x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Success of Sebastien Loeb has driven fans away from rallying

A lack of competition breeds a lack of spectators breeds a lack of publicity breeds a lack of sponsorship money. That is the problem the WRC faces.

The dominance of Sebastien Loeb over the past eight years has been detrimental to rallying as a sport, according to our columnist. Patrick Hertzog / AFP
The dominance of Sebastien Loeb over the past eight years has been detrimental to rallying as a sport, according to our columnist. Patrick Hertzog / AFP

Tomorrow sees the start of the penultimate round of the World Rally Championship in Sardinia, but do not expect to read too much about it within these pages.

Once a spellbinding sporting spectacle, the WRC has in recent years degenerated into a predictable contest lacking in both prestige and publicity. That is what tends to happen when the same driver wins the title nine years in a row.

Sebastien Loeb has won eight of this season's 11 rallies and wrapped up his "record" ninth title on home soil in France earlier this month. I use inverted commas on "record" because, if you ask at what stage does a record become irrelevant, the answer is surely when it is your own record you are breaking and when you are breaking it for a fourth consecutive year.

Loeb's dominance has proved cancerous to the sport as Mini announced shortly after his victory they are ending their involvement, while earlier this week the series suffered a further blow with the news Ford have withdrawn their title sponsorship of the M-Sport team. Of course, such decisions did not hinge on Loeb triumphing, but it is impossible to argue it will not have played its part.

A lack of competition breeds a lack of spectators breeds a lack of publicity breeds a lack of sponsorship money.

Ironically, it was during a similar period of dominance in Formula One that WRC enjoyed its most fruitful years. At the turn of the century, with Michael Schumacher reigning supreme in grands prix around the world, lovers of competitive racing fell doe-eyed for a series that offered them exactly what they craved.

The series was riding high on the achievements of Finland's Tommi Makinen and Marcus Gronholm and the recent release of the Colin McRae Rally video game had brought new enthusiasts to the sport.

McRae and Richard Burns, two charismatic British world champions, were pushing for further titles and as a result the WRC was a mainstay on terrestrial television in the United Kingdom.

Yet by 2004, Loeb had secured his first title and as he proceeded to take victory after victory after victory, interest soon waned.

Abu Dhabi enjoyed a dalliance with the sport when the emirate's tourism authority became the title sponsor of the BP-Ford World Rally Team in 2007. That relationship, however, ended last year following a last minute volte-face by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, which had earlier promised to include Abu Dhabi on the 2012 calendar.

Fortunately, there appears hope for the future though. Not only has Loeb taken a step back, but Red Bull have been confirmed as the championship's new promoter from next year. Considering the Austrian-owned energy drinks company recently spent in excess of US$60 million (Dh220.2m) on Felix Baumgartner's stratospheric jump, such can only be good news for a race series seriously lacking funds and publicity.

And Abu Dhabi is not ready to give up on the WRC quite yet either. Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, the Emirati driver formerly of Ford, has signed a five-year deal starting next season after an agreement was reached between the newly founded Abu Dhabi Racing and Loeb's Citroen to rebrand the French manufacturers Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team.

Should the WRC return to something close to its previous popularity levels, it should not be ruled out Abu Dhabi could yet appear on a championship calendar. Of course, if that happens, you can be sure rally will become prominent in these pages once again.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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