Imagine the outcry if the British Grand Prix lost its spot on the Formula 1 calendar, as has come close to happening a few times. It would surely be major news and a huge blow, both to British fans and to the sport itself. We’re not being biased: the heritage of the event is something valuable.
Rallying’s lower profile here meant Britain losing its spot on the World Rally Championship calendar for this year – after organisers failed to secure regional government backing for the event – wasn’t big news beyond the motoring world. But for rally fans, the loss of Rally GB is a shocking gut-punch.
Rally GB has a glorious history going back to 1932, when the RAC Rally – inspired by Autocar – was dreamed up as a sporting showcase of the English Riviera. It was a key part of the first WRC season in 1973 and (aside from 1996, when it counted only for the 2.0-litre title) was ever-present on the calendar – until Covid-19 forced its cancellation last year.
The event has changed beyond all recognition since 1932, of course. After decades as a timed event on public roads, it was transformed by the addition of forest stages in 1960 and eventually grew into a flat-out blast with the world’s best rally drivers tackling some of the toughest forest stages anywhere – usually in horrible conditions in late November.
After decades of Rally GB covering the length of the UK, backing from the Welsh government moved it in 2000 to Wales, where it has mostly remained. That has frustrated some fans, but the truth is that the Senedd’s backing has been vital in safeguarding the event.
But with it looking uncertain for 2021, organisers began to negotiate with other regions. A switch to Northern Ireland – to use some of the fiercest closedroad stages you will find – was on the cards, but the required government funding couldn’t be secured. Thus the WRC will visit Ypres in Belgium instead of Llandudno or Belfast.
Given the vast sums being spent on battling the pandemic, it’s perfectly understandable that regional bodies couldn’t reach a deal to help fund a WRC event – especially with the uncertainty that continues to affect the planning of anything. But it’s still a bitter blow, and not just because of one event.
The whole UK rally scene has struggled in recent years, due to a diminishing number of venues, rising costs and a fading from prominence. The British Rally Championship has struggled and numerous events have been lost. Rally GB hasn’t been immune, with costs rising as entries have fallen.
It’s particularly galling that the WRC has lost Rally GB right after Elfyn Evans nearly won the title. Hopefully, organisers can reach a deal for 2022, whether it’s with Wales or for a bold move across the Irish Sea.
This is a rally with a long, proud history. It would be a huge blow if that were lost.