The bi-annual Silver Fern Rally reached its conclusion last Saturday after a mammoth eight days, 48 stages, and 1268km of competitive driving.
Once again it was the survival of the fittest, where the fastest driver in the fastest car is almost guaranteed NOT to win.
While it may not be a case of ‘slow and steady wins the race’, the rally is the definitive explanation of ‘to finish first, first you must finish’.
I’m a big fan of endurance style events, where a driver’s concentration and mental strength is tested just as much as a car’s reliability.
There’s none of these five kilometre special stages and service breaks after every other stage – this is real old school rallying.
But in 2018, is there still room in the sport for an eight-day event that covers such huge distances and involves so much time commitment from competitors, officials and, to a lesser extent spectators?
The total distance of the Silver Fern was 3557.28 kilometres. That’s a full 150 kilometres further than from Melbourne to Perth.
Matthew Robinson’s winning time for the event was over 15 hours – yes, hours!
As I said, I love the idea of endurance events, but eight days of special stage rallying in a classic car is one hugely expensive exercise, and creates an event where only the well heeled can realistically compete.
Perhaps even more importantly, can the public maintain enough interest in an event that takes over a week to complete?
The real die-hards will say yes, and comments on social media asking “why has car 23 stopped 23.4km into SS32” prove this to be the case, but what about the casual fan?
The modern generation have attention spans of about 280 characters (the maximum length of a Twitter post), so keeping them enthused over eight days is probably akin to a T20 cricket fan sitting in the outer for five long days watching a Test match.
That doesn’t mean the Silver Ferns of the world don’t still have a place though, just that their interest value is limited to a smaller percentage of fans who enjoy all the intricacies that a marathon rally puts forward.
This, in turn, may also mean that entry numbers may continue to drop as the years move forward, and as costs increase even further.
The World Rally Championship looks set to face a similar conundrum if, and when, the African Safari Rally returns to the series in, it is hoped, the not too distant future.
In days gone by there was nothing quite like a Safari Rally. Long, flat-out stages on roads still open to the general public, where a car that is uncompetitive elsewhere can easily become unbeatable.
To a similar extent, rallies like the Acropolis and Cyprus have created lasting memories where it’s the endurance factor that allowed Colin McRae to take unlikely victories in Ford’s bullet-proof Focus WRC.
An old school Safari Rally doesn’t have a place in the current WRC, however. The costs to compete, let alone the cost to cover the rally from a television point of view, not to mention the logisitical hurdles that are now put in organisers’ way, means it just can’t happen.
All the while, the push for even more compact rallies with even less overall stage distance continues, and while marathon type rallies still have their supporters, and their place in the sport, we may begin to see less and less of them.