The 2011 World Rally Championship calendar – seen as crucial to the sport's future growth was recently announced. AUTOSPORT spoke to Simon Long, head of WRC promoter North One Sport, about the choices involved in putting the schedule together.
Q. What's the news on the 14th event?
Simon Long: Firstly, we're delighted with the calendar we've got, it represents a really strong group of events for 2011. There are two or three rallies vying for the 14th event – there's a strong sense of competition around this slot.
That kind of competition is what we want for the WRC, we want events to know that they have to maintain the highest of standards because there are plenty of other rallies right on the cusp and ready to come in and take those places away.
Q. Poland and New Zealand are the reserve events, so which is the third?
SL: Turkey. It's Poland, Turkey and New Zealand which will fight for the 14th place. All three rallies were very close. Turkey put on a very impressive event in Istanbul, to universal acclaim. Poland again has strong credentials for next year.
Q. There's talk Poland will be drafted in to run as a season opener in January. Is this possible?
SL: All events have a degree of flexibility about their dates and, for them, the number one priority is to find a slot on the calendar and then to find one that works. I don't think we'll see Poland running in January to start the championship. Like I said, Poland has a strong rally which worked well in the calendar slot it ran in last year.
And, let's not forget, we already have a very strong rally to start the season with in Sweden. Who can forget the winter wonderland we all arrived in this year, it was an exceptional way to start the season.
Q. What about Abu Dhabi? First they were on the calendar, now they're off, how do they feel about it, given their significant investment in the WRC?
SL: We've had a very good discussion with Abu Dhabi about the future of the World Rally Championship and they are playing a very important role in that future. And, I'm talking about the sport of rallying here, not just the WRC. The Middle East is a very important territory for us and, yes, Abu Dhabi is disappointed not to be on the 2011 calendar, but there is absolutely no reason why they can't be in the future and going forward.
Q. What about Japan? A few years ago, Japan was the key market we couldn't be without...
SL: Again, Japan is another very, very good rally – but this is the nature of a 14-round calendar: There are too many rallies for the spaces. Japan came very close to the original calendar we proposed to World Motor Sport Council.
We have, however, lost Japanese manufacturers Subaru, Suzuki and Mitsubishi from the championship and, in the context of manufacturers, there's, perhaps, not the compelling case for putting Japan in the calendar there once was. But, the door is always very much open here and we will be talking to the organizers in the future.
Q. So, this calendar's not set in stone?
SL: Absolutely not. This is not a closed shop, I can't emphasize that enough. This is the first calendar to come from North One Sport, the World Rally Championship's new promoter which started work at the beginning of this year. It's not the finished product, it's a natural evolution. We keep talking to everybody about the future.