PHOTOGRAPHY BY MCKLEIN
WORDS BY DAVID EVANS, DIRTFISH SENIOR STAFF WRITER
Twelve years ago, change was coming. No doubt about it. The World Rally Championship had drifted very definitely into the doldrums.
The 2009 season started with two just manufacturer teams in Citroën and Ford, Suzuki and Subaru having walked at the end of the previous season. Following Peugeot, Mitsubishi and Škoda out the door.
Worse still, the cornerstone, series-opening Monte Carlo Rally had had enough and departed the WRC in favor of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Calendar rotation and the prescriptive constraints that accompanied a WRC date were enough to keep the French Alps away from the WRC for three years.
Change, as I said, was coming.
Shaping that change would be a new FIA president. Max Mosley was on his way out, to be replaced by Jean Todt or Ari Vatanen.
Todt won. Voted in as president in October 2009, we sat down soon after. He was pretty appalled at what he found in the service park.
“This sport has changed,” he said, “it’s only for the office hours now. You go out at eight and you come back at five o’clock. Where is the endurance? Where is the rally?”
Superb. Change really was coming.
Arctic Rally Finland last month, we went out at eight and came back at five. Give or take.
In terms of the championship structure, not much has changed. We came close to China, we’re close to Japan, but the key markets Todt talked about in Russia and India are as far away as ever.
If there was going to be a Todt legacy, I’m guessing he’d go for the 2017 World Rally Car. It’s not a bad one, to be the man behind the world’s fastest ever rally cars. And his team has cast a net wider than ever to find the next generation of talent with the global talent search that is Rally Star.
But what about sustainability? What about the future? Hybrid in 2021? Hmm.
Todt’s time has come. He’s done three terms, turned 75 and later this year, he will be replaced by… who?
Four names have been kicked around for the past few months. Extreme E chief Alejandro Agag and the man who went one better than Todt in 1981, current Motorsport UK chairman David Richards look to have fallen by the wayside – although DR remains publicly on the fence for now. Leaving Todt’s current deputy president (sport) Graham Stoker and Mohammed ben Sulayem, who has served as vice-president in both sport and mobility under Todt’s reign.
Stoker’s a Brit, a barrister and somebody who understands the rule-making process as well as anybody. He’s been a loyal servant to the Todt regime and the feeling from inside is that the Frenchman would remain very much in touch with the decision-making process moving forward.
Ben Sulayem’s a 14-time Middle East Rally Champion and somebody who has toured the world in a Group N car, competing as far afield as New Zealand and Sweden. In short, this guy’s the rally man’s rally man.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know ben Sulayem, but I do know Ronan Morgan. Morgan co-drove ben Sulayem for 12 years. That’s good enough for me. Morgan was the man behind Ireland’s last World Rally Championship event, again a man who has our sport sewn into his soul.
Robert Reid, who was revealed as ben Sulayem’s candidate for deputy president last week.
I’ve known and worked with Reid for 25 years. In that time two things have become entirely apparent: he’s one of the most dynamic, engaged and powerful forces for good in rallying. Second? He knows a lot about potatoes.
He departed the family farm in Perthshire to take on and beat the rest of the world alongside Richard Burns in 2001. When Burns fell ill with his astrocytoma in 2003, Reid remained where he’d always been, right by his driver’s side.
And he would be there until the end of the biggest fight, when RB passed away in November, 2005.
Robert and I talked a lot about the offers he had to return to a rally car – including a possible deal with Colin McRae and Prodrive in 2007.
He wasn’t interested. He and Burnsie were the real deal. Nothing else could come close.
I had enormous respect for that at the time and my respect for Reid has only grown since.
He’s worked within the sport’s governance (he currently presides over the FIA’s Closed Road Commission), he’s run the FIA’s cutting-edge, elite-level training schemes to deliver drivers like Ott Tänak, Elfyn Evans and Craig Breen and he’s even found time to run a chain of restaurants and bars in his now native Edinburgh.
Robert’s a straight-talker. Always has been. Single-minded he might be, but he still has an innate ability to spot an opportunity to chase change for the better. HANS devices, improved side-impact protection in the WRC? All came from Reid badgering Sid Watkins back in the day. That’s the tip of the iceberg.
Robert and I have bickered, argued and agreed on the future of rallying in restaurants around the world for more than two decades, but I couldn’t be happier that Reid finally has a platform to propose philosophy and policy.
If there’s any sense in the FIA’s voting clubs around the world, change, finally, is coming to the WRC.