The Circuit of Ireland has undergone a revival over the last few years under the stewardship of Bobby Willis and his team. Before Bobby took over, the rally was only a shadow of its former glories. Gone were the days of attracting the cream of European, British and Irish rallying. There will be many who bemoan the fact that the rally is no longer a true Circuit of Ireland and only two days long, but without the intervention of Bobby and his team the rally may well have disappeared, as numbers entering the rally were dwindling. Also, a five day event is no longer viable for current cars as running costs would be prohibitive for the crews. Major teams now want centralised service and hospitality areas where they can schmooze sponsors and VIPs.
In its heyday the Circuit was seen as one of the toughest tarmac rallies in the world, attracting top teams and crews from around the globe. In the 1970s and 1980s the British Rally Championship (BRC) was second only to the World Rally Championship in terms of entries and the Circuit benefited from being a round of the BRC during these heady days.
When the new management team announced they intended to make the Rally great again, many scoffed at the idea but Bobby and his crew had other ideas. In 2010 the rally ran out of Dundalk and was a candidate event for the Intercontinental Rally Championship (IRC). This was seen as a major success and by 2012 they had reserved their place on the championship calendar.
Easter weekend of 2012 the rally base had moved to Armagh and included super special stages at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast and also through the streets of Lisburn. The entry saw the works Skoda Fabias arrive en-mass with three factory cars plus two customer cars. Two factory sanctioned Santileoc Peugeot 207 S2000s, a few other small European teams plus some of the cream of Irish drivers who had cars eligible for the event. The three works Skoda drivers controlled the event whilst battling each other, with Juho Hanninen and Mikko Markkula eventually claiming the spoils.
Disaster was to strike in 2013 with the difficult decision to withdraw the event from the IRC due to a lack of funding and regroup for 2014, whilst continuing to run a national event. This then fell foul to the worst snowfalls we have seen in a number of years.
2014 was under the spotlight, but again the organisers pulled it out of the bag, as they secured a place on the calendar for the IRC’s replacement, the ERC, or European Rally Championship, to give its full title. The ERC was launched as second only to the WRC in terms of importance by the sport’s governing body, the FIA. The base had moved to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast and promotion stepped up to a new level. Again the Skoda team arrived with two cars; Santileoc ran two Peugeot Academy cars plus others from Europe and Ireland. Over day one Esapekka Lappi in the Skoda and Craig Breen in the Peugeot battled for every second and the weather was magnificent. At stage ends all the crews praised the stages, saying they were amongst the best tarmac stages in the world. Breen struck trouble early on Saturday morning and Lappi cruised to a comfortable victory.
On to 2015 and the works Skoda team were developing their new car and didn’t make the start. This left the door open for a new victor; Craig Breen was one of two Peugeot Academy drivers along with a host of Irish and European crews. Over the two days Breen and Robert Barrable, in his R5 Fiesta, swapped the lead, with the battle only being settled when Barrable slid off the road within sight of the finish. Kajetan Kajetanowicz was very close behind and almost snatched victory when Breen had a massive spin on the last stage, but the Slieverue man held on to grab victory by 6secs. It was a very emotional win as Breen dedicated his victory to his childhood hero Frank Meagher, who won the event in 1992.
Now 2016 beckons and the rally has moved base to the Kings Hall Complex in Belfast, which has the more expansive grounds required to hold all the service crews of this year’s event. The organisers have once again pulled off a coup by returning to the BRC, and this will run alongside the current ERC and ITRC. R5-S2000cars are the top cars in all three series and the organisers are expected to announce an absolute bumper entry. This year also sees the reintroduction of several classic stages around the Antrim Coast area, which are sure to test the crew’s mettle. They will run on the Friday, and on Saturday the rally returns to modern classics in Co. Down.
Six years ago Bobby Willis spoke about the giant that was slumbering. It seems the giant is well and truly alive this year, and is visiting the land of Finn McCool, a true Irish Giant! Who will be the giants fighting it out on the stages? I will take a look at the likely contenders nearer the time, but remember to not only enjoy the show, but also take time to appreciate what has been achieved in just six years.