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Analysis
WRC Rally Italy

Did the WRC’s shorter sprint-style format work?

The World Rally Championship trialled a new shorter format in Sardinia last week as the series aims for more variety in its event lengths from 2025.

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Now that the dust has settled on an event that delivered the joint-closest finish in WRC history, the championship and the FIA will evaluate how the 48-hour, 266.12km format performed.

This trial was the latest step the WRC is undertaking to improve its overall appeal by offering event organisers more options when it comes to rally formats, instead of the 300 kilometre-plus distance that has become the norm in recent years. The other by-product of a shorter event also is also a slight cost-saving for teams, with personnel required to be on site later than normal.

It is hoped that, starting from next year, the calendar will provide the WRC more storytelling options. The shorter concept trialled in Sardinia may be complemented by the prospect of endurance rallies covering more than five days, in addition to the traditional three or four-day format. It would be fair to suggest the majority agree this would be a step forward for the WRC.

This year’s Rally Sardinia was 54km shorter than 2023's event, comprising 16 stages compared to the 19 stages of 12 months ago. The biggest changes were around Friday, which hosted shakedown and four stages. Crews tackled eight tests on Saturday, then concluded with four stages and a midday finish on Sunday. In truth, the event was more of a case of cramming an almost normal rally into 48 hours.

How did the format perform?

Any fears that the concept would provide less action or drama were quickly quashed. The rally was as brutal as ever, providing plenty of storylines before it delivered one of the most dramatic climaxes in WRC history as Ott Tanak pipped Sebastien Ogier to victory by 0.2s in a final stage thriller.

PLUS: How Sardinia served up a WRC sprint surprise for Tanak

It would be unfair to suggest that incredible finish was a direct result of the format, as Ogier was delayed by a puncture. But certainly, the overwhelming feeling in the service park was that the show still met the standards of a traditional rally.

Sardinia served up action and excitement aplenty into its shorter format

Sardinia served up action and excitement aplenty into its shorter format

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

“I don’t know if this was the best rally to try it on, but the theory was still a good one,” said Toyota’s Elfyn Evans. “I think the format works and I don’t think anybody will feel short-changed, even though there was half a day less.”

On the whole, there is a lot of support from stakeholders for the concept of having a rally start on Friday afternoon and finish by Sunday lunchtime. The FIA has already given the format a thumbs up, stating that it has potential for the future.

“I think the concept has been good and I think pretty much everyone turned up a day later than they would normally, and the rally still feels like a tough round of the WRC,” FIA road sport director Andrew Wheatley told Autosport.

“I don’t think we can do it everywhere, and maybe we shouldn’t do it everywhere, but it is a process that so far has been pretty successful. The target is to give the organisers the opportunity to do something slightly different and the concept has shown that it has got potential.”

But Sardinia did highlight areas for improvement, should other events adopt this format in the future. That said, some of the criticisms levied were aimed at event specific circumstances that created an unusual itinerary, as Evans highlighted.

Instead of the traditional three- or four-stage morning and afternoon loops, punctuated by a service, the itinerary on Friday and Saturday featured a pair of stages repeated. These were split by regroups or a tyre-fitting zone (on Saturday), rather than a service.

This was enforced, to allow the entire 81-car field to complete those stages before restarting the loop again. While this was beneficial for fans, as they could catch more glimpses of the cars in action, it did lengthen the days for the crews and teams.

Saturday highlighted the issue. Crews had approximately four hours of sleep on Friday night, before having to set off from the Alghero service park to reach the first stage that started at 7:41am, while the last test began at 6:10pm.

Long days for the crews were none too popular

Long days for the crews were none too popular

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Easy fixes for next time?

Factoring in the road section from service to the stages and the return, it was roughly a 14-hour day in the car, which crews highlighted as a concern. It is understood that a lack of marshals on the island meant the itinerary was compromised, which can be easily resolved in the future should the format be repeated.

“We don’t want every rally to be short and we don’t need to do 300 kilometres for the sake of doing 300 kilometres,” M-Sport team principal Richard Millener told Autosport. “It was another fantastic rally with a different format, and it has worked well.

“The only tweak I would make is to run it on events that can run a more traditional three- or four-stage loop, then a service. I think the reason for the regroups here is the number of marshals on the island and then we had a lot of cars here, so they have to all get through the stages and then go around again.

“It is a sporting issue that we can quite easily solve, which will shorten the day for us which will be great.”

Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala praised the concept, but joined Millener’s call for “a service next year rather than a 15-minute tyre-fitting zone” to be added, which could have avoided Takamoto Katsuta retiring from the rally after suffering an oil leak that couldn't be fixed during a tyre-fitting zone.

Katsuta himself highlighted that the itinerary was tough on both the crews and the car, but again this criticism wasn’t focused on the shorter rally concept itself.

“In this kind of rally, I don’t understand why we don’t have a midday service because it is very important,” said the Japanese. “And at the same time, drivers and co-drivers, we don’t have time to eat and no time to rest. A whole day in the car is not nice. It was very difficult conditions and very tough for the car.”

This is a view echoed by Hyundai driver Dani Sordo, who added: “I think the format is nice, but I think it is important to manage the timings better.”

Could Katsuta's retirement have been avoided by scheduling a service into Saturday's itinerary?

Could Katsuta's retirement have been avoided by scheduling a service into Saturday's itinerary?

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Food for thought

M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux was perhaps the most critical of the format. He has called for longer stages that are befitting of the WRC, instead of contesting more stages of shorter distances.

Again, the Frenchman’s criticisms are largely aimed at the itinerary that created longer-than-average days, and while Fourmaux is concerned about crews and teams welfare, his suggestions for improvements have the fans and the overall show at heart.

“I don’t like it because we don’t have more time for the spectators,” he told Autosport. “It is a big rush for two and a half days and we have even less sleep than before.

“Alex [Coria, co-driver] had only four hours sleep on Friday evening ahead of the Saturday which was really long day. I would like to have a rally where we do stages all the night. Of course, if you have stages in the night, we would not sleep much.

“But when you have a last stage at 7pm and the next one is 7am, people don’t see the challenge behind that. We have all the road sections back to the service park then we have to debrief with the team, and then go to sleep and wake up really early because we have a long road section to the first stage.

“People don’t really see that. But if we had a stage at midnight, the fans would be like 'woah'. That would be cool.

“If they want to shorten the rallies, it would be nice if we had longer stages. This is the World Rally Championship, not a regional rally championship.

Fourmaux believes longer stages are necessary to add prestige to the WRC

Fourmaux believes longer stages are necessary to add prestige to the WRC

Photo by: M-Sport

“In the WRC, stages should 50km, 40km or 30km. We have too many stages that are 12km for example. For me, we should have longer stages, and then we wouldn’t have to do the same amount of stages, so it would take less time, but we still do the same amount of kilometres.”

Fourmaux’s suggestions are certainly food for thought for organisers moving forward. But this is why trials of formats are undertaken. Formula 1 offered a great example when it debuted its elimination qualifying system at the 2016 Australian Grand Prix. It was quickly found to be too confusing and dropped after two races, as F1 returned to the format it still uses today.

The lesson learned from Sardinia is the 48-hour format has real potential. But equally, it needs an itinerary to suit.

Will we see a repeat of the shorter format in future?

Will we see a repeat of the shorter format in future?

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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