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Opinion

The WEC lesson that WRC could observe to fix its current challenges

OPINION: A month has passed since the FIA launched its extensive vision for the future of the World Rally Championship and opinions among the stakeholder groups involved remain divided. A booming discipline that shares a common manufacturer provides a snapshot at what may be possible if its cards are played right

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

The WRC is at a critical crossroads as it strives for growth – in terms of manufacturers competing and widening its fanbase – to realise its huge potential. When it comes to spectacular motorsport, few can rival what the WRC can deliver thanks to the superhuman talents that tackle the world’s most challenging roads in the most diverse of environments. Be it snow, gravel or asphalt, come rain or shine, it’s a sight that, at times, is barely believable.

But there is no hiding from the fact that forward-thinking changes are required in technical, sporting and promotion facets. A top-tier entry list struggling to reach double figures with Toyota, Hyundai and Ford, represented through M-Sport, is perhaps the clearest visible indication that action is required. Drivers, teams, the promoter, the FIA and fans all agree on this point.

However, transforming the WRC’s current weaknesses and turning them into strengths is an incredibly complex job. It requires a 360-degree strategy that can adapt to the rapidly changing world we live in. The automotive market is in a state of flux concerning which future methods of propulsion to focus on, there are sustainability and diversity factors to consider, as well as how the next generation of fans consume sport.

Following a 2023 season in which drivers led the charge in raising concerns regarding the championship’s direction, the FIA has taken action. Assisted by a working group led by FIA deputy president Robert Reid and former WRC team boss David Richards, it decided to “evaluate and recommend the future direction of rallying” and has revealed plans for widespread reforms. This will cover not only the technical and sporting regulations but also the championship’s promotion. A selection of changes could come into force next year if ratified by the World Motor Sport Council in June.

The consensus regarding the sporting proposals, which include allowing event organisers to be more flexible with event formats, and the FIA’s move to create a new team focused on improving promotion has been met positively. But it’s the FIA's vision on technical rules that have caused the most ire among teams and drivers.

Put simply, Rally1 cars in their current guise will no longer see out the original homologation window from 2022-26. Instead, the FIA’s plan, yet to be voted on, intends to remove the control hybrid units from the cars and bring the performance levels towards Rally2 cars through a reduction in aerodynamics and in the air restrictor. The exact details of the regulation tweaks are yet to be revealed.

The new regulations for 2025 will only be formally confirmed in June, leaving manufacturers with a race against time to be ready

The new regulations for 2025 will only be formally confirmed in June, leaving manufacturers with a race against time to be ready

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

In addition to this, upgrade kits costing around €5,000 are to be made available to Rally2 cars for those competitors seeking to do battle with Rally1 machines. The thinking behind this idea is to effectively grow the entry lists of competitors that can fight for overall victory.

These proposed changes will create a two-year transition period before new Rally1 regulations come into full force from 2027. These cars will be capped at €400,000 and based around the current Rally1 concept, but will feature a larger spaceframe chassis utilising a common safety cell to reduce costs and allow both manufacturers and tuners to develop cars. The chassis will be able to accommodate bodywork based on cars in the B class, C class, compact, SUV and concept car segments and will produce approximately 330bhp.

It's the 2025 changes that have upset teams and confused drivers, with the majority feeling that the tweaks are too aggressive when the focus should be on ensuring the 2027 regulations are a success. That teams feel aggrieved is totally understandable.

Hyundai had planned – and has already committed resources and funding to – extensive updates to its current i20 N Rally1 car for next year, which will now have to be scrapped

Having committed a vast amount of money and resources to a ruleset that, whether it’s been successful or not, is coming to an end two years earlier than planned, they will now have to explain the situation to their management boards. It is likely that they will need to request more funding to make changes for a two-year transitional period, before further expenditure for the 2027 car.

On top of that, the clock is ticking. With confirmation of the rules only coming in June, teams will have just six months to be ready. When Richards was asked by Autosport if he was confident current teams had enough time to prepare 2025, he said: “It is 10 months to 2025 and we will be looking to the teams to come back with their proposals around the aero changes. But I think all of them have accepted the amount of money wasted on aero for these cars could now be spent in better ways promoting the championship.”

Improving the championship’s promotion is an area teams and drivers are particularly passionate about and is for some more important even than future technical reforms. But 2025 is not far away. Toyota and M-Sport have raised concerns regarding the timeframe, while Hyundai’s Cyril Abiteboul told Autosport that it's simply “not possible” and that teams “need the rules now” to undertake the required design and development process to be ready.

Hyundai has been hit hardest by these 2025 technical reforms, creating some uncertainty regarding its future participation. It had planned – and has already committed resources and funding to – extensive updates to its current i20 N Rally1 car for next year, which will now have to be scrapped.

The WRC’s leading drivers, who according to Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville were not consulted by the working group, have also been highly critical of the decision for 2025.

Neuville has been among the most vocal on the WRC's reforms

Neuville has been among the most vocal on the WRC's reforms

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

“The question is simple; who is going to join the championship in 2025 and 2026 with the regulations we have now in a transition period that change basically every year? I don’t know,” Neuville told Autosport. “Why I ask this question is that if we change the regulation [for 2025], it will bring additional costs to the existing manufacturers who are spending millions and millions for more than 10 years.

