This weekend the World Rallycross Championship restarts in Sweden, with the season set at 10 rounds across seven venues, with the goal for fans to attend from round three in Latvia.
The teams have weathered the COVID-19 storm and the sport is looking ahead positively to an electric future from 2022.
In the latest #ThinkingForward interview with the sport's leaders, we talk to Paul Bellamy, Managing Director of IMG Motorsport, the WRX promoter, who argues that while motorsport has to go electric as soon as possible to retain manufacturer involvement, there will remain a place for internal combustion engines in privateer classes.
Q: Paul, the WRX is restarting again this weekend in Sweden. Let's start by explaining, what makes WRX so distinctive?
Paul Bellamy: It's short-form racing. Each race is only six minutes. It's four laps. And it's basically head-to-head racing. And you don't need to be a motorsport enthusiast to enjoy the sport, which is great because it allows us to bring new audiences in. I know that I could bring any sports fan to a Rallycross race or to watch it on TV and say, "look, each heat only lasts six minutes" and I can convert them. That's what makes Rallycross so exciting.
Q: How have you weathered the lockdown and what impact has it made on the series, beyond the obvious that you've not had any events?
PB: We are a sport that requires generally a live audience for our promoters. So that's been really difficult for our promotion partners. We've managed with two of our promoters, Sweden and Finland to start racing behind closed doors.
But I think the biggest thing in weathering this whole COVID-19 was Esports; WRX lends itself to Esports. And we were able to run an Esports series, bringing a new audience and that really helped keep Rallycross at the forefront of people's minds over the last three or four months.
Q: You did get very good numbers (on the series managed by Motorsport Games) and many people commented that of all of the Esports series that were run during that "virtual season", the WRX was perhaps the one that looked the most authentic in many ways, and exciting. It also had great names from outside like Charles Leclerc and Shane van Gisbergen competing. But also there's an accessibility side to this as well - it really does open the funnel in terms of drawing new fans to the sport. Was that your feedback?
PB: Yeah, it was. People that weren't necessarily Rallycross fans or hadn't even seen Rallycross, but were gamers, were able to come to the site. And I think the beauty of it is they were able to interact with the professionals and compete against them. Because, again, it was short form racing and Codemasters did a fantastic job with the actual game, it brought new people in, and then we hope it will convert those people to fans and they have the ability then to go from esports, potentially, into one of the entry level cars.
So you've got that bridge where you can go from Esports to the entry level Rallycross, and then build your way all the way up through the support series. So it worked for us. And I think Esports is fantastic going forward in terms of building that fan base and getting to them early and making it accessible and available.
Q: Let's talk about going real racing again. You are a world championship, Formula 1 was the first major sport to be able to restart and to move across geographies, across borders, how much have you been able to learn from their experiences?
PB: Early on the FIA wisely got the world championship promoters together on regular calls where we could share information. So along with our colleagues in Formula E, WEC, WRC, and F1, we've been speaking to each other and just sharing best practice in terms of "back to racing guidelines" and what we've done in terms of testing. And I think one of the big positives that come out of this pandemic is that we got together with our colleagues in other world championships once a year, but we've done it more regularly. And that's been really useful because there's been a feeling of sort of family, FIA family all in this together, and we've certainly helped each other so there's been a cross referencing and cross sharing of best practice which has helped us tremendously.
Q: Let's talk a little bit about the manufacturers because obviously this pandemic crisis has been tough for them too. You had your own challenges with manufacturers back in 2018. More generally, though, how do you see the participation of manufacturers in the sport in future? Obviously, the rationale for them to invest hasn't really changed. But equally, their ability to do so and the level of investment clearly will reduce in the short term. So how important do you feel that motorsport will be to them?
PB: I think that all depends on what that motorsport looks like going forward. We stayed in very close contact with the manufacturers throughout the whole process. It's no secret that they walked away from the World Championship over 12 months ago. And that was fine because their whole marketing strategy was to get behind new technologies, whether that be hybrid or electric, and we weren't ready to turn electric at that time.
As we go forward, the way I see it, I think internal combustion engine racing still has a place in motorsports but probably for privateers and probably for the romantics amongst us and the fans out there. The future for manufacturer involvement will be the new technology and whether that's hybrid or electric from a Rallycross perspective, we believe that's going to be electric. And the plan with the FIA is for the World Championship to be electric in 2022.
That's when I think we'll start seeing manufacturer involvement come back and it may be a year after that once they see the championship up and running for a year to see how it goes. And that's when the marketing dollars will come back in. But the plan and the strategy would be not to leave internal combustion engine racing behind totally.
Q: And have you had positive signals from the manufacturers about your direction of travel?
PB: Yes we speak to them all regularly. Just give them updates on where we're going. They're always very happy to hear from us and 'just say keep us updated'. Obviously, we've announced now that we will actually get electric racing going this weekend in Sweden.
With Project E, and we're very excited about that. We've got Ken Block coming along, which will help hugely, he's a well-known name and he's really excited to embrace electric.
