Q&A: David Catchpole on Australia’s WRC future
Measures to help the Australian round of the World Rally Championship garner the same level of support it enjoyed in Western Australia are being vigorously pursued to ensure its new home in Coffs Harbour.
Rally Australia has not reached the same level of excitement since Perth lost the event in 2006 after almost 20 years in the west.
The event fell off the calendar for a few years before being revived on the east coast, initially based at Kingscliffe near the NSW/QLD border with competitive stages held in the Border Ranges region in 2009.
It drew a hostile response from environmentalists and locals.
There were demonstrations and some disgruntled locals even resorted to the despicable practice of throwing rocks at cars hairing past their properties around the Kyogle area.
That volatile situation marked Rally Australia’s return to the WRC. It remains on a rotational basis with New Zealand with the Antipodean countries hosting rounds bi-annually.
After the tarnished image of the 2009 event, Rally Australia switched to Coffs Harbour in 2011 where it enjoyed a great deal more success and where the local region largely embraced the event.
It returns to Coffs for a second time with the FIA WRC event scheduled from September 12-15.
The roster system in tandem with New Zealand is not ideal from a continuity or commercial basis which has further stymied the event’s gestation period in its new environment.
Speedcafe.com’s Gordon Lomas spoke with new Rally Australia Event Manager David Catchpole about attempts to secure the future of the high profile WRC round.
SPEEDCAFE: Reverting back to an annual event is quite clearly the key to the survival of Rally Australia, would you agree?
CATCHPOLE: Absolutely. Not only from sponsors but for staff. You can’t shut a rally office down for 12 to 16 months. You need to get that continuity going. We’ve learnt a lot from 2011 and we are putting a lot of that in place now.
It’s a world championship. The FIA have told Red Bull Media (WRC promoters) that it needs to be in at least four to six countries outside of Europe for it to be a world championship. Having it in two countries doesn’t work. We’ll just wait and see what the calendar is.
SPEEDCAFE: The relocation to the East Coast when it was based out of Kingscliff and run in northern NSW was a particularly turbulent time in 2009. Is it safe to say that the response in Coffs Harbour has been quite the opposite?
CATCHPOLE: We had the greenies and the rock throwing and then it was switched to the Coffs Coast for the first time in 2011. The positive here is that people in the Shires where the rally is run have embraced it. There has been rallying in the area for many decades dating back to the Southern Cross days. The big positive for this event now is that around 65 percent of the stages are conducted in forestry areas which minimises the impact on residents.
Saturday’s stages down in the Nambucca Shire has the biggest effect on residents being on a rural council road but those people down there are among the most accommodating of all the Shires. They love it and put parties on.
Some of the drivers in 2011 said that those roads in that area are some of the best they have ever driven on. We have strong community consultation where one of our staff has door knocked every residence on one entire stage. There is one resident who we had to get the police to go and visit because the last thing we need is a repeat of 2009.
SPEEDCAFE: What is the NSW Government’s stance on the future of Rally Australia going forward?
CATCHPOLE: The Government has highlighted that this is a major event in regional NSW. The big thing is regional because the government has a directive that they want to build visitation to regional centres. The Coffs Coast being easily accessible being a temperate climate and all of those associated factors, they want to have it here.
Obviously we wouldn’t try to negotiate a contract for 2014-2016 without the government supporting it like they do. They don’t want to lose it so they are right behind us.
SPEEDCAFE: From a corporate stance, there are new players behind the event this year which include Coates Hire as the major backer and support from East Coast Bullbars. That must be encouraging?
CATCHPOLE: No-one wanted to support the event in 2011 because of what happened in 2009. People were very wary of putting their name to the event. But now Coates Hire has seen that we have run one successful event. I think the biggest misconception at the moment is the step up to a World Rally Championship event.
Even as my role as chief executive of the Australian Rally Championship it (the step up) is enormous. At a minimum its like going from a state sedan championship to V8 Supercars. Already comments have come from people who have seen a big improvement at our event launch from what was done in 2011. We are going in the right direction.
SPEEDCAFE: Commercially it must be hard to secure contracts beyond single-year deals. How long has Coates signed up for?
CATCHPOLE: It’s one year. Coates have said that all going well and what we are doing for them so far is fantastic and have indicated that if and when we get the contract for multiple years they would sit down and talk to us about ongoing sponsorship. That’s the big card at the moment is to get that announcement from the FIA.
The big thing on the radar for everyone at the moment is that you have people (countries) who have held a round of the championship this year such as Greece. Greece cannot even stand on its own two feet economy wise. So how does a Government that sponsors the Greek round … how do they justify spending x-amount of dollars when the country is on its knees?
There’s fees that the WRC and the FIA charge us to hold a round. We need to come up with that money first and foremost to get that round. Then you’ve got to meet all the requirements. So having someone like Coates Hire come on board is crucial.
We want this event to be successful. You can’t keep running events at a loss. If Rally Australia could break even and we are bringing $15million of economic benefit to the region then we have won.
SPEEDCAFE: Does it help in terms of a WRC sense that the ARC is in good shape?
CATCHPOLE: Rallying in Australia is on the up. Everyone is getting behind it unlike a lot of other countries. Some countries are trying to get a round of the WRC and they don’t even have a national championship.
There are four different brands out there at the moment and hopefully next year we are going to have another two come on board. Something had to change with Subaru WRXs and Mitsubishi Evos going around the forest there wasn’t the variety. People want to see different cars and they can see that now. We’ve still got the four-wheel-drives but to get some stability with these front-wheel-drive cars is certainly good going forward.
SPEEDCAFE: So at the moment its a case of playing a waiting game to see what emerges in the shape of a 2014 WRC calendar?
CATCHPOLE: Red Bull Media will put their preferred calendar to the FIA from what they see in their eyes as the one which best promotes the championship. They know Australia has a healthy national championship and have people coming to support it. Australia has a reputation for putting on innovative events and we do it well.
You’ve got countries like Russia trying to get a round… there are countries with far more Government support than we have. But I guess they don’t have what Australia can provide which is the rich history of rallying.
Also, the people who will be here in September to run the event are the best in the world. They are experienced and they do everything that the FIA want. You’ve got Adrian Stafford, the new clerk of the course, who has heaps of experience. The course he’s put together… he has achieved a 60/40 ratio of liaison (transport) stages to special/competitive stages which is up there with the best in the world in the WRC this year. Competitors only have to travel 25 minutes or so from Coffs and they are into the stages. Once they are in the stages they all link up so they don’t have to travel far.