Crisis? Welsh Forest Rallying Can See The Woods For The Trees, Thanks To Rally4Wales

The classic Welsh forests stages, once reverberating to the orchestral sounds of high-revving engines and gravel ricocheting off metal, are eerily quiet. Only one gravel rally has taken place in Wales this year, the Visit Conwy Cambrian Rally at the beginning of February, and a temporary suspension on all motorsport activities in the UK remains in force. But four years ago there was an even bigger crisis that could have witnessed a permanent end to forest rallying in Wales – with an estimated £15M annual loss to the Welsh economy.

Towards the end of April 2016, the stalemate in negotiations between what was then the Motor Sport Association (rebranded now as Motorsport UK, the UK motorsport’s governing body) and Natural Resources Wales were becoming public knowledge. Put simply, NRW felt that rallying massively underpaid its way in terms of the cost it incurred in repairing the gravel forest roads after each rally – to such an extent that it was proposing a 50% increase in costs for forest rallying to continue.

Given that hiring the forest roads was already the biggest expenditure to a rally event organiser, and the cost to competitors to enter these events was already high, any such increase in costs would threaten the mere existence of rallying in the Welsh forests. It was a dire situation. There was no middle ground between the MSA and NRW, and the two sides had effectively ceased talking to each other.

On 4 May that year, Jamie Edwards (a well known rally co-driver and Director of TenderWrite Ltd, a specialist business development agency with a track record of winning contracts in the public and private sectors) had a Facebook Messenger conversation with David Evison (the Secretary of the Pirelli Welsh Forest Rally Championship and a long-time friend) on the need for the sport to stand up for itself and tackle this issue head on. Jamie coined the term Rally4Wales, which was to become the saviour of forest rallying in Wales.

“Dave and I began the process of trying to formalise a lobby group or campaign group,” explains Jamie. “We set up a Twitter and Facebook page, and I wrote a blog which had over ten thousand views in the first couple of weeks, highlighting that the sport was too precious to the Welsh economy to disappear overnight, and we couldn’t just let it die. It resonated with a lot of people, but it was equally surprising how few people actually sat up and did anything.

“Literally hundreds of hours went into ‘phone calls, e-mails, letters to politicians, council staff to lobby that there was a clear economic argument for the sport to continue in Wales as a key part of the rural economy. This culminated in a petition being presented to the Welsh Assembly, which I delivered in person to the Senedd. Despite support from a number of cross-party AMs and MPs from Plaid Cymru and the Conservative Party, NRW was initially resistant to this, citing that it wasn’t for the public purse to subsidise rallying or motorsport on public land.

“At this point, Dave Evison and I were leading the lobby group, with Dave predominantly speaking to those inside the sport at club level, and me tackling the political and media side with help from Mark James [a former World Rally Championship presenter with the BBC and current freelance continuity announcer for BBC Wales]. We were featured on S4C and BBC Wales news, the story gaining traction with a £15M loss to the Welsh economy predicted if agreement couldn’t be reached.”

The publicity attracted the attention of Richard Ceen. He lives locally to Jamie in Wrexham and had competed in rally for over 40 years – and more importantly he had sold his marine business and invested in forestry; buying land in North Wales, converting it into a timber harvesting and opening a rally test centre. As a result, Richard had his own gravel road repair plant and machinery, including a grader, roller, tractor and staff employed to do that type of work. Richard proposed a self-repair model, where the sport would appoint and pay a contractor to fix the loose gravel roads damaged after each rally – thus saving NRW from having to spend any money on road repair at all going forwards.

“It’s no disservice to Richard to say that we had to make a lot of assumptions as we tried to create the initial proposal for how this could work,” admits Jamie. “At this point, we’d had little to no contact from the MSA, and a lukewarm response from initial contact with NRW. With the proposal created, we requested a meeting with Executive Operations Director Tim Jones of NRW to discuss the viability. To our surprise, he quickly accepted. At this point, we offered the proposal to MSA, who said they would consider it only if NRW had any interest in it, which in truth was disappointing at that time. It was a massive culture shock to the MSA to have to deal with a previously non-existent ‘fan powered’ third party like us. I’m not sure they genuinely believed we could do it or we were deadly serious about it for some time. Either way, it’s fair to say they didn’t embrace what we wanted to offer initially.”

But Rally4Wales was deadly serious and, from a standing start, had quickly gained a significant amount of momentum. By July 2016, following political pressure caused by the publicity, Rally4Wales sat face-to-face with two senior executives of NRW in North Wales. How self-repair could work, and the tangible benefit to NRW, was presented – and the fact that NRW didn’t dismiss the idea was seen as a positive.

“Over the next few months, what followed was a series of online and face-to-face meetings with NRW and MSA to try and make the project viable, accepted and realistic,” says Jamie. “Eventually, NRW met with us and MSA in Buckley in October 2016 and the historic agreement was made in principle that from January 2017, all rallying repairs would be completed by Rally4Wales as a self repair system. It was a big leap of faith by everyone, especially Tim Jones from NRW. Without his support and forward thinking, the project wouldn’t have been possible. So with negotiations done, now the serious business of actually doing it for it real began.”

