CIRCUIT AIMING FOR WRC BERTH
Bosses of this week’s Circuit of Ireland Rally are hoping a massive top-heavy entry can spur the event on to a World Rally Championship slot in the near future
Officials within the organisation of the Belfast-based event make no secret of the desire to join the WRC and it is hoped a recordbreaking entry, allied to a cutting edge approach to media coverage, make it increasingly difficult for the world championship to ignore.
The Circuit’s 38-strong R5/ S2000 international entry is well documented – but what is even more impressive is the overall response to a rally on the verge of collapse less than a decade ago. The organisers received close to 200 entries for 145 available spaces – an unprecedented oversubscription for the event.
That top quality entry – across an international and national event – has been made possible by bringing together the European, British and Irish Tarmac Championships for the first time in 25 years this week.
Beyond the competitor response, the Circuit will break new ground as it seeks to become the first event to run a live internet stream from the start to the finish of its competitive element.
Starting from Friday morning, rally fans across the world will be able to watch the event unfold, something event director Bobby Willis is particularly proud of.
“I had this idea about nine months ago,” said Willis. “So I talked to a few people about it and found out it could work. It would be a bit of a gamble, but it could work, so we thought we’d go for it. I can’t think of another event which has done this.
“We’ve got a studio, two satellite trucks, cameras, presenters, drones, the whole thing. We’ll have live pictures from the end of a number of stages and prerecorded action footage. It’s going to be magic.”
Willis remains the driving force behind the event and its incredible resurgence.
In 2007, such was the disharmony between the organising team and the other stakeholders, the Circuit didn’t run; the UAC Easter International Rally was run instead.
Willis got involved two years later, brought the Intercontinental Rally Challenge to the table in 2012, lost the event to heavy snowfall in 2013 but returned with a European Rally Championship place in 2014 and last year.
“I’ve put a lot of work into the Circuit,” says Willis. “But I don’t like being singled out for any praise. We are a team of people who work incredibly hard and without all of us working like this, we really wouldn’t have a rally.”
The event has been funded by local councils as well as Tourism Northern Ireland (the NI tourist board), and there is increasing government interest with strong ministerial support for taking the event to the next level.
“We’ve always had very good links with government,” said Willis. “But it’s stronger than ever now. People are really seeing the incredible benefits this rally can deliver to Northern Ireland – and we’re not just talking about the 40 million or so folk who will see the thing on television. I like to think of this sport as an opportunity of showing more than 20 different ‘events’ in the region – from public regroups to spectator stages – they can all be looked at separately, not as just one rally.
“What we have to do now is foster this support and turn it into the sort of financial backing which I believe would make us a very, very strong candidate for a world championship round. Bringing the WRC back to this island is a dream for everybody in our team; it’s the pinnacle and with the right backing I firmly believe we could make not just a WRC round, but a bloody good WRC round.”
Despite its name, the Circuit of Ireland has been rooted firmly in Northern Ireland in recent years – that is something else Willis is happy to consider changing.
“We’ve pushed the boat out with taking this rally to the north coast of Northern Ireland this week,” added Willis. “But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Crossing the border to Southern Ireland is also possible and I think we have to consider that in the future planning of the event. I’m not about to rule anything out where this rally is concerned, but what’s vital is to get some buy-in from regions where the event is visiting.”
First run in 1931, the Circuit is the world’s third oldest rally, but its future has rarely looked brighter.
“We’ve got a new business plan in place for the rally,” said Willis. “OK, I’m still in a very, very precarious position in terms of personal investment in the event and this really does have to change, but I believe it will. I’m absolutely convinced we’ve got the Circuit back on track and the response from competitors bears that out this year. This event’s future is not only bright, but very, very exciting as well and that’s something the 12-strong management team and the hundreds of volunteers who make this possible can take a huge amount of pride in.”
Lines of communication remain between the Circuit organisers and WRC Promoter.
One source at the heart of the sport’s governance told MN: “If the Circuit of Ireland came with a cross-border event underpinned by long-term government support – in the same style of Wales – I’m pretty convinced that would be hard for any of us to ignore. Granted, the market’s not huge and it’s another European event, but look at the history and the heritage, that side of things would certainly appeal to our president [Jean Todt].”
The Circuit of Ireland gets underway with a ceremonial start in Lisburn on Thursday evening and finishes in Belfast on Saturday.
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