Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Roussel: FIA had to “review everything” for rally raid class renamings

To distinguish between cross-country rally classes, the FIA has long used a naming system similar to the formula ladder, prefixing the letter “T” (derived from “tout terrain”, French for “off-road”) followed by a number. As of 2023, the top-level Prototype cars is T1, production cars are T2, side-by-side vehicles get T3 and T4, and trucks are dubbed T5. In October, the FIA announced they will drop these monikers for 2024 in favour of actual terms with T1 becoming “Ultimate”, T2 turning into “Stock”, T3 is “Challenger” while T4 switches to “SSV”, and T5 gets “Truck”.

While respectively dubbing T4 and T5 as SSV and Truck for the, well, side-by-sides and trucks is blatantly straightforward, the brainstorming process for the other classes was a bit more complicated than that. In an interview with Relevo, FIA cross-country category manager Jérôme Roussel revealed the new names came following a long deliberation among him and his peers, even taking them to ChatGPT for ideas.

According to Roussel, the Amaury Sport Organisation approached the FIA after the 2023 Dakar Rally about creating “more attractive” names for the categories that would allow new fans to better understand them than the current T-based structure. This was particularly imperative in the event of new classes being added, as the trucks were previously T4 before SSVs were split into two categories to separate purpose-built race cars from production models.

“We didn’t want to keep the numbers because sometimes current T3s can put some T1s in a tight spot, and the T4s against the T3s. So it didn’t make sense to keep them,” he explained. “They had to be international names, not too specific to one language. Something that wasn’t already used in other motorsport categories and wasn’t overused in the current market.”

Although each class already had its own alternative identity that is used in the FIA’s vernacular such as Prototype for T1 and Light Prototype for T3, the ASO was hoping for “more appealing” names to roll with.

“We had the T1, T2, T3, T4, T5—T2 is almost gone, but it can lead you to think in a pyramid format like Formula 2 (with F1), which, in contrast, almost no longer exists,” Roussel said. “So we had a problem. Nobody was understanding it perfectly except those who have been in the sport for a long time. So we talked to ASO and said, ‘Okay, we need to do something to make things a bit more understandable.’

“[…] When we made our decision, we shared it with our marketing department, with theirs, to see if they felt comfortable with the results and how people who are not in the day-to-day like us saw it. They were happy, but it is undoubtedly a decision that has marketing behind it.”

The FIA and ASO had to “review everything” as part of the process, including using other off-road series around the world for reference such as SCORE International. At one point, Roussel turned to ChatGPT for suggestions; while it is the most popular artificial intelligence today, its answers are still heavily dependent on what the user inputs, which Roussel found difficult for something as niche as rally raid. He attempted to analogise the categories with weight classes in boxing, a far more popular sport that should be easier for ChatGPT to easily access its database to understand, though this did not work either.

Replicating Roussel’s experiment, The Checkered Flag booted up ChatGPT and asked it to provide new names using a series of basic and more complex descriptions for each class. In most cases, the AI seemed to provide bizarre names that sound more like rejected concept cars; one prompt led to “ApexRacers” for T1, “TerraCruisers” (T2), “XplorerXtreme” (T3), “TurboTrailblazers” (T4), and “HaulMaster” (T5), and even the simplest descriptors produced oddities like “SuperRace” (T1), “ProStock” (T2), and the walking Speed Racer copyright violation of “RacerX” for T3.

Much like Roussel, TCF‘s attempt at incorporating boxing into the prompt beared little fruit. Otherwise, Toyota Hiluxes would be competing in “TitanClass” while Can-Am Mavericks tore it up in “MiddleRover” or “TurboFeather”.

After much deliberation, the cross-country committee settled on the new names and subsequently received approval from both the ASO and FIA’s World Motor Sport Council without objection.

The new Ultimate name for T1 is intended to reflect the cars being the “ultimate” rally raid vehicles, while its production sister in T2 becomes Stock as a “more American word” that the FIA hopes will stir manufacturer interest. T2 is consistently the smallest class at FIA rallies, with the two-car Team Land Cruiser Toyota Auto Body typically being the lone entrants at Dakar.

T3 provided the biggest challenge as the committee debated between several possible terms. They eventually settled on Challenger, which Roussel compared to teams playing in the CONMEBOL Copa América football championship as they try to “challenge” superior opponents akin to T3 cars being competitive against T1.

The classes are not the only rebranded cross-country items ahead of 2024 as the FIA has also assigned new names to the Cross-Country Bajas Cups, now known as the World Baja Cup, European Baja Cup, and Middle East Baja Cup. The World Rally-Raid Championship retains its name.

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