12 July 2018

FRSL: The WRC's Godfather!

Juha Kankkunen was a major client and his first £1m driver!

Jerry Williams has been covering rallying for more than 40 years, attending World Rally Championship events across the globe to get all the insider knowledge.

A few of us enjoyed a fascinating meeting a few weeks ago. It was one of the regular “Old Farts” lunches that I started well over 10 years ago. But this time it wasn’t the food or ambience that so entertained us. The restaurant was all together a bit of a no-no in those departments. No, it was, as ever, it was rather the conversation, revelations and scurrilous gossip that got us all going...

We’re a shifting population at the lunches. People come and go. Sometimes we’re 12 or 14, sometimes fewer. On this occasion we were Mike Greasley (ex-Motorsport News editor, ex-RAC Motor Sport Division press officer, driver super-agent and former WRC leading light), his wife Sue (ex-MSA), Andrew Kellitt (Rally GB guru), Rick Smith (former head of Rallye Sunseeker – by far the most innovative British championship round), my bruv Mark (world champion ligger and WRC fan), Maurice Hamilton (long-time F1 writer and rally enthusiast), Simon Pearson (PR extraordinaire) and myself.

Perhaps the most remarkable attendee was Greasley. But I fear that in 2018 few rally fans will have ever heard of him and even fewer will know the seismic effect he had on the World Rally Championship 25 years ago. 

Let me say that while the newer writers in motorsport are not always the kind of young know-nothings that infest other sports, none of us is getting younger and I fear that the massive contributions of the likes of Greasley will soon be forgotten. And it shouldn’t be so. That is why it is important that they are set down.

Miki Biasion was another WRC Champ client

I’ve known Mike now for over 30 years. I always called him “The Godfather” on account of his massive influence on the way world championship rallying developed. He originally came to prominence as a campaigning rallies editor of Motorsport News. Later, he was the editor, then rallies editor again. He took an ironic line on many of the controversies of his day. And gradually, he got to know all the top drivers of the 1980s and 1990s, very well. 

By the time he left Motorsport News (then Motoring News) this had morphed into his becoming an agent for drivers and co-drivers. At one time, he had the likes of Stig Blomqvist, Juha Kankkunen, Miki Biasion, Kenneth Eriksson, Richard Burns and many other top names of that era on his books. Stiggy was Greasley’s first signing and was seminal in other rally-men being signed up. 

Greasley also branched out into Formula 1 with Martin Brundle, Eddie Irvine and Mika Salo and Touring Cars with the likes of Kelvin Burt. He was the first true motorsport super-agent!

Then there was the Camel Trophy, where he looked after the competitive element with Terry Harryman and Seth-Smith. That went to places such as Sulawesi, Siberia and the Amazon (he tells stories of trying to locate a live tarantula in a Discovery at night!). Soon, he and his cohort and confidante Richard Seth-Smith, together with the then-hugely influential Toyota boss, the late Ove Andersson, had the great idea of starting the World Rally Teams Association.

Greasley was declared General Secretary and the aim was to combat the power of the FIA and rally organisers. The WRTA grew from dissatisfaction among teams at the use of their film rights for promotion, adverts, and dealership promotions etc, plus the fact that organisers took no notice of anything that teams said or wanted.

Mika Salo made up Greasley's trio of F1 drivers

MRG (as others called him), Andrew Cowan (of Mitsubishi) and Andersson were the original leading lights, encouraged and assisted by tobacco super-rep Sean O’Connor and of course his right-hand man Seth-Smith. And this was not just about TV, but it also encompassed shared air-freight costs, safety and PR among other worries. The WRTA fed the worldwide Reuters news agency from every event (Seth-Smith); organised a Rally of the Year award and had regular contact with Max Mosley and the FIA Rallies Commission. It sent safety and organisation reports to organisers after events and arranged calendar co-ordination and other aspects of the championship.

