting more people involved.
Garry Connelly (right) is a former ARCom chairman and Rally Australia clerk of course. Photo: Martin Holmes
PW: There’s a general lack of knowledge about ARCom and who's on it. Many say that it’s a secret society where members are selected rather than voted on. Do you see that as an unnecessary problem that you have to deal with?JT: State rally panels are pretty similar in their makeup. ARCom is, as are all commissions, selected by the board of Motorpsort Australia. People nominate to go on them. Anyone can put up their name when there's the vacancies each year on the commissions.
And that's what happened. I tried many years ago, because I thought I had a bit to offer rallying in terms of some vision and knowledge of the sport and where I'd like to see it go. Anyone can put their name up and it's really up to them, and the board to say yes or no, and so I was selected. Then, the board selects the chairperson.
It's a matter of one of those situations where you've got to have a workable commission. You've got to have good people on it to make it work properly that are willing to work in the interest of the sport, rather than their own interests.
It's probably perceived as a secret society, and I'm not sure whether it's actually on the Motorsport Australia website who's on the commission.
PW: Yes, it is.JT: It's fair for people to see who's there. And look, quite frankly, I think at the moment we've got a really, really workable and really talented pool of people on the rally commission.
Jon Thomson with Ross Dunkerton and Stuart Bowes at WA's Forest Rally in 2015.
PW: The minutes of the meeting are never distributed publicly to the rally license holders. By searching the web you can find them, but generally they are only a one or two-page summary. Could distributing the minutes be the first step in trying to actually build ARCom's profile again and let people know what's going on?JT: The challenge is trying to figure out where we're going and putting stuff out there that might not necessarily be, how can I put it? There are opposition organisations like AASA and AMSAG that would probably benefit a lot from knowing where we're trying to take the sport.
That's why, to some extent, we're governed by the administration and actually asking us to not put a lot of information out there, and instead just do a summary rather than complete minutes. I think that was always the way, the thinking behind it.
PW: Some competitors might be thinking that ARCom are working in spite of the sport, rather than for it because they're keeping everything secret. Clearly that's not the case.JT: Absolutely not. There's not one person on that commission that's not passionate about the sport and moving it forward.
And I can assure you that some of our conversations are very vigorous. I wouldn't say heated, but certainly we all have our opinions and our beliefs. Thankfully, most of them are all heading in the same direction, but no one's fighting to put their views forward. One of the things we've tried to do is put a lot of the minutiae if you like, of the workings of ARCom.
As an example of that, two or three years ago, we had the proposal to approve Perspex glass in the back of a Datsun 180B SSS as you can't get the windscreens anymore. Quite frankly, I actually think that's a waste of ARCom's time.
That's the sort of thing that Motorsport Australia administration and technical should be giving us a decision paper and saying, "We want to do this. These are the pros and these are the minuses, we recommend this." And if there's any glaring error in it, then it's all going to be going to hell in a handbasket, then we discuss it.
But otherwise, we rubber stamp it and go, "Fantastic, now let's get on with the bigger picture stuff to try and get rallying back to where it was."
PW: What are some of the things that ARCom has accomplished since you've been the chairman over the last couple of years?JT: Well, we've put together a strategy document, which we’ll hopefully be making public in the next couple of months. That's got a bit of refinement to do at the moment, but it's almost done.
We've certainly put together a lot of effort into putting together some ideas to actually move rallying forward, not just to get more cars in events. That's going to take a bit of effort, I understand that, and I'm not expecting any miracles overnight.
But we've certainly got some ideas, we’ve put a lot of work into getting some ideas together for some talent identification and getting more people involved.
And we're hoping that we're going to try and be able to run a program similar to what has been accomplished in France. That's certainly one of Andrew Papadopoulos' babies as the president of Motorsport Australia. The French call it Rallye Jeune, or Rally Junior, which is a program that discovered the likes of Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier. We're very well advanced in getting a framework together for that.
Nine-time World Rally Champion, Sebastien Loeb, is a product of the Rally Jeune program in France.
They're the main points I think we've established.
