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Interview: we talk Rally NZ, Hayden Paddon, and hybrids with WRC boss

www.driven.co.nz | BY MATTHEW HANSEN • 20/11/2019

News that the World Rally Championship would return to New Zealand in 2020 rocked the local motorsport landscape. After a seven-year crusade of peaks, troughs, and absence our beautiful cambered gravel would host a global FIA motorsport series once again. 

It was one of a host of popular decisions that the WRC has made in the recent past, as it tries to build on its current momentum as a sport. And few people in the category’s fold are more across that growth than WRC Managing Director Oliver Ciesla [pictured below] 

Ciesla paid a brief visit to New Zealand after the drama of Rally Australia. We sat down with him at Driven HQ to talk about the Kiwi return, Hayden Paddon’s passionate work, and where the WRC is heading next.

MH: Was there a specific campaign to get New Zealand back onto the WRC calendar that started it all for you, or was returning here something that the WRC always had in mind?

OC: The WRC and New Zealand have a long-standing relationship. New Zealand has hosted the WRC more than 30 times, so there’s a permanent contact with the people in New Zealand and the time we spent together [and] the opportunity to host an event was permanently on the agenda. It was a matter of time and opportunity to see when that would be possible again.

We as WRC promoters know the kind of value that New Zealand can add to the championship. At the same time, we need to make sure that we offer to the car manufacturers that are — let’s call it — our biggest stakeholders, a good portfolio of countries. And, a good country means a country where they sell a lot of cars. We need big marketing budgets from their boards, and in the end the return on investment is measured.

New Zealand has a slight disadvantage over other countries, so we cannot be here permanently. But, to be here occasionally, is fantastic for us because we see a great sport and it’s a different visualization of how we do our sport.

[We race] in an environment that we can only find here, and from a pure sporting point of view it’s interesting because after seven years of not being here all of our drivers and co-drivers have their starting block at the same line. Also from a sporting point of view it’s interesting to regularly change the events. Coming back for us is very positive news.

There’s been a big saturation of coverage around the campaign of Hayden Paddon and his team of supporters to get WRC back. From your side, is that quite common — are there drivers all over the globe who make the same passionate push to promote their own country? Or is it something unique to Hayden?

I think it’s fair to say that Hayden is an exceptionally good ambassador for the sport and the country.

His contribution, alongside the contribution of Peter Johnstone, Rally New Zealand, Michael Goldstein … there’s a whole group of people that in a very sympathetic manner but without stopping [laughs] were pushing to make it happen.

They were successful, and the support of Hayden was part of that success for sure. 

With an event like Rally New Zealand, what are the biggest challenges?

I’m quite confident that New Zealand will manage to organize a top level event. I have no doubts. The sporting side will be on the highest possible level, because after so many years the knowledge and the expertise — how to organize rallying on a world-class level — is within the country.

What changed since the last time is how we promote the sport. How do we create the fan experience? How do we bring the fan even closer to the car and the drivers than in the past? This is something where we team up to share our experience, to look together and what could be a good venue to make an opening ceremony or host a service park. What do we want to see in a service part that a fan — that today isn’t only men, but families —can be offered to entertain them, to make them feel good.

The same counts for the stages. In the past when the sport was organized well, you just needed to make sure how the fan finds its access to the stages. How this isn’t enough. Once they’re there, we want to make sure they feel good, they have something to eat and drink, and all the information they needs. What is the standing? Who’s coming next on the road? Wireless LAN in the forest … stuff like this has changed in the last few years. But, it’s nothing that cannot be achieved, so I’m quite confident the sport and the show will be really good when we come back. 

Other big global categories like Formula 1 and IndyCar are going through challenges with things like safety, environmental pressure, and changes in the automotive landscape — to the point that some are concerned about the health of those championships. Where is WRC standing in terms of its health and evolution?

If we measure the success of the sport by global TV audience, global digital followers, by on-site spectactors, and commercial success — there’s been a continuous postive trend for seven years now. So there’s a number of things that, apparently, have been done right.

If you look at the sport itself, years ago often the championship was over in the middle of the season or single events would be decided already on the Saturday. So, some tweaks on the start order, with the introduction of the power stage, we could change things for the better and make single events less predictable. The outcome is better drama, more unpredictability, and thus more drama. That’s not only for the single events — if you look at the last three years now rallies have been won by all the car manufacturers and by four to seven different drivers. This is great. 

And, the last two years, we brought the decision of who becomes world champion to the last round of the championship, and it was this year the second-to-last event.