But the film rights issue was the real crux because the teams knew their bosses would not pay for an activity which they then had to pay to use. Back then, Bernie Ecclestone’s International Sportsworld Communicators had the TV rights… gifted to them by Max Mosley. In about 1992, Ecclestone made the teams’ film crews sign away their rights before getting any accreditation to film… including paying to use film they had shot! MRG was the sole contact with him on TV and rights.

But once the WRTA was formed, the teams paid BBC Birmingham to produce programmes from each WRC round and had access to it for their own purposes. The tapes went back to ISC which distributed them. Seth-Smith had taken the whole caboodle to the EU Competition Commission and started the process to successfully prise Ecclestone’s fingers off the rights.

Overall, Greasley’s WRTA didn’t cost the teams big money. The total TV budget for 1993 was between £500,000 and £600,000. In the final year it reached about £700,000, spread between Ford, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Subaru. New teams were charged a small fee to join.

Eddie Irvine was another top F1 client

The WRTA was a brilliant concept, superbly introduced. It smoothed out many wrinkles in a burgeoning championship and dragged its administration into the modern era. But it all started to fall apart at the end of 1996, when David Richards proposed a better deal with Canal+ (which had, admittedly, produced stunning filming of Catalunya that year). They would charge not much more than half the BBC fee. The BBC refused to even try to match such a proposal, saying it was impossible. 

So why did the WRTA fold up? Greasley, the leading light, had a stroke in 1995, aged 47. It was undoubtedly brought on by the stress of dealing with teams, the FIA etc and left him somewhat incapacitated, unable to rescue the situation. His drivers subsequently left him and he retired. These were men who had benefited hugely from his expertise and experience in the past. Seth-Smith, Greasley’s wife and Charles Reynolds (the WRTA’s one employee) were all tired of the constant fight for the organisation. 

In his time, Greasley had negotiated the first million dollar pay packet; for Kankkunen on his return to Toyota in 1988. Later, he persuaded Peter Ashcroft, of Ford, to part with the first £million+ yearly fee; winning Biasion £3.3 million for three years from 1992. By then he had several drivers on lucrative deals.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, with six, often seven teams, each running three cars and fighting for drivers’ services, salaries had rocketed. By the Millennium some rally stars were rivalling Formula One pay packets. When Peugeot hired Burns for a reported £4 million a year in 2002, World Rally Champion Marcus Grönholm, then said to be on less than £3 million, went ballistic. Cue swift contract renegotiation.

McRae is widely agreed to have topped everyone with around £5.5 million for his last year at Ford and again for 12 months with Citroën. While this sum was not negotiated by Greasley, without doubt it was his work with the others that helped make it happen. 

The Camel Trophy was another of Greasley's projects

But the WRC had over-reached itself. From seven three-car teams in the early 2000s, now there were now only four. No-one could match the budgets of the Big Four (Ford, Peugeot/Citroën, Mitsubishi and Subaru) so had little chance of the winning glory needed to persuade company accountants to free up funds! Of course, that meant that fewer teams so power over driver salaries reverted to the team bosses.

Greasley, meanwhile, was being virtually airbrushed out of WRC history. The visionary who had done more than anyone to smooth rallying’s progress into the modern era was in effect a forgotten man. But he was still enjoying himself, despite the stroke. He’s now 70 and retired to Northamptonshire with Sue and their dogs and maintaining a wide circle of friends. His son Matt is a race engineer in IndyCars.

Since “retiring”, he has taken a BA and MA in modern history and is working on his Phd. But recently he had another “episode” …a small stroke that knocked him back. However he even made light of that, telling me at our lunch: “I made a fuss about seeing the doctor in hospital. He came and sat on my bed.”

“Mr Greasley,” he said: “I’ve looked at your MRI scans and frankly, I shouldn’t be talking to you. You should be dead. OK?”

However, MRG continues, against the odds. He remains optimistic and says he has had a charmed life for a lad from Oswestry. But isn’t it time motorsport’s movers and shakers recognised his contribution to the development of the WRC?

Mike was always keen on new talent. Surely a Greasley Cup for the most promising youngster would be a good way to recognise this… 

Over to you, Mr. Todd.

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