The World Rally Championship was established in 1973, and the sport primarily involves 13 rallies across 4 continents and 13 countries. It has gone through peaks and lows of popularity since its inception. You might be wondering how popular the WRC is now, or even if it’s dying out.
The WRC is not dying as it still enjoys massive popularity across Europe, Asia, and South America. Rally racing is facing some issues though, as media coverage is not what it once was. The FIA has been slow to bring the WRC to modern standards and has been slow to promote rally racing in the USA.
The WRC’s overall popularity is an interesting thing to examine. On the one hand, it does enjoy a massive global audience, but on the other hand, it doesn’t have the same mainstream appeal as Formula 1 racing. Below, we’re going to take a good look at what’s going on with rally racing and get an idea of how popular it is.
Is Rally Racing Still Popular?
Rally racing is still popular and is famous globally. It’s traditionally one of the oldest motorsports – the first-named rally event goes back to 1911 in Monte Carlo. Rally events still draw huge crowds and garner immense interest, but there have been various changes in recent times.
The Early Years
Early rally cars were often the same as everyday cars. This early era saw popular teams like Ford and Lancia establish their roots as long-term competitors in this motorsport. It also gave birth to a fan favorite in the Ford Escort RS.
The early years of the WRC began in 1973 and ended in 1981, with rally proving a popular global sensation with the public. However, it didn’t take off fully until the next era, which is known as Group B.
The Group B Era
In many ways, rally racing took off in the Group B era. This era began in 1982 and ended in 1986, but as a result of this, rally racing saw a huge spurt of popularity. The group B rally cars introduced 4-wheel drive, and the innovations used to make better rally cars were applied to standard road vehicles as well.
However, there were some differences between the cars of the early years and the Group B vehicles. These vehicles were heavily modified and much more powerful, and safety was a distant second concern. A string of accidents and fatalities ended this era early on, but it helped cement rally racing’s popularity for many years to come.
The Group A Era
The group A era began in 1987 and ended in 1996. It enforced tighter restrictions on manufacturers, which usually stipulated that competing cars had to be based around standard production vehicles. The heavily modded monsters of the Group B era were no more.
These restrictions had the added benefit of lowering the costs of building rally cars, which encouraged a greater variety in the teams competing. It helped diversify the sport and the added competition threw more variety into the mix.
The World Rally Car Era
The WRC era started in 1997 and has seen a few different iterations over the years. It marked the replacement of the Group A cars with the World Rally Cars. The regulations changed to take more pressure off manufacturers.
Previously, car manufacturers had to put any vehicles used for competition in rally races into mass production. This was no longer the case, and this change proved positive for the WRC as it attracted newer manufacturers, including Citroen, Hyundai, Peugeot, and SEAT.
The rallies were also made more compact and an extra rally was added (bringing the total number of rallies up to 14). The longer marathon rallies were just not as popular with TV audiences, and also crowds had to stand further back from the roads and tracks in use.
The WRC Popularity Dip
In 2013 we start to see a bit of a dip in popularity and a good chunk of this comes down to media coverage. Previously, it was possible to watch channels like Eurosport and get 40-60 minute long detailed coverage of a rally. Unfortunately, many of these channels died off, and the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) didn’t offer decent alternatives.
Some channels provided some coverage of rally events, but it was often limited to 1 minute long segments, or just highlights and interesting clips. The issue with this style of coverage is that it doesn’t bring in new viewers, and it only appeals to existing fans.
There is a general lack of news coverage about rally racing, and it persists to this day. The news and various media outlets aren’t doing a lot of work to support enthusiasm for the motorsport, and the FIA hasn’t responded well either. It’s very difficult to see if these are just missed opportunities or a simple lack of demand.
The WRC has introduced the WRC+, but this is a subscription-based service, and it is most likely not going to attract as many new viewers. While it’s great for serious fans, as you get tons of coverage in one place, it’s unlikely someone with a passing interest is going to want to pay a monthly fee to WRC+.
How Popular Is WRC?
WRC is very popular, having a large amount of appeal across Europe and Asia, with millions of viewers tuning in to their world championships. According to the WRC, roughly 850 million viewers watched the world championship in 2017, and in 2019 the average per rally was over 80 million.
The WRC has not revealed how they came to these total figures, so they have to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, WRC is without a doubt popular across Europe and Asia. This is due to the cultural pedigree, as it’s one of the oldest motorsports, as well as long-standing rivalries between European and Asian car manufacturers.
In recent times the WRC has had a serious problem with attracting new manufacturers to the sport. Citroen pulled out in 2019 and hasn’t returned, and as of 2022, there are only 3 major manufacturers committed to the sport. The 3 manufacturers are Hyundai, Toyota Gazoo Racing, and Ford M Sport.
Currently, the WRC and FIA are struggling with adapting rally cars with hybrid technology. The WRC is doing its best to put a positive green spin on this, but there’s been an overall lack of interest in the media.
The other problem is infrastructure related, as electric-based cars need much better infrastructure than is available in some of the countries where rallies are held in. Things like charging stations or access to batteries and parts could be much harder to get hold of.
Is WRC Dead?
WRC isn’t dead but its popularity is slowing down. This is seen with the GB portion of the WRC being discontinued in the UK. Various deadlines were put in place for a Northern Ireland rally, but these passed without any major voices raising concern as to why they were missed.
While the WRC has challenges to face, it’s not dying yet, but there is a risk that its popularity could take a turn for the worse. If the new cars can’t perform as well or the limited amount of teams competing pushes viewers away, then the WRC could be heading in a very negative direction.
Other things show the popularity of the WRC is slowing down. In the UK, one of the traditional core homes of rally racing, the GB rally portion of the WRC was discontinued. To make matters worse, barely anybody in the UK noticed or cared.
There was an effort to make Northern Ireland a part of the 2022 WRC but this never materialized. Plans were supposed to be put in place for a Northern Ireland rally well before the summer of 2022, but the deadline passed.
Hope For The Future
While the WRC and rally in general have seen more popular times, the sport has a history of bouncing back. Rally has traditionally been the Eurocentric motorsport, and many leading drivers are from Finland or France. The FIA, however, has increasingly been marketing the WRC as a global sport and has seen audience growth in Asia and Africa.
There has been a slow and steady growth of audience in North America, where interest in rally racing has taken a back seat for NASCAR and the IndyCar series. While it’s fair to say that the WRC and rally in general are not yet mainstream in the USA, there is potential for a huge untapped audience.
WRC isn’t dying yet, as it’s still extremely popular across the world, bringing in millions of viewers and having a huge following across Europe and Asia, with a growing following in North America and Africa. However, the FIA has to ensure they keep their audience engaged.
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