The World Rally Championship is rapidly emerging from the shadows of Grand Prix racing, driven by what carmakers consider to be tangible marketing benefits and an increase in TV coverage.  Report by Hugh Hunston.


The rhythmic thud of helicopter blades heralds the arrival of rally car number eight. Alister McRae’s Mitsubishi bucks and slithers over the rise in a cloud of volcanic dust and splashes through a rubble-strewn ford before dragging its collapsed rear suspension up the bank.


The crowd along this stretch of the Rift Valley scrubland track includes stoical Masai tribesmen, enthusiastic whooping Asian youths brandishing Subaru banners, and a battery of European press photographers.


While a Polish journalist scans phone text message updates on the Kenya Safari Rally, one brand-conscious Nairobi enthusiast chants “Skoda, Skoda”as the TV camera-carrying helicopter returns to shadow a jacked-up Octavia through the same rugged African terrain.


This surreal spectacle, transmitted to an estimated 150 million viewers, characterised the eighth of 14 World Rally Championship rounds run in a helter-skelter sequence between January and November.


From the mountain passes above Monte Carlo, over Swedish snow fields, red-soiled Australian outback and melting Catalonian tarmac to the slushy forest tracks of Wales, it is a championship emerging from the shadows of Grand Prix racing.


Global marketing campaigns


Seven manufacturers are sinking an average of £50m a year (several well above that) into a global motorised marketing campaign which increasingly provides a tangible alternative to the rarefied, repetitive ritual of Formula One. They are Ford, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Peugeot, Hyundai, Citroen and Skoda, while two others, Suzuki and Nissan, are believed to be waiting in the wings.


Suzuki recently spent several hundred thousand pounds chartering a Jumbo jet to transport 400 Japanese dealers and journalists to the Greek Acropolis Rally, only for their junior class car to fail on the first stage.


As with any big league sport the rejuvenated WRC is driven by the imperative of generating an attractive media and merchandising package. The organisation charged with translating the unique appeal of rallying into sustainable TV coverage and lucrative ancillary promotional streams is International Sportsworld Communicators. Two years ago ISC’s chairman David Richards paid F1’s playmaker Bernie Ecclestone a reputed £30m for the WRC’s commercial rights.


Under its corporate logo, which doubles as a crash helmet or satellite dish, ISC has assiduously prepared the ground to relaunch the WRC, running in tandem with ever more sophisticated electronic communication technology and support from car makers. Richards, who long since ran out of fingers for his sundry automotive pies, is chairman and founder of Banbury’s expanding Prodrive operation while also rehabilitating the British American Racing-Honda F1 outfit. He has always believed it is possible to “bottle the essence” of world rallying and sums it up as a sport which offers “real people driving real cars in real environments”. By comparison, he says that







F1 is “very expensive and regarded as out of touch”


F1 is “very expensive and regarded as out of touch”. Within hours of packing up their high-tech travelling circus in the choking dust of Suswa central service park, weary rally crews awaiting midnight flights out of Nairobi airport were able to watch comprehensive Channel 4 coverage on departure lounge TV screens. They were part of a burgeoning inter-continental audience whose numbers rose 12% over the first quarter of this year, as 13 markets registered a 59% public awareness level (70% in Britain) in rallying. Channel 4’s £20m three-year investment, seen as a template for other networks, celebrated a 212% UK viewing growth rate for the opening seven WRC rounds. “Declining numbers for other televised sports means rallying is one of the few beacons which stands out,” Richards enthuses, although he concedes: “We did start from a low base.” Bernie Ecclestone, who seemed unwilling or unable to understand the wilder, more accessible environment of rallying, will not have missed another telling ISC statistic. World rallying rated just half a percentage point less than F1 in terms of levels of “interest in sport” registered across the markets.


Live broadcasts are on the ISC agenda for next year and the ambitious game plan involves global viewing figures rising to 150m per event within three years, treble last year’s tally.


In August this year Germany came into the fold with the Rally of Deutschland and the ADAC organising club, mindful of environmental sensitivity, involved Green Party representatives in the event’s planning. Turkey, South Africa Japan and Malaysia are jostling in the queue to join the WRC club and the door is wide open to North America where plans are well advanced for an event in upstate New York. Rallying has previously been a tiny blip on North America’s sporting radar but Richards believes, properly projected, it will capture young, affluent consumers’ imagination.


Definable benefits for carmakers


Ford, among the biggest spenders with a reputed £100m budget, claims there are definable paybacks.  European chief operating officer Martin Leach, himself a part-time racer, points to the benefits of last year’s Rallye Sport promotional pilot programme covering 390 UK dealer events. Leach says it reached 19,000 potential customers and was directly or indirectly responsible for 1,700 Focus sales.


David Brown, Ford of Europe’s motorsport marketing manager, reports more local success with the “Focus-on-world rally road show”. Recently touring Hull dealers and shopping centres, it “reached” 10,000 consumers and generated 900 Focus test drives.







“Ford’s tracking system suggests that half the motorists who have Focus trial drives buy Britain’s best selling car.”


Ford’s tracking system suggests that half the motorists who have Focus trial drives buy Britain’s best selling car.


Back in Kenya, after negotiating 6,000 miles of rock-strewn terrain (with help from a spotter helicopter rented for £60,000 to warn of wandering wildlife), Alister McRae’s Mitsubishi rumbled into the service area. His skills as a bush mechanic, employed en route, plus five service
sessions when mechanics routinely replaced all four suspension “corners” worth a combined £40,000 helped salvage a valuable, solitary manufacturers’ championship point.


Mitsubishi, and particularly Subaru, have earned brand and street credibility in the rough school of rallying. At the end of the Kenyan event, only 11 cars survived out of 48 starters.


It did not please Andrew Cowan, veteran chairman of Mitsubishi Ralliart, that Hyundai and Skoda, seeking similar marketable kudos, finished immediately ahead of his car.


“Rallying has long been part of the company’s promotional and corporate culture,” explains Cowan. He is encouraged that Mitsubishi stakeholders DaimlerChrysler, currently engaged in the task of turning the company round, are keeping the faith and rallying to the born-again cause until 2005.


 






COUNTING THE COST


Kenya’s Safari rally is the most expensive event on the 14-round WRC calendar, costing teams four times more than the European rounds.


Mitsubishi’s two-car entry was budgeted at between £1m and £1.5m. The 60-strong team comprised four drivers, co-drivers, 30 mechanics, specialist technicians, fabricators, management and support personnel. As well as flights to Africa for crew and cars, including route reconnaissance vehicles, 80 tonnes equipment was shipped from Argentina, following an earlier WRC round. Rally cars cost £333,000 each, excluding 1,200 man-hour labour costs.