The Intercontinental Rally Challenge came of age in Britain this season. And that was all thanks to Kris Meeke and Peugeot UK. Without them, Britain's inaugural round of the series, the Rally of Scotland, would have drifted under the nation's rallying radar along with the Eurosport-backed series.
Meeke's win was great news for success-starved Britons, but the championship itself never really followed up on its amazing start on the Monte Carlo Rally in January.
Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia in the Peugeot on the Monte Carlo Rally
The Monte was, undoubtedly, the highlight of the IRC year. It was a magnificent event, returning to its road-trip former glory, and the live television coverage was better than anything previously seen in the sport.
Everything worked: the right kind of winter weather arrived; there was a fascinating fight between Skoda and Peugeot, with Le Mans hero and ex-Formula 1 racer Stephane Sarrazin in the mix; there were dramatic shunts for Meeke and Juho Hanninen and finally a young Frenchman called Sebastien Ogier won in a French car - after yet more riveting TV as the drivers danced their way across a snowy Col de Turini in the dead of night. And then, a few hours later, they celebrated harbourside in Monaco. The perfect start.
This was followed by the Curitiba Rally in Brazil, where only the top four classified drivers were tackling any kind of genuine, year-long IRC programme. Then came round three: the Safari Rally, one of the sport's true giants and a magnificent challenge to grace the calendar of any global series. How many IRC regulars jumped at the chance to go and satisfy the lifetime ambition of winning one of the world's most recognised rallies? Er, none.
It's just this kind of thing that undermines what the IRC is trying to achieve. There was a pact among the manufacturers and top privateer drivers that they would avoid Kenya to save money. That's not good enough. If Eurosport is trying to build a global competition, then do that - and feel privileged to have one of sport's best-known competitions in there. Don't shove Safari into the schedule to make the pre-season publicity look good with no intention of going. For me, this attitude towards the Safari, an event rallying holds dear to its heart, undid all the good work IRC achieved on round one. Call me a cynic or call me commercially naive, but this wasn't on.
The IRC needs to find an identity. At the moment, it's disjointed and sits awkwardly in global rallying's hierarchy. In terms of support, execution and promotion, it's above the FIA Regional Championships. In racing terms it sometimes has all the virtues of GP2, but every now and then it lapses into something more akin to a tired old-style GT series.
The organisers would claim not to be a feeder series to anything, theirs is a stand-alone championship. That's great, but it does give the IRC the feel of a career cul-de-sac.
Allowing the teams and drivers to pick and chose between rallies is not good enough. The Junior and Production Car World Rally Championships have been panned - and rightly so - for the way drivers have been able to avoid their competition this season, and it's the same in IRC. The calendar should be cut to 10 rallies, with all scores counting. I know we're in ideal-world territory here, but this would offer more integrity to the IRC.
The IRC hierarchy is very keen to point out that it's not in competition with the World Rally Championship, but again, this is undermined by an event policy that appears to be little more than hoovering up any former world rounds that might be off the WRC calendar for next year.
Look at next year, the three new rallies in the line-up are all straight out of the WRC: Argentina, Sardinia and Cyprus. To me, this doesn't make sense. The IRC is increasingly being seen as a stop-gap for out-of-favour WRC rounds. If IRC is not in competition, it should tell these rallies where to go. If they're not wanted at world level, IRC shouldn't go chasing them either.
Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle in the Peugeot on the Rally of Scotland
The final round of the series, the Rally of Scotland, demonstrated that purpose-built events can be built - and they work exceptionally well. In its first season, Rally of Scotland was a more innovative and exciting event than Rally GB has been in years.
I understand there's a commercial element to the calendar, which means rallies such as Madeira and Azores make their money talk to land IRC status year after year. But does this series really need two Portuguese island events on the schedule when a key market such as Russia has been left on the sidelines? And the Safari scrapped, presumably because the correct number of Kenyan schillings couldn't be raised?
I'm still sceptical of the manufacturers' registration scheme, which places the emphasis on car firms to sign up and allow anybody driving one of their motors to score points on their behalf. This, once again, meant Subaru drivers tackling an IRC round remained persona non grata - ensuring protracted debate about whether such drivers should be included in the results; are they the results of the rally or the IRC round? This policy allows the IRC to list Abarth, Honda, Peugeot, Proton, Ralliart (Mitsubishi), Skoda and VW among its manufacturers (and Subaru too in 2010 after it finally signed up) - but only four of those were contenders for prolonged overall honours.
There is an up side to this policy, however, and that is the breaking down of barriers to entry to the upper echelons of rallying. Skoda developed the Fabia largely on the back of the IRC and now Proton is getting in on the act with the Satria Neo S2000. Neither of these firms would have had the budget to commit to a World Rally Car, but the IRC provided a perfect solution, be it the ultimate goal or a stepping stone to WRC. That stepping-stone theory is looking increasingly credible with the next generation of World Rally Cars looking more like souped-up Super 2000s.
A full-time IRC programme from Proton next season would be a major shot in the arm for the series, not least because it would likely bring a profile-raising Alister McRae to the table. This is balanced by the loss of Abarth, a marque with an enviable history in the sport, but one which has been unable to evolve the Grande Punto's initial S2000 success into a challenger for the second generation cars.
Eurosport and the IRC have a diamond opportunity to create a fantastic rally championship that will stand the test of time and provide fabulous entertainment. But, the plan needs prioritising and commercial gains might be forced to take a back seat if the IRC is to develop into a plausible series in its own right. The IRC is no longer the new boy of international rallying. The time has come for the series to push its own boundaries, to take some risks and establish itself. Motorsporting greatness is out there for the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, but only if it can find the right path.
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