Wales has hosted the British round of the World Rally Championship since 2000, first in Cardiff and now in north Wales. But this October’s event could be the last for a few years at least with plans for a rotation system, starting in Northern Ireland next year. Here Dai Sport’s rallying expert, Paul Evans, looks at the reasons why it could be moved, including Phytophthora ramorum the unstoppable Larch tree killing disease threating the forests in north Wales.
Britain’s round of the FIA World Rally Championship has been held in Wales every year since 2000, but this October’s event could be the last – for an unspecified number of years.
It’s believed that the event organisers have been working on a plan to take the event to Northern Ireland in 2020 for some time.
And these plans have not only been met with approval from the WRC promoter, the WRC say moving Rally GB to Belfast is key to it retaining its place on the WRC calendar.
But that doesn’t mean Wales has lost the rally forever, but if it does return there is some uncertainty over when.
Motorsport UK, the sports governing body in the UK – which has a new Chairman, Ruthin-born David Richards CBE – is apparently keen on a rotation system that could see Rally GB visit Northern Ireland next year, Scotland in 2021 and England in 2022, before returning to Wales in 2023.
That might leave the Welsh Government with a bit of a PR problem. It has been the event’s main money backer and title sponsor since 2003, and always keen to shout what a fantastic financial boost the event is, bringing an extra £8M into the Welsh economy.
Despite a booming motorsports business sector in Wales, the politicians might be quietly glad to get rid of the event – as it has reportedly cost the Welsh Government £1.5M per annum.
You don’t need to grab a calculator to work out that it is a very good return on annual investment – although re-negotiating down its support for 2019 has come at a cost.
With a financial hole to fill, Rally GB is rumoured to be going to Liverpool for its ceremonial start, with the city council bringing in the extra pounds as the ‘all in Wales’ Welsh Government mandate is relaxed.
But back to that looming PR puzzle. Only in March, at the announcement of this year’s Wales Rally GB setting up its service area in Llandudno, the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism, Lord Elis-Thomas, said that “Wales Rally GB is one of our flagship events which is well-established in north Wales and a vital part of an international world-series event.”
All good things don’t have to come to an end, not in the WRC. Rally Finland has been held in Jyväskylä since 1951, and nobody says that needs a re-fresh.
Rally Monte Carlo first ran in 1911 and nobody says they’re fed up with the Col de Turini stage. Rally Argentina has been based in Villa Carlos Paz since before most of the current crop of WRC drivers were born, and everyone still loves going there.
True, most other events have changed and change is good. And Wales Rally GB has changed. The event didn’t leave much of a legacy in Cardiff, which hosted the event for 13 years, starting in 2000.
The purpose-built Thyssen Rallysprint stage in Cardiff Bay is a distant memory, a rally stage in the Principality Stadium was well promoted (pop band The Saturdays were a supporting act to the rally cars) but it didn’t attract much of a crowd, and despite the enthusiastic support from Cardiff City Council, the rally was pretty much ignored at the time and now completely forgotten.
But moving to North Wales in 2013 revitalised the event. Now based a lot closer to better stages, it’s fair to say the last six Wales Rally GBs have been a huge success.
Businesses in Mid- and North-Wales have benefitted from the boom in off-season visitors and the gravel forest stages are, without doubt, some of the best in the world. You have to go all the way to New Zealand to find anything better.
And maybe the event’s recent success is a big part of the problem. More people want to see the WRC cars in action, and there just aren’t enough car parking spaces in the Welsh forests to accommodate all the fans that want to attend.
The rural road infrastructure isn’t designed for thousands of vehicles to criss-cross it in harmony and there just isn’t enough hotel rooms near the stages for spectators, marshals, photographers, TV camera crews and everyone else to stay. The bigger fish has outgrown the smaller pond.
Goodness knows what the A55 going in and out of Llandudno will be like during this year’s event. Competitors getting stuck in traffic gridlock might be the final straw.
But with a big WRC meeting going on in Geneva today, we might not have to wait until then anyway.
If Rally GB wants to remain on the World Rally Championship calendar, it better listen to the WRC promoter. And the promoter wants it to go to Northern Ireland, where closed road stage rallying will give easier access to more people, and so it probably will.
As for this year’s Wales Rally GB route, we know the event will run between 3-6 October and be based in Llandudno – but how far south it travels, and what forests will host the high-speed action, are further complicated by Phytophthora ramorum; the unstoppable Larch tree killing disease.
It’s not a new problem, as the southern part of the Myherin forest stage had to be cut from the route three years ago. But the disease has continued to spread gradually north, with felling one of the main ways of tackling it.
But the problem has never been as widespread as it is now, and Natural Resources Wales want to contain the disease and do not want rally cars and spectators accelerating its spread. The results of a spring helicopter survey, assessing exactly where the disease has spread to, is being evaluated. But fear not, several different rally routes have been drawn up to, hopefully, cover all eventualities.
Given the developing host region rotation system idea, the spread of Larch tree disease in Welsh forests, the likely loss of its current title sponsor, pulling the rug from under supporters such as Conwy County Borough Council and potentially putting the Welsh Government in a slightly awkward PR position, one big question remains. If Rally GB does leave Wales in 2020, when will it return?