As I said before, my philosophy is actually to get the pipe bigger, getting people into the bottom of the sport. And I'm really passionate about linking up, particularly with gravel rally, getting kids into khanacrosses for road tests where there's a maximum length of the test of about 900 metres.
Let’s get them into that so they've got some idea of car control on loose surfaces. And then, it's trying to establish a pathway from that into rallysprints, then, from rallysprints into proper forestry rallies.
Whether that's gravel or tarmac, it doesn't really matter. But I think the biggest hurdle rallying has got is that in circuit racing you can go and do a super sprint and you've got some idea of what's going to be in front of you when you progress to racing.
With rallying, it's very daunting. You get in a car, you're going to spend a lot of money building it or buying it, and then you go out and there's all these trees down the side of the stage and you could destroy it in a whisper.
If you build up some confidence and some talent and some ability in doing things in a relatively low risk environment, like a khanacross or an auto test, and then move it up into a slightly more risky, but still less daunting rallysprint, then I think you start to get a pathway together.
If you can combine those two elements, you've got some sort of wherewithal with motor sport and then have a Rally Jeune program as well, where you can get people to link up with a media outlet or a social media outlet or a radio station or whatever, and run it in a big dragway or a skid pan at like at Sydney Motorsport Park or at Sandown, or wherever.
If they have the opportunity to come along, get a manufacturer involved, get half-a-dozen cars, similar to what they've done in France, give people the chance to try it.
In France, Sebastien Ogier went along with a mate who was really keen on it. Sebastien Loeb was a gymnast and next thing they've identified him as a talent and the FFSA moved him along and brought him up through the ranks.
PW: There’ some very positive ideas amonst those plans, which will be great for the sport locally. On the flip side of all that, what's the biggest challenges that ARCom see moving forward for the sport? Competitors numbers are probably the main one, but are there some forestry issues or anything else that sticks right out?JT: How long have you got?
There's a whole heap of challenges. Forestry is one, obviously, the bush fire situation in New South Wales, while it obviously caused some headaches with the cancellation of Rally Australia, it's actually also given us some breathing space because the New South Wales government were ‘this’ far away from privatising a lot of the forests, similar to what the Victorian government did many years ago.
What happened there? We lost a lot of (pine) forestry areas, like where we used to run the Alpine around Bright, because it was privatised and the private companies don't want the risk of having rally cars in there.
Now, that may not be something we can negotiate, but that's one massive challenge. There's the environmental challenge. There's the changing nature of the cars we drive, being able to transition from the rally cars we know now and the tradition and the love of the noise and why we were attracted to rallying. There’s the transitioning into a new reality in the world, the electrification of vehicles and different power trains.
People like Hayden Paddon are obviously doing a lot of work on creating electric rally cars.
If anyone's driven an electric car, they're incredibly quick and have got an incredible amount of torque, but obviously what they lack is the sort of noise and that spectator appeal of a fantastic RS1800 Escort or a full noise Porsche or Subaru or whatever, going through a corner. That's going to be a challenge in terms of keeping outside interest involved in rallying.
There's a whole heap of challenges, Pete. We've got to try and come up with a framework that's going to be able to embrace the current and get people in it, but also try and come up with a way to transition rallying into the future.
PW: Let’s talk about Rally Australia. There are parallel views and opinions on Rally Australia, as to whether it's good or bad for Australian rallying, and whether it benefits rallying at an entry level. What’s ARCom's view?JT: If Rally Australia is the world championship round that's going to run in this country, then we need to embrace all levels. Yes, we need to be looking after our world championship visitors and it's the pinnacle of world rallying. But if you're going to make it economically viable you need a field of 60, 70, 80 cars, and you want to run a state championship event piggybacked on the end of it to make it more viable. You've got to also treat those same people as customers and make sure they're looked after.
Then they don't feel like second class citizens, because they're an important component in the whole mix. It's the same with the middle level, the ARC being a part of the WRC event. You've got to treat those competitors as customers, not as competitors or a revenue source, and treat them with some customer care and customer respect.
I think Rally Australia is a very important component in the whole mix from an ARCom point of view, because it's a high level event. I just don't know that we've done a good enough job of actually making it a high level event.
