The country of New Zealand may have recently dropped out of favour with the promoters of the FIA’s World Rally Championship, but their motorsport sportsmen and figureheads continue to be prominent in the Halls of Power.
The latest addition to their ranks is 49-year old Wayne Christie, who outside motorsport is professionally a business manager in a law firm in the South Island’s city of Christchurch.
Coming from a background of around 20 years of banking and general management work, his alter ego since 2016 has been as President of Motor Sport New Zealand (MSNZ), a position due to expire this year.
At the end of last year he was invited by the FIA to become the President of the FIA Rallies Commission, whose responsibilities in the sport are as little understood as Christie himself is personally known outside his country.
He started off by explaining his work with the FIA.
“As I understand it, this is to be a liaison with the FIA’s overall Rally Manager, who became Yves Matton when Jarmo Mahonen retired at the end of last year.
“The remit of the Rallies Commission covers all of rallysport except for the WRC, which especially takes in the regional rally championships. I expect my role will be to work very closely with Yves and the head of FIA's Rally Sporting Regulations, Arnaud Crepin.
“My position means I have a seat on the World Rally Championship Commission (WRCC), which keeps me in touch with such matters as technical regulations.
“I am expected to encourage national rally championships as well, hopefully to use my position to lead championship rallying in the required direction, rather than simply to stand back and report to the FIA on what's going on.
“I think the Commission has a responsibility to lead innovation, lead championships to be progressive, and to try to put in place positive growth so that they are successful.”
The APRC is one of several regional rally championships struggling with low entry numbers.
MH: Regional championship rallying is going through difficult times. In what directions should FIA Regional Championship rallying be pointed?
A few years ago the FIA said that regional championships should promote themselves, but in the end only the European championship did that.
What can the FIA do to help make these championships more successful without resorting to allowing fully “Formule Libre” car rules?
WC: “I know that the Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC), for example, are trying to run a championship with five or six registered competitors. Organisers are so reliant on the local cars to actually make their events a viable competition.
“To be honest I don't have the answer. How can we reduce some of the costs associated?
“A number of countries want to host a regional rally championship for the good of the ASN (the local regulations) and to attract local sponsorship, despite the current condition of it. It’s not going to be an easy one to work through.”
MH: How much is the policy of the FIA to make rallying cohesive, or do you feel that the aim of the FIA is to allow every region to develop its own character?WC: “I think that it probably needs to be a little bit of both here. What works in Europe is probably not going to work in Africa. And closer to my home, what works here in New Zealand might not necessarily work in some Asian countries.
“Having uniform technical regulations provides for some consistency around the world and gives value to the cars as it provides an international market for them, like we had with Group N, and before that Group A.
“It worries me that we actually have lost a little bit of direction. For so many countries Group R cars, R5 are simply too expensive, and the R1 and R2 concepts don't really seem to have taken off as well as what you would like.
“Group R4-Kit seems to be more of a replacement for Group N, but has been a wee bit slow in coming on stream.
“A number of countries have, meanwhile, come up with their own regulations. The challenge is how we encourage countries that have already made that step to embrace R4.”
AP4 cars are proving to be popular in New Zealand and Australia. Photo: Peter Whitten
MH: One of the growing factors about rallysport is the way that very few manufacturers now homologate cars. Manufacturers as a whole are drifting away from supplying cars for sport.WC: “Beyond the manufacturers active in WRC, for so many years, especially in Group N, we really only had Subaru and Mitsubishi.
“I am not sure that manufacturers see rallying as a marketing tool. If they saw that, then they're going to be more effective in homologating cars.
“In my country we developed the AP4 concept. Now we have nine or 10 different makes involved. All the cars look different. I understand that a lot of the local distributors have got behind this concept, which is a good thing.
“My role is to encourage the growth of rallying round the world. The FIA, however, speaks about global concepts of competition cars such as 1.6 turbo engines. It hasn’t been lost on me that Australasia has gone off in a different direction!
“While the AP4 concept is being developed, there is a three year moratorium and many cars use 1.8 litre engines, but from the 2020 season cars will need to have a 1.6 litre engine to be classified as AP4.
“Part of the problem is that the 1.6 engines have been very expensive and relatively unreliable. People prefer to downsize a 1.8 engine which is a bit more reliable, doesn't cost quite as much, but certainly there is only a place for the 1.6 engines from the 2020 season.”
Wayne Christie is hopeful that Rally New Zealand still has a chance of a WRC return. Photo: Geoff Ridder
MH: One thing which is particularly noticeable these days is that there is no general progressive ladder of opportunity in the sport, encouraging drivers to move from local rallies to national rallies to regional rallies.
Car rules in each level of the sport are different, there is every practical reason not to progress up the sport. How do you think you can ever overcome that?
WC: “My experiences from New Zealand show some things are possible. At the top end we have AP4, which is the top level for our local competitors to progress to.
“Below that we have a two-wheel-drive class and a four-wheel-drive class that complies with what we call Schedule A. We range from club rallies, which have a limited number of stages, limited distance, limited competitors, through to regional rally series, we've got two or three of those in New Zealand.
“But for New Zealand drivers to compete abroad, for most of them cost is the first thing that comes to mind.
“Then there are international issues like the FIA fuel tank rules for their championship events requirements. We need to be careful that we are not making safety such an issue that it actually prevents people from competing.
“Competing at the top level in New Zealand is already costly enough, but we have such good roads and we get good competition. Drivers don't feel the need to progress because they are getting their fill of rallying here in New Zealand.
“We have spoken with CAMS (the Australian federation) quite a bit on how we might grow the Pacific Cup concept which currently forms part of the APRC championship.
“Between us we have not really been able to come up with a solution there, and our various championships sometimes overlap as well, so that we would need to tweak the calendars for something to work.”
MH: Finally, has the concept of another World Championship Rally in New Zealand died down, or do you think it is going to continue?WC: “Behind the scenes some work is being done to try and bring Rally New Zealand back to the World Rally Championship. Certainly we would love to have it back.
“It is a great showcase for New Zealand and rallying here. We know we produce a good rally, we know that the roads and the organisation works.
“We also know the distance to come to New Zealand is an issue, and we also know that in New Zealand we simply don't have bucket loads of money coming from the government and other organisations to fund something like this.
“So there is a lot of work to be done, and if we get it back that would be great.”
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