2017 has it been a very big opportunity missed, To have a round of the World Rally Championship back on our shores? The provisional 2017 calendar has recently been announced and next year’s championship so far has 12 confirmed rounds with the possibility of adding two further rounds from three potential candidate events: Poland, China & Turkey. Poland has been dropped from the main championship because of spectator safety fears; Turkey was previously a round of the championship but has to have a big question mark over it with the political difficulties it and the region are facing right now. China is definitely very appealing to the manufacturers as it is a rapidly expanding sales market for them. China was meant to be a round of the world championship this year but it didn’t run due to heavy rains damaging the roads but there was also a feeling that certain authorities within China didn’t want the championship to visit their country.
Marc Mac Sherry TD from Sligo has recently stated that he would like to bring Rally Ireland back to Sligo. Marc was very supportive of the plans of the organisers back in 2007 & 2009 and in his time in the Senate he raised rallying to a new level in the political think tanks. Although, some questions need to be asked before we should consider if Rally Ireland should return. One of the reasons that was stated at the time as to why Rally Ireland was withdrawn from the WRC calendar was the high costs of accommodation and entertainment for the teams and fans that had travelled to the North West. No one wants to feel their event is being used to line the pockets of others, but many of the teams felt that hoteliers had inflated the prices to an unacceptable level. Though we have seen with other sporting and entertainment events taking place in Ireland that the cost of accommodation is not just an issue with Sligo.
Was Sligo a big enough City to host a round of the WRC? Hotel beds are not exactly on the Dublin or Belfast scale but there were enough rooms to cope with the numbers off people who did attend when Rally Ireland ran in 2007 & 2009. Would it make more sense to run a rally based on the east coast of Ireland? Closer to main airports, ferry ports and larger centres of population, all these would mean a larger audience on your doorstep, easier for teams, crews and spectators to access accommodation, and all the other services they require and reduce their transport costs.
Rally Ireland ran as a cross border venture and no doubt repeating this would be advantageous in securing funding as the previous events attracted money from the governments both North and South of the border. This helped bring a scale of promotion and professionalism never seen before to Irish Rallying. Rallying was main stream for those events; something we hadn’t seen in Ireland since the mid 80’s and was getting positive news coverage and dedicated TV local slots.
Bobby Willis who resurrected the Circuit of Ireland in recent years has seemingly been in contact with the promoters of the WRC. Bobby and his team have done an amazing job in reviving the Circuit of Ireland during a financial difficult period, bringing the cream of both the European & British Championships back to our shores. The last couple of years have demonstrated that drivers from beyond our shores love the challenge posed by our roads. The bumps, jumps and high speed nature are unlike any other tarmac events they have experienced. Helicopter shots from stages such as Torr Head and Hamiltons Folly where awesome and purely from a tourist point of view they sold the beauty this country has to offer. Listening to the comments of the drivers at stage ends was breath-taking, they described the stages amongst the best they had ever driven anywhere. Esapekka Lappi (works Skoda driver and a Finn) described Hamiltons Folly as the tarmac equivalent of Ouninpohja, one of the world’s greatest stages.
Bobby’s Circuit of Ireland plans for 2017 have been scuppered by lack of funding from the Northern Assembly, budgets could not be agreed for 2017 and he had to take the difficult decision to pull the event for next year. As I said earlier next year could well have been our year to shine, with Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle in a works Citroen as lead driver and Craig Breen hopefully securing some form of works drive for next year the will would surely have been there to promote these guys and the sport on a larger scale in Ireland and beyond.
Government funding has to be an absolute must for any event on this scale, and needs to be seen as a long term plan not just a one year plan and the following year left up in the air until it’s too late. This year Bobby and his team included local councils in the rally, having regroups, fuel stops, ceremonial starts etc. This brought local councillors out in force and local newspapers all happy to cover rallying in a positive light. If they feel they got good coverage out of it they will only be too happy to keep it in their area again and this would lead to more exposure and more money in the coffers.
It is said that it is unlikely that the WRC promoters would entertain another event under the jurisdiction of the MSA (UK Motorsport Authority) but a joint effort with the MSA and MI (Motorsport Ireland), would surely be a more attractive proposition. Unfortunately it is unlikely that Ireland will see the WRC here in the short term; we have a small car market, so it has little appeal to the manufactures. Also the WRC promoter is looking to reