Michael Greenfield-Raban feels the road going versions of the new WRC cars have lost their showroom mojo. The lifelong fan presents his road map for saving the world's most exciting motorsport.
2022 has marked the start of a fresh chapter for the World Rally Championship. The new Rally1 cars have brought a wide-ranging host of technical and regulatory changes to the sport, introducing 500 horsepower hybrid powertrains - necessitating shortened stages.
The cars have sprouted massive aerodynamic addendi, and come complete with a ride height that wouldn’t look out of place in the Paris-Dakar paddock. They still bear some resemblance to showroom production cars, but only because the rules say so - underneath the silhouettes lie dedicated space-frame chassis’.
The new Rally1 regulations are predictable, but quite disappointing measures. For us rallying purists, it is rather difficult to consider the soul of the sport as alive and well. The main allure of rallying is the commonality of stage and street. The rally homologation special brought the desirability of the poster residing, mid-engined supercar to the masses and in most cases, at an affordable price. After all, ever since the first rally held by the Automobile Club de France in 1895, rallying has existed to be the ultimate test of the road cars that consumers can purchase.
Entire brands and sub-brands have their reputations built on the image of being stage-attacking machines that simply happen to be road cars. Ford has built its “RS” brand based on its rallying homologation cars such as the MK1 Escort RS1600 and the Escort RS Cosworth. Lancia’s entire standing in the world of car makers still rests upon their rallying back catalogue.
Additionally, Audi has become synonymous with the benefits of four-wheel-drive and the word Quattro. And then of course there’s Subaru. For many (myself included), the Impreza still represents the blue and gold chariots that propelled McRae, Burns, and Solberg to their respective world rally titles.
Rallying was one of the best ways for a manufacturer to get their cars on the map, and was also one of the most relevant forms of motorsport to enthusiasts and consumers. Retrospectively, there has not been a form of motorsport that can be credited for the creation of so many iconic homologation performance cars.
Homologation is the key. Even when the WRC had its crazy high watershed moment in Group B, it still spun off ridiculous halo models. Unfortunately, the current Rally1 regulations are only practical for the accounting departments of car manufacturers who take cost cutting to the nth degree and have no desire in creating rally cars that road car clients can relate to.
Let’s take the new Rally1 Ford Puma. What relevance does a space frame chassis, 500 horsepower car clad in the most ridiculous aero seen since Fast and Furious carry to the average car buyer looking for Ford Puma family crossovers? The only connection that the road and rally cars may share is a possible mentioning of the rally programme in the brochure. (In fact, I highly doubt that the WRC programme is helping Ford shift any more of its crossovers).
The pages that held the recipe for the rally-rep have already faded. It seems as if there has not been a proper “rally car for the road” since autonomous cars were considered an unrealistic idea that best reside at Google HQ. In order to fix the World Rally Championship and create exciting, yet germane competition, I would like to point the FIA in the direction of a two-wheeled form of motorsport.
My exemplar is superbike racing. The Superbike World Championship, as well as national equivalents, have always utilised modified versions of high performance road bikes for competition, rather than the silhouette style bikes in MotoGP. This approach has not only kept the championship closely relevant to sports bike enthusiasts and consumers, but also allowed more teams and manufacturers the opportunity to compete at a very high level due to lower financial barriers and developmental costs.
For example, there are only three factory run teams in the WRC (Toyota, Ford, and Hyundai), while there are five in WSBK. That is also withstanding the 12 privateer teams (10 of which are full season entries) also taking part in the championship, in comparison to precisely zero privateer teams in the World Rally Championship.
The fact that the WSBK requires that race bikes be based upon road-legal superbikes is an approach that directly affects and improves the current crop of high performance motorcycles due to the constant evolution that must occur for manufacturers to remain competitive.
The need to homologate race bikes upon road legal superbikes created iconic modern machines such as the BMW M1000RR and the Ducati Panigale V4R. Both of these are at the forefront of the high performance motorbike pack with additional modifications to aerodynamics and drivetrains to propel their riders to superbike title crowns.
This is the same mindset that car manufacturers had before the advent of the World Rally Car regulations of 1997, that in order to create a competitive rally car, modifications must be made to make the suspension travel longer, the engine more powerful, robust, torquey and of course have wider bodies, rubber and wheels for a better contact patch and lower centre of gravity. All of these constant onslaughts of development served to create more reliable, faster and compliant road cars.
An additional by-product of homologation is the outright coolness of the cars in comparison to most run of the mill flash supercars. Ironically, some of the rally-reps of yesteryear fetch higher prices on the market than many modern day supercars.
As we have seen in years past, the next generations of rallying enthusiasts start to take interest in the sideways machines seen in media once these cars make frequent appearances on public roads and families’ driveways. I for one, speak from experience with this matter. During my very early years, my Dad owned a 'blobeye' Subaru Impreza WRX STi in the traditional livery of World Rally Blue Mica and the iconic gold wheels.
Our STi, along with WRC season reviews and the Impreza versus Evo rivalry on Best MOTORing, are what ignited my passion for both the motorcar and motorsports. In fact, there were very few things I enjoyed more than booting up Gran Turismo 4 and driving a version 8 Impreza Spec C. Although, while I considered myself a rival to the likes of Petter Solberg, Tommi Makinen and Keiichi Tsuchiya, in reality, my objective was to keep four wheels on the tarmac and not crash at Flugplatz!
Just as with my enthusiasm for the Subaru World Rally Team, enthusiasts are naturally drawn to supporting the team or driver that compete with their desired car, therefore increasing viewership and event attendance of rallies.
This newfound enthusiasm of the public would also popularise rallying as a sport and incentivize sponsors and governments to support and host events. This incentivizing would also extend to manufacturers to continue to compete in rallying and to create homologation versions of their cars. Privateer participation would support both organisers with entry fees and manufacturers by selling additional cars.
We have already seen a small spark in the old pit of the rally replica in the utter epiphany that is the Toyota GR Yaris. Its bespoke platform and development inextricably tied it to rallying, thus setting the car community ablaze. This was the first occurrence since the Imprezas and Evos of old that a car manufacturer had bothered to bring a car that utilised rally car attributes to produce a better performance car for enthusiasts to drive on their favourite back roads.
That link to motorsport that so few cars have brought the GR Yaris and Toyota not only ultimate kudos, but also order books that are accounted for through next year. With plans to make 25,000 units, the GR Yaris has reached production numbers that few thought were achievable for a type of car that has, for the most part, not been around for a decade and a half.
Toyota received grand praise for the GR Yaris throughout the world, including the rather problematic case of the U.S. market. Toyota had obviously not planned it as a “world car”, meaning that the GR Yaris had not gone through the stringent American emissions and safety tests. Additionally, Toyota stopped selling the Yaris nameplate after the 2020 model year in the United States, and since the GR Yaris is based on a separate platform and drivetrain, Toyota would have to bring a new GR model in the ilk of the GR-FOUR Yaris based on the U.S. homologated Corolla.
That car, as I am sure those reading are already aware of, is the GR Corolla, equipped with the same drivetrain as the GR Yaris, as well as a host of other Gazoo goodies to satisfy the quench of American rallying enthusiasts. The GR Yaris had a profound effect on the world, whether as the ultimate modern-day backroad blaster, base for a rally stage hunter, or the perfect denier to those who say that the homologation special is a type of car that best resides in the natural history museums of the world rather than the Nürburgring or Rally New Zealand. It reminded us of the prodigious benefits of motorsport directly feeding back to the people.
However much the GR Yaris revived interest in rallying, it was still never able to compete on the world stage, unlike the rally reps that came before it. In particular, I would like to point out the revolutionary Audi Sport Quattro, the stunning Lancia 037 and the oblique Peugeot 205 T16. All of these were successful cars during the infamous Group B era.
