Motor Sport News - - Headline News - By David Evans

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.

BRC brings ex­tra R5 en­try

Photos: mck­lein-im­age­

WRC headed to Emer­ald Isle for the last time in 2009 with Se­bastien Loeb

win­ning for Citroen

ERC run­ners on Cir­cuit for sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year

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