We were very fortunate when the WRC was in Perth, because Perth is not as big a city as somewhere like Sydney, or even Brisbane or Melbourne. It's less than half the size of those cities. Therefore, you're able to run the event much closer to the heart of the city. I mean, to run a WRC event based in the heart of Sydney like they did in Perth, it's just impossible. Sydney's a metropolis of five million people and Melbourne's close to being the same.
The amount of traffic, the amount of volume, the distances you've got to travel to get to any decent rally stages is nigh on impossible. To compare the east coast with Perth, it's not comparing apples with apples, so you can't really say that.
My own personal view is I actually thought Coffs Harbour was the right size to host an event like Rally Australia.
Now, some people in the FIA may not have that view and I may be at odds with that view. You know, I look at other places around the world, like Villa Carlos Paz in Argentina, where it's a smaller town than Coffs Harbour but it hosts the round of the world championship for Rally Argentina.
Rally Australia showcases the best of world rallying to a local audience, most recently in Coffs Harbour.
Yeah, it would have been great to have some sort of stage in Sydney and that may well happen in the future, but it makes the logistics very difficult. I think the real benefit of modern day electronics and things like that is that you're never going to get a global TV audience watching out in the forest in person.
But TV is actually effective for that, you know? If you look back to the old days when the Southern Cross Rally ran, there might've been 5000 people at the Gordonville Ford when the cars crossed in the middle of the night, but it was a very different era.
You'd have to wait weeks or months to see Eric Walter's 16 millimetre film of it because there was very little TV coverage of that, and if there was TV coverage, it was in the news service for 90 seconds.
Now, you've got the benefit of being able to cover these events almost live now and give it to an audience all around the world. It doesn't matter that you've only got 4000 or 5000 people out at the rally village in the Wedding Bells Forest.
I certainly don't think that's a problem. I think realistically, if you look at the spectator numbers for Rally New Zealand, they're not going to be any bigger than the numbers we had at Coffs Harbour, so I think we've got to look at it with a different perspective.
You look at some kinds of football, you look at the Super Bowl in America. Yeah, there may be 80,000 people in the stadium, but there's 125 million people watching it on TV around America. The AFL grand final, there's 90 or a 100 thousand people in the MCG, but there's probably six or seven million people watching it around the country on TV.
That's what you've got to look at, I think, and you've got to have a different attitude to population centres. I think getting back to your original question, Rally Australia is a really important component in having a high level event. It really should be viewed as our Grand Prix, and then it should shine the light down from that.
The WA government, and Gary Connelly and that whole organisation team in Perth, did a great job. You look at the legacy of Rally Australia there, it really boosted rallying in WA. There were a lot of great competitors and the fields were much bigger over there as a result of Rally Australia.
I just don't think we've done a good enough job on the east coast of capitalising on its presence here. Hopefully, when it returns in 2021, we can do something along those lines.
Aussie Chris Atkinson tackles the Bunnings jumps at Rally Australia in WA.
PW: Where does that responsibility come from, if we haven't done a good enough job? Is that a Motorsport Australia thing, is it an ARCom thing, is it a state thing?JT: I think it's a bit of everything, Pete. I think there's a mission within Motorsport Australia that we probably haven't done enough. Motorsport Australia is us, we're all members of Motorsport Australia. People ask me, "Why did you get involved in ARCom and why did you get involved with the state executive in New South Wales?"
Well, I've been involved in motorsports since 1978. And you know, it's all very well just to complain about what's going on, but you can't expect to just complain about it if you're not prepared to put your hand up and try and help to fix some of the issues.
It's not going to be an easy task, but certainly that's what we're trying to do. And yeah, I think it is a bit of every one of those organisations.
You asked me what our achievements on ARCom are. I think we've got a much better dialogue and we've opened up a dialogue between ARCom and the state panels. I'm really working towards having at least one face-to-face meeting every year where the panel chairs come to the meeting with ARCom, and we talk about rallying on a national level.
Australia's a big country, but it's actually not a big country in population. We're trying to get a bit of uniformity as much as we can between the states and ARCom, so there's not totally disparate rules and classes in each state that are totally at odds with everything else going on.