While most of the homologation specials during this time did not have as much recognition as road cars due to their lower mandated production numbers and less stringent development, there is one important ingredient in the Group B recipe, variety. Street cred aside, one of my personal vexations with the sport of rallying is the fact that even going back to my beloved era of Group A, the cars have always been strangled by strict performance regulations: four wheel drive, a specific displacement, turbocharging, etc.
Earlier in this piece, I wrote that rallying was created to be the ultimate test of the reliability and worthiness of the cars that the public can purchase. Rallying can no longer be the optimum evaluation of the motorcar as a whole if only one drivetrain layout and car body style is permitted to compete.
Instead of the overly stringent technical regulations that have been imposed by the FIA from the eras of Group A to Rally1, I believe that the optimum set of rallying regulations combines the freedom of technical layouts of Group B with the focus on homologation of Group A. In fact, perhaps multiple classes of rallying is the answer.
Ever since the dawn of the Audi Quattro, four wheel drive was always going to dominate the world of rallying no matter how much the Audis understeered off the stages and regardless of Lancia's loyalty to rear wheel drive with the 037. Therefore, a four wheel drive class should be included, with no written rules on displacement. Thus admitting 1.6 litre front engined cars such as the Toyota GR Yaris and a 3.0 litre rear engined car such as the 992 generation Porsche 911 Carrera 4S. Let’s be honest, displacement has a minimal effect on the performance of modern cars. The only differentiators of outright firepower are the turbo boost and ability to cool the engine.
Of course, as with modern day rallying, power would still have to be restricted, preferably slightly above 400 horsepower to maintain status as the competitively dominant class of rallying. With these new regulations, the four wheel drive class will have a more diverse field including everything from rear to front engined cars, inline, V and boxer engines, etc.
Although, not everyone is looking for a turbocharged four wheel drive car to purchase, perhaps an additional class can be a front wheel drive class aimed at hot hatchbacks that would be successful on tarmac based events such as Tour de Corse. Eligible cars could include the new Civic Type R, the Mark 4 Focus ST, or a John Cooper Works Mini.
Finally, what better way to add to the excitement of rallying than rear wheel drive. For decades, rear drive cars have been popularising rallying by powering around corners at absolutely ballistic angles, adding an additional layer of driver involvement and required skill. Even over the past decade, we have seen the benefit of allowing rear wheel drive sportscars through the R-GT class.
The variety of cars competing with a wide scape of engine layouts, placements and most importantly sound, have increased spectator numbers at events and made for some absolutely fantastic YouTube compilations. It is an absolute shame that the FIA decided to abandon the development of the R-GT category as it showed great potential, from creating additional intrigue in the sport among the public, to increased involvement from manufacturers, to even privateer participation.
The new rear wheel drive class would admit a diverse field of sportscars with the likes of the front-engined Toyota GR86, rear-engined 992 GT3, and the mid-engined Alpine A110 as the ultimate attention drawers of the stages. To sum up, the three classes of rallying overviewed provide a myriad of road-based performance cars that could participate with great success in the world of rallying, whether that be on an international basis or on the smaller national scale. Inspiring the general public to become more passionate about the sport as well as to better relate to the cars used in competition.
For the past quarter century, the FIA has tried to make rallying more appealing to manufacturers by attempting to lower developmental costs with extremely lenient homologation requirements. This method was also used to try to appeal to the public by purporting it to be more relevant due to similar badges and basic shapes of car shells seen on the public roads.
Yet, over time it has lost manufacturer participation because of the über costs for developing competitive cars as well as a lack of response by consumers to the competition programmes. And the general public who consist of consumers and enthusiasts have lost interest in the sport due to a very high disconnect between the rally and road cars. As shown above, the GR Yaris changed that perspective, it brought back some of the rally car magic to the public highways and driveways.
However, this year’s Rally1 regulations were a new step in the wrong direction by the FIA, causing them to continue down the rabbit hole of alienating rallying to the public. It is already time for a drastic change for the better with the suggested regulations to bring the performance road car back to the “six left, over crests” and the “immediate hairpin rights” of the WRC.