So, many things have changed, and the consequences are that we get more appreciated in the media, that we get more slots, more followers … because the drama creates the relevance to be watched. If the fans are pulling the demand, the broadcasters get on board, the social media grows, and this is all happening.

At the same time, we’re increasing the offer. In the past there was a highlight show during the day and a big highlight show at the end of the event, today we offer every stage live. The sheer quantity of broadcast hours has gone through the ceiling, and at the same time the brands consequently enjoy more visibility.

We went even further; being completely independent from whether a broadcaster in each country likes to takes the rally on board or not, we offer WRC Plus, which is our own TV service. And, if you’re a hardcore follower that wants to see all the stages live, all the highlight shows, [footage] from the last three rallies on demand, you want to see the on-board cameras, you would like to compare the on-board cameras between Hayden [Paddon] and Sebastien Ogier, you want to see on Google Maps life where are all the cars, this is all available to you for $9. 

This is something that makes the sport so much more accessible, and it goes well. And this is only the media. Also on site, the number of spectators that came and saw the rallies when we started the job was in the ballpark of three million. Last year, four million. So this is an up; 20, 25 per cent, which means as an event organiser you have more people coming to the service park, coming to the stages. So whoever’s involved has a better return on investment.

Many things are going good, but this does not mean there aren’t challenges that we need to respond to. I think the important thing is to anticipate these challenges and introduce the change before it becomes a threat to you.

If you follow us closely you’ll know the decision has been made in 2022 the next generation of rally cars will be introduced, and it will be a hybrid. We respond to sustainability, the market, but also the car manufacturers today want to promote and we want to offer the platform.

Also, all our events — and this isn’t just since yesterday — have a list of obligations to fulfill criteria that make the event carbon neutral as well as other environmental requirements. And we are the single championship under the roof of the FIA where all events fulfill this criteria. So, we take care very well of these kinds of demands. 

I think [climate change] is part of all of our responsibility, but also when we want to propose an attractive marketing platform to the biggest car manufacturers or big sponsors or host cities, we must make sure that we’re up to date with sustainability requirements.

Many of these things that are a challenge to a motorsport championship, whether it’s a regulations or environment, we have that very much on the agenda, but it’s a never-ending process. Tomorrow, we will face new challenges. Manufacturers will come to us and say it’s good that we’re in New Zealand, but “we sell more cars in the United States — why are you not in the United States?” Then well need to see how we go there.

The WRC has increased its footprint with next year’s calendar by adding New Zealand, Japan, a return to Africa, and more. How important is it that a championship like this one is truly global?

I personally think this is very important. First of all, for your credibility as a world championship you should touch as many continents as possible. We haven’t been for years to Asia or Africa, and I’m really proud we could change that. 

But, part of that notion that you want to be on as many continents as possible … I also see opportunity. South East Asia; at the moment there is a very young population growing, and the growing interest in having their own car, and consequently motorsports. We have to be there now, otherwise we lose a generation. So there’s quite an intrinsic motivation for the sport to be present in a time when the market is very receptive for your offer.

We’re doing so well .. moving to Chile was a great decision. Going back to Africa next year will be tremendous — the Safari Rally is such a strong brand, to have that back in our portfolio will help the whole championship and its global visibility.

Going back to Japan, which is one of the biggest populations in the world and one of the biggest car markets and industries and at the same time being so open and positive to motorsports, this will be an accelerator for our growth in that entire timezone. We have for all broadcasters in the Asia Pacific two events that do not come with the time difference problem

So there’s a lot to consider when going global. There’s a lot of upsides, but at the same time also a lot of diffficulties. We have, unfortunately, today not the chance to grow our calendar to 16 events or maybe more. The price for coming to new destinations is losing old but also good destinations. And this something that we have to see how we do that in the best possible manner in the future.

What kind of advice would you offer Hayden Paddon after all of his trials and tribulations in 2019?

For us and for the organisation here, it would be of course a dream to have Hayden in a World Rally Car when the WRC is in Auckland.

I still want to believe that this is absolutely not an impossible thing. It is not impossible or not even unlikely, that one of the manufacturer teams might give him a car for a single event only. If this is not the case, still these cars can be rented. It’s just a commercial deal, and maybe a group of supporters in New Zealand or industry partners that want to put a sticker on the car can form a consortium, put the bucks together, rent the car, and here we go.

For me, I’m very optimistic that we’ll see Hayden in a car when it comes to Rally New Zealand. And personally I very much hope that this will happen. He’s such a great ambassador for our sport and for the country that I don’t want to see Rally New Zealand without Hayden.

Photos / NZH File, Getty Images

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