I'm not saying there is, but we need to unify things as much as we can, given the states have their own road rules and various other administrative things they've got to do. If we can get rallying homogenised around the country, we can get someone to can come down from Queensland and running in New South Wales and not be at odds with what's going on down here, or to Victoria or so on, that would be great.
I actually thought it was great when the Victorian and the New South Wales championships linked up together for a year or so there. I'd like to see that happen again. There's obviously a few issues that caused that to be a bit of a problem for some people, but I would like to think that that could happen again in the future, because I think we're stronger together rather than as separate entities.
R5 category cars are ineligible for some state championships, including NSW. Photo: Wishart Media
PW: Does that mean simplifying the rules a little so that R5 cars would be eligible for points in New South Wales, like they are in some other states.JT: I've been pushing that strongly to all the state panels, and that's one of those challenges. State panels are in charge of their own rules for that championship. I understand New South Wales is reticent in some ways, as they've got a very strong championship with some established Evos and Subarus and things like that. They don't want to ruin that by having potentially someone buy an AP4 car or an R5 car or a G4 car and come in and supposedly buy the championship.
That's a fear they have. I personally don't think that is a fear. I think talent always rises to the top.
We've also done some work on getting some costings to make people aware that the new generation cars aren't necessarily more expensive to run than the older cars, which are now costing quite a bit of money to maintain. A really good top level Evo or Subaru is not going to be much cheaper than building a G4 car, which is really an Evo in new clothing. Or to buy a used R5 car from somewhere, of which there's bigger stock of that growing around the world.
There's a stock of AP4 cars that potentially give the sport a more modern face as well.
PW: Getting back to Rally Australia, how confident are you that Rally Australia will be back here next year as a round of the WRC?JT: Well, I'm pretty sure there's a lot of work going on towards getting it back. I'd be reasonably confident given all that's happened in the last six months with Rally Australia.
I think Australia has got a reputation for running some of the best events in the world from an administrative point of view. From an innovative point of view, Rally Australia's been an innovator in a whole lot of ways over the years, both in Perth and on the east coast.
I'd be reasonably confident we'll get it back. I think there's a lot of effort going on in Motorsport Australia to make sure it does come back.
From my own personal point of view, and this is my view, not necessarily ARCom's, I personally can't see why there shouldn't be an Australian and a New Zealand round in the world championship. Okay, New Zealand's a small market and they throw up this argument that the manufacturers think it's too expensive to go there because they don't sell cars there.
Well, my personal view is I think that's the short-sighted view on the manufacturers’ part. I actually think manufacturers should be saying, "Well, we won the world championship and it was run as a global championship. It was run in all these different countries. It was run in the fast, smooth, flowing roads of New Zealand. It was run in the hot, dusty, bumpy conditions in Mexico or Australia. It was run on the tarmac of Germany in the muddy forests of Northern Wales or Northern England”.
All of those things should be part of the championship and the manufacturers should be embracing it, not to sell cars in New Zealand, but to sell cars globally. I thought that was the whole idea behind any manufacturer being involved in the World Rally Championship.
And logistically, I think that makes more sense. If you're going to bring the cars all the way down here to the Southern Hemisphere, then maybe space Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand out so that they can all be run. Certainly, if you're going to bring some containers to Australia to run Rally Australia, then let's make it worthwhile so that they can go and run a Rally New Zealand as well.
PW: Post COVID-19, you have an interesting path to travel down.JT: We're not going to turn this ship around easily. It's going to be a long fight, and it's not necessarily anyone's fault. There’s a whole lot of challenges to keep us busy in the months ahead.
Australian Rally Commission members:
The Australian Rally Commissionis specifically charged with the strategic planning and development of the Rally/Road discipline, along with assisting in the ongoing management of rallying and road activities conducted within the territory of Motorsport Australia.
Jon Thomson - Chair
Ian Bigg - Member (NSW)
Toni Feaver - Member (WA)
Graham Malcolm - Member (Tas)
Hamish Marquis - Member (Tas)
Molly Taylor - Member (NSW)
Adrian Coppin - Member (QLD)
Terry Atkinson - Motorsport Australia Board Portfolio Holder
Jake Bryant - Executive Officer
Trent Price - CEO Delegate
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