“They now have to modify the car and, okay, there is the removal of the hybrid - but what is the cost of a hybrid when you have a budget of nearly hundreds of millions of euros? Removing around 15 hybrid kits, which is roughly two million euros per year, where is the difference? So why not keep something stable until [the end of] 2026 and use this period now to develop something for 2027?”

Last week, reigning world champion Kalle Rovanpera echoed Neuville’s views, saying: “There are some good things about the new ideas, but there is also the car thing [changes], which makes no sense for me, to make a big hassle for two years and use more money to make two classes that will never be fully equal or connected.

“I understand they [the FIA] want more cars on the same main class on the start list, but that is it. They should focus now to make the new rules for 2027 and then maybe, hopefully, we will see new teams coming.”

Hyundai’s Ott Tanak claimed that the FIA appears to be “working against manufacturers” with its technical reforms.

Of course, changes should be made if a ruleset is failing. But stability in regulations is also key. This proposed decision to make significant changes to Rally1 two years early does risk shaking the confidence of prospective manufacturers weighing up whether to commit funding to a future WRC programme, as this situation could repeat itself in the future.

The developments now raise an important question. Where does the WRC go from here? The FIA must be commended for its work in addressing the future of the WRC and the 2027 regulations in principle clearly have the potential to be a success. But this transition period risks upsetting those already committed to the championship for seemingly little reward in the grand scheme of things.

Bringing the performance of Rally1 cars in line with WRC2 machinery risks upsetting manufacturers already invested

Bringing the performance of Rally1 cars in line with WRC2 machinery risks upsetting manufacturers already invested

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Clearly, the current teams will continue discussions with the FIA in the hope of a compromise for 2025. The WRC’s future pathway is a complex problem to solve, but there is a blueprint that exists that maybe the WRC should look to – the World Endurance Championship.

The WEC’s top tier, LMP1, was in the doldrums when Porsche followed Audi by pulling out by the end of 2017, leaving Toyota as the sole manufacturer. It hoovered up Le Mans victories in each of LMP1's remaining years, where the class fights in deep LMP2 and GTE Pro fields provided the greater interest. During the 2018-20 'superseason', there were five manufacturer efforts in the full WEC, which grew to six at Le Mans with the involvement of Corvette. This is a situation the WRC is perhaps keen to avoid.

The FIA conducted a study focusing on forming the next set of long-term regulations and subsequently launched the Hypercar class for 2022, in association with Le Mans organiser the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, following a COVID-19 delay. Crucially, in January 2020 the FIA/ACO reached a convergence agreement with the IMSA SportsCar Championship, allowing LMDh cars using spec hybrid systems to compete with WEC's own breed of bespoke Le Mans Hypercars in the top class.

"It is very impressive to see how they have moved from one or two manufacturers in the top class to 14 where they are now. It does show that there is a blueprint"
Cyril Abiteboul

A degree of patience was required and Hypercar wasn't immediately a hit when it was launched in 2022, one year before LMDh came on stream. Toyota was joined by the garagiste Glickenhaus operation and a grandfathered LMP1 car badged as an Alpine, with Peugeot arriving mid-season. Its dominance in LMP1's latter years continued.

But the groundwork it had laid didn't take long to pay off. The category is now enjoying an unprecedented boom that not only kept Toyota involved but attracted major manufacturers including Ferrari, Porsche, Cadillac, BMW, Alpine and Lamborghini, with Aston Martin set to join next year.

PLUS: The long road to convergence for sportscar racing's new golden age

The WEC's growth was directly referenced by Abiteboul as an example the WRC can learn from, although he pointed out it's not a directly comparable situation due to the presence of performance-balancing measures in endurance racing as a pretext for manufacturers to commit.

“It is very impressive to see how they have moved from one or two manufacturers in the top class to 14 where they are now,” he said. “It does show that there is a blueprint and a playbook that is possible. Having said that right now endurance is at the top but personally, I am not super keen on a Balance of Performance managed championship.

The WEC moved to replace its faltering LMP1 class with Hypercar, which has grown into a multi-manufacturer success story

The WEC moved to replace its faltering LMP1 class with Hypercar, which has grown into a multi-manufacturer success story

Photo by: FIA WEC

“We should all remember how lucky we are to be together with Formula 1 and Formula E as one of three international FIA championships not to have any form of BoP. We should cherish that and protect that and that is something that may go away with the equivalence of technology in 2027. That is the type of discussions we need to have.

“WEC on the face of it is very successful in terms of manufacturers and I‘m sure everyone appreciates BoP causes other types of issues. What I want is to be able to participate in a championship that has no politics, has a fight between drivers and teams and technology, and that is what we have right now in rally.

“It is probably a bit too expensive and too exclusive from a driver and manufacturer perspective, but that is what we have and that needs to be protected.”

Rights or wrongs of BoP aside, the WEC is proof that focusing on the long-term future regulations, rather than making tweaks to the current rules, can lead to achieving the desired goals of attracting manufacturers and increasing fan interest. Changing formats to help boost the WRC's appeal while also seeking to bolster the variety at the front is a necessary step. But in trying to fix everything at once, the WRC could damage relationships with those that are currently invested when its main focus should be on getting 2027's technical regulations right.

The variety in the WEC's Hypercar class shows the benefits of focusing on the long-term

The variety in the WEC's Hypercar class shows the benefits of focusing on the long-term

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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