A new limited company called Rally4Wales Contracts Limited was set up, with four directors – Dave Evison (Finance Director), Richard Ceen (Technical Director), Jamie Edwards (Managing Director) and Gwyn Reynolds-Jones (the Northern Chair of Welsh Association of Motor Clubs).

“We then held a meeting in Welshpool with NRW, MSA and all affected organising motor clubs,” recalls Jamie. “It’s fair to say that not everyone attending that meeting was welcoming with open arms. There were lots of questions, and a lot of uncertainty. It wasn’t the ‘well done on sorting the job out lads’ reception people might expect. But overall, people were cautiously optimistic that it could work, and as Tim Jones stated publicly in the meeting: ‘There’s a one horse race happening here – so you can either back this horse or there’s nothing for you to back at all.’ It was a clear statement.”

With agreements in place, then there was the small matter of actually getting the forest road repair work done.

“Looking back, the rest of 2017 year was like a blur, a real whirlwind,” says Jamie. “Richard literally threw his heart and soul into making it work. He put hours and hours of daily work in on the ground, managing his team and ensuring the repair work was done. Early rises, late nights, long weekends. It wasn’t easy, and it involved a lot of reactive contract management. There was no instruction manual, no guidance to speak of and no reference points – we learned on the job. Dave kept the wheels turning financially, working with the clubs on invoices, answering queries, admin etc. On the ground staff at NRW were a bit hostile in some areas, as there was a strong feeling with some that we shouldn’t be doing the work – they should – and senior management had enforced a decision on everyone. It wasn’t an easy time – and looking back, it involved a lot of patience, tact and diplomacy to get through it. There were many exasperated calls where we all felt like sacking it off and letting someone else try and sort it out. But we stuck to the task and carried on.

“We got through that first year mostly unscathed. We had a few bumps in the road including a grader in a ditch, lots of punctures on graders, some breakdowns and some blood, sweat and tears to make it happen. But make it happen we did. The business made a small profit on its £270,000 turnover in that first year – and we covered our costs. The roads started to improve and we started the slow process of building some trust with some rally organisers. Crucially, we kept costs for organisers as low as we could, to try and bring some stability for the sport.”

Since then, Rally4Wales has developed its business model and to this day continues to repair the forest roads after rally use. It has employed an Operations Manager, Wenna Roberts, who runs the projects full time, as well as liaising with NRW, Motorsport UK and on the ground teams across Wales. She is a tremendous asset to the sport and the business.

“Has it become easier? Yes and no,” admits Jamie. “We still have issues occasionally and the challenges of all year round work in rural areas doesn’t change. If it’s too hot and dry in summer, or it it’s too wet and cold in winter, our work is very limited in what we can do whilst still needing to get work done. That said, we’ve got through it by being prepared to accept that we’re not perfect, and none of us were civil engineers prior to taking the project on. Do the roads seem better prepared? Yes, I think so, and I think most competitors have seen a difference of now compared to pre-2017. It’s never going to be a perfect ‘carpet’ quality road everywhere as the forests are busy places with timber extraction, but we’re proud of the work done – and some stages are genuinely world class with a fantastic road quality. I speak for everyone at Rally4Wales when I say that’s the element that makes us most proud. It’s not just about Wales Rally GB; it’s ensuring a fantastic competitor experience for everyone, from humble club driver to WRC stars. We want them to keep returning and to bring their friends to Wales to experience it themselves.”

Rally4Wales is currently in the final stages of negotiating a new three-year contract with NRW and Motorsport UK. Having saved forest rallying in Wales, the aim is now to help try and modernise the way the sport runs in Wales and to ensure its longer term future.

“Make no mistake, there is a future for rallying in its spiritual home of the forests of Wales,” says Jamie. “There are literally hundreds of miles of untapped private forestry roads that could be used potentially. There’s around a thousand miles of roads operated by NRW and the sport uses around ten per cent of this for rallying regularly. So for a small country, there’s plenty of roads to use – but we need to sometimes be a bit more open minded about what we can or could do, rather than just say we can’t. I hope we can try and help change some of those mind-sets in future years.

“The sport urgently needs to get its act together on being more sustainable though. In a changing world, the need to be considered more environmentally aware is vital. The sport is dragging its heels on this and has a mind-set rooted in the 1980s – and it’s an area we have to address very quickly.

“For example, how can we try and make rallying at all levels carbon neutral? It isn’t going to cost the fortune that people think – but there is a head in the sand attitude towards these types of issues that isn’t helping. These topics feature in our conversations with various project stakeholders – so we cannot brush it away.

“2020 is a very challenging year for everyone, Rally4Wales included. We’re doing our best to get through this COVID-19 crisis like everyone else. We remain positive that rallying can restart in Wales later in the year, but only when it’s safe to do so for everyone.

“On the plus side, it’s nice to look back and remind ourselves that without our involvement in 2016, it’s unlikely that forest rallying in Wales would even be something to look forward too. It’s been quite the adventure in the past four years.”

Posted on: April 29th, 2020
Posted in: Dai-Sport