So I feel that we're on the right trajectory and the manufacturers are all very keen. Obviously with Ken, Ford have been very heavily involved with him coming to Project E, and we've been speaking to them in the UK regularly on Ken's involvement and how they can help.
Q: Just looking a bit further forward, what other steps are you taking to future proof the series, looking to innovate, but at the same time maintaining that core fan base; the balance between electric and internal combustion engine etc. What does your sense tell you about that and how you futureproof?
PB: In Rallycross we're very fortunate; across a Rallycross weekend we have 80 races because we've got a number of support categories, So in terms of futureproofing the sport, if you like, we can combine both; the vision will be that the World Championship does go electric in 2022. But the support categories will stay internal combustion engine because there's privateers out there, there's cars out there that still need to go racing somewhere. So if we got it right that is the way, it's combining the old with the new.
I'm certain that the traditional Rallycross fans, unless there's a noise to it or a roar, they're not going to want to know. But there's always that element isn't there a human nature is, "I don't like it, but I'm going to tune in, just to prove I don't like it". And then I think when they understand or when they see the technology behind it, and the fact that these cars with just the pure torque are going to be faster and there will still be contact, then they'll start watching it. And then crossover.
Then couple that with the younger generation that now are looking to buy, they are looking at electric vehicles. And generally what used to be hot hatches that are the cars that are going to be competing in Rallycross, whether it's the Ford or Peugeot or VW, that's the market for these guys and they'll be able to relate to the cars they can see on track with a cars they can buy and all the young people I've spoken to in my kids generation, it's electric vehicles, that's what they're all looking at. If you're going to want to drive in a city centre now, not just capital cities, you are going to have to have an electric vehicle to get in.
I think the car manufacturers have had a torrid time with moving new vehicles and new cars. So that's going to accelerate the change to what the future is going to look like. And I think, to my mind, once consumers understand that that future is coming and coming quicker, the ones that are sitting on not making a purchase will purchase electric vehicles or vehicles that potentially aren't diesel or petrol as the future. If you look what's happened to electric bike sales, they've gone through the roof in this whole lockdown. That will mean society embraces electric vehicles much quicker it would have done.
Q: Going back to the issue of getting the people back into the to the venues, what's your sense of what 2021 will look like and will we be back to normal at some point in 2021? Or is it likely to take longer than that? What are your peers telling you?
PB: I think there'll be a transition. We're not going to get back to normal levels, I don't think, in 2021 straight away. I think it all depends on how quickly we find a vaccine and how quickly people accept going back to racing. Again, motorsports in this instance has a huge advantage in that, our sport competes over a much wider area. So it's not a contained stadium. There is a way back for fans quicker than potentially for football and rugby.
Q: And just thinking forward to the way the sport connects with audiences, obviously, you know, your WRX series is fast, it's dynamic, it's engaging, it lends itself to digital media, to social media, etc. But what innovations are you anticipating over the years that's going to help our sport to grow its engagement.
PB: We've been speaking to our main sponsor, Monster, on this. Traditional sponsorships are going to really struggle. You know, the sponsorship model had been changing anyway, from the whim of a chairman who likes a particular sport, to return on investment.
What we found is that a lot of our sponsors want to do activation on site. Because of this whole pandemic, they can't do that. So we're not going to be running with fan zones this year. We've had to try and create new models to now allow them to have their brand out there and interact. And a lot of that is going to be content-led. What we've been working on through this whole lockdown with Monster is to create an OTT show that's presented by them, that gives fans something more than they've ordinarily had. You know, it's not just content and race footage, because that's what our broadcasters have got. It's beyond that. It's a way of interacting with fans.
It'll be free-to-air and the whole point about that is to build up the audience for Rallycross but also bring in a new one. So we will launch that this weekend on Sunday evening where we will have a 30-minute show, and it will sit on the WRX platform. And it'll be open to broadcasters and other platforms as well.
Q: And finally, Paul, we've seen throughout this summer very strong messaging increasingly about racing for purpose. We've seen all kinds of drive towards diversity and accessibility. We've already talked about sustainability. Do you think we're at the point now where sport has to demonstrate a sense of purpose in order to have a future?
PB: Yes, I think it does. And I think we're in a very strong position to lead that. And it's been started by the FIA. And I think people will take notice through sport, it's a different way of getting people's attention. We've been fortunate because Rallycross as a world championship is relatively new. So there's not a lot of old barriers to break down. And our last three world champions, the team principals have been women who picked up the World Championship trophies at the end of the year; Susann Hansen and Pernilla Solberg. That's fantastic.
Rallycross lends itself to the cars being adapted, we've been able to have a number of disabled drivers compete by adapting the cars; Mats Ohman, we've got competing this year the whole season. Because it's not an expensive motorsport to enter, that breaks barriers down straightaway.
Inner city kids that have got talent, but potentially haven't got the availability, we hope through Esports and other areas, they can then start getting into it. There is room for talented people from all diverse backgrounds to get involved and earn a living out of the sport. And that's what we're trying to encourage.