Wales Rally GB business diary: fans, forests and footprints

17 November 2014 | Posted in SportsPro Blog | By David Cushnan | Contact the author

Wales Rally GB business diary: fans, forests and footprints

The best tennis players of the year were in action, soccer and rugby internationals were being played in London and Scotland, but Britain's largest spectator sports event of the weekend will almost certainly turn out to have taken place not at the O2 Arena, Twickenham, Celtic Park or Wembley, but in and around the mud-splattered forests of North Wales.

Thousands of hardy spectators - the precise figures are expected to emerge shortly - lined the roads which made up Wales Rally GB, the final round of this year's World Rally Championship, from Thursday evening until Sunday lunchtime. The vast majority watched for free as world champion Sebastien Ogier delivered another victory for his dominant Volkswagen team.

What is now called Wales Rally GB has a storied past, even if seasoned rallying types still have to check themselves from referring to it as the RAC Rally, as it was known for many years. This was the 69th running of the rally of Great Britain, but it is an event which has struggled in recent times to gain much mainstream media penetration in the UK, even if thousands still descend on the route to catch a glimpse of the cars. The event's heyday, glory years in which British world champions Colin McRae and Richard Burns were dominant and the BBC's nightly rally reports were watched by millions, are certainly a distant memory.

The man charged with revitalising the event is Ben Taylor and in 2014, after just a handful of months, he got his first shot at doing just that. Until May, Taylor was development and communications director of the Motor Sports Association (MSA), before taking on additional duties as managing director of International Motor Sports, the MSA's commercial arm. Effectively, he has been tasked with overseeing the commercial and sporting development of a rally which, whilst the final round of the World Rally Championship, is a major national event in its own right - aside from the 72 international rally competitors, there were no fewer than 105 national crews competing this year. "I'm starting to get a real sense of how great this could be," Taylor tells SportsPro during a frantic weekend of entertaining guests, pressing the flesh with local government officials and sponsors, hosting networking dinners and, no doubt, no little fire-fighting behind the scenes of an event which is bewildering in its complexity.

This year's route comprised 23 special stages, covering 190 miles of Welsh forest and tarmac, interspersed with road sections going from stage to stage or back to the central service park. Some 1,500 marshals and other officials were on duty over the weekend, across 4,500 marshal posts, while the safe and successful running on the event relies on a diverse group of stakeholders, including local councils and police services, the Forestry Commission Wales and the National Trust.

"We're trying to remind people that this is a dynamic event...and more than just a motorsport event"

"We've got a jewel here," Taylor continues. "This rally in the last ten years has kind of disappeared off the face of sporting consciousness a little bit – not because it’s a bad event but just because it’s been sponsored by Wales, moved to Wales and maybe people forgot about it. We’re trying to remind people that this is a dynamic event, a world championship event that comes to the UK and more than just being a motorsport event.”

Service with a smile

After the best part of a decade based around Cardiff, the event, which is currently funded by the Welsh government and generated a direct economic impact in 2013 of UK£10.8 million, is now located in North Wales and centred around a fairly anonymous-looking industrial estate which houses a major Toyota engine plant in Deeside. For Wales Rally GB, however, it is transformed into the service park, where cars are repaired and worked on, and the base for the rally headquarters, media centre and fan entertainment arena. Each competing crew has space allocated, ranging from a simple car parking spot for the many amateurs on the rally to Formula One-style temporary hospitality and garage areas built by the manufacturer teams competing at the top end of the WRC, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Citroen and Ford, whose entries are run by the British M-Sport operation.

Hyundai's two-storey facility is the most visually impressive - as a partner of the rally itself, the company is believed to have spent UK£300,000 on activation over the four days, plus 110 vehicles for official use - but it is Citroen and Volkswagen's open-air operations which attract the biggest crowds on a chilly Friday evening. Around the corner, a stage hosts bands and interviews for fans throughout the weekend, while a dedicated Rally TV service, which broadcasts online, on a local radio frequency and is visible on big screens, has its temporary studio next door.

Fans, forests and footprints

While increasing the event’s broadcast footprint is not in Taylor’s immediate control – the broadcast rights are sold by the World Rally Championship’s global promoter; BT Sport had the rights in 2014 – he can shape the event from a commercial perspective. In late October he appointed London-headquartered agency Slingshot Sponsorship to deliver the commercial programme for next year's Welsh Rally GB. The agency had feet on the ground all weekend in Wales, a reconnaissance mission bound to have yielded plenty of useful information as it begins the sales process in the coming months.

"Whatever the brief or message of sponsors or commercial partners, we've got something here that will tick that box"

"It’s a really exciting platform – we have local businesses involved, local communities, volunteers," Taylor says of the event, ploughing on manfully on Friday evening against a hoarse voice. "Whatever the brief or message of sponsors or commercial partners, we’ve got something here that will tick that box.”

Under its contract with WRC Promoter, the global promoter of the World Rally Championship which was formed by The Sportsman Media Group and Red Bull Media House at the start of 2013, Wales Rally GB retains 50 per cent of the branding inventory around the event. With Slingshot's help, Taylor intends to make the most of that, with the focus very much on developing the event nationally in the first instance.

"We're one of 13 individual events making up the World Rally Championship and we all pay a load of money to the global promoter to do a job for us, but this event for me doesn’t live or die on the success or otherwise of the World Rally Championship," Taylor insists. "Most of my spectators coming this week aren’t watching the WRC on TV every week – the growth in the audience in the last two years here has been families and people who have never seen it before coming to have a look."

The 2014 route included two specially-planned fan-friendly stages, known as RallyFests, around the Chirk Castle National Trust property and Kinmel Park. Over 5,000 people attended Saturday's Chirk Castle event, mercifully without the kind of traffic problems which blighted the same stage on its debut in 2013. If not perhaps offering the type of deep-in-the-forests challenge preferred by the drivers and the 'bobble-hats', rallying's hardcore fans, the 2km stage, part of a package embellished by fan zones and aerobatic displays, certainly offers a fun entry-level experience to the sport.

"I'm almost less interested in selling people the sporting side of the rally," concludes Taylor, who, speaking to several of the rallying luminaries he invited to this year's event as ambassadors has brought a new vitality to Wales Rally GB. "I’m taken much more by the experiential side, the ambience and the atmosphere that goes with it. It’s a bit like horse racing – I love the Grand National, I’ve been to Royal Ascot but I’m not a horse racing fan; I recognise the atmosphere of an event when it’s taking place and the backdrop is horse racing. You watch the sporting stuff not necessarily because you’re a massive aficionado. Rallying is a niche sport, but it’s a really dynamic sport and it gives a really dynamic backdrop and platform for people to engage with."

A full interview with Oliver Ciesla, co-managing director of WRC Promoter, the World Rally Championship’s global promoter, features in the December/January edition of SportsPro, which is out next week. To subscribe to SportsPro click here.

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