How teams sidestep the WRC testing loophole
By Jason Craig
Tuesday 7th February, 2023 - 4:14pm
Sometimes holding your hands up and conceding that you have been outsmarted is the easiest course of action.
Given the events of this week, you sense that is the very sentiment permeating the halls and minds of the decision-makers working at world motorsport’s governing body in Paris right about now.
So, what are we talking about? In short: reduced testing regulations for the World Rally Championship – and how the cunning minds of Team Principals and their colleagues are choosing to get around this.
For 2023, teams competing in the sport’s top division can continue to test but, under a revised set of regulations that put cost-cutting at the heart of these, the total number has been slashed by a quarter.
Whereas twenty-eight test days were allocated to the all-conquering Toyota Gazoo Racing, M-Sport Ford and Hyundai Motorsport teams last year, they must make do with a mere twenty-one this year.
For a three-car WRC squad, testing has been reduced to a maximum of seven test days per driver and fourteen if you are a two-car line-up.
And whereas before teams were only allowed to test on European soil for – you guessed it, cost reasons – geographical restrictions no longer apply. This can now take place anywhere.
In principle, it makes sense.
Surely it is a good thing the FIA has been so proactive and stepped in? After all, many of the biggest and best-known automotive groups have not been immune to the knock-on effects brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis that continues to grip the planet.
The same challenges and headaches apply to their respective sporting programmes, regardless of how much financial clout private backers and outside sponsors add to their coffers.
Teams may have one hand tied behind their back due to the restrictions but it has not stopped them from coming out fighting by exploiting what, on the face of it, appears to be a glaring loophole that allows the ‘big three’ to rock up at national rallies of their own choosing.
Think of it as a means of recovering all-important mileage – and data – that would otherwise have been lost if they decided to stick rigidly to the current twenty-one test day allocation.
That mileage can often prove the difference between winning at a rally and finishing first of the losers.
Or, as the late Henry Ford once famously said, “Win with it on a Sunday and sell it on a Monday”. Success is priceless in PR and marketing terms and if your product is a proven winner history tells us this equates to brand awareness and car sales.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville has been most vocal in his objection to the FIA’s insistence on cutting down WRC testing.
The Belgian – who is never shy to let his thoughts be known via the WRC press – reckons it is “ridiculous”, and moving forward it will have the opposite effect to that intended.
And the early signs suggest he is correct as Rally1 cars start to appear on the entry list of little-known competitions.
To bank some extra seat-time ahead of next month’s Rally Sweden – the sole winter round on the FIA World Rally Championship calendar – Hyundai’s latest signing Esapekka Lappi and Toyota’s Japanese star Takamoto Katsuta are both packing their suitcases and heading to the Kuopio Rally in Finland.
M-Sport Ford has not wasted any time getting in on the act, either.
Ott Tanak is returning home to Estonia for the Otepaa Rally as he adjusts to life with the Puma Rally1 hybrid on the loose.
It is an early indication of what could follow as the weeks unfold unless the powers that be elect to step in.
The FIA can’t say they didn’t see this coming.
If they cast their mind back to 2021, they will recall Tanak – who was then team-mate to Neuville – featured at the Otepaa Rally for the same reasons.
Maybe the FIA has not been outsmarted after all by the sharpest minds in the service park – perhaps it is simply a case of, “We told you so.” It certainly looks that way, which is another story for another time.
Putting the whys and wherefores to one side for a moment, as motorsport fans we should applaud the prospect of the World Rally Championship’s top-tier Rally1 cars visiting places this year they have never before, and introducing untold levels of excitement to people of all ages and sexes that might not otherwise get the chance to see them in the metal.
That is good and surely something everyone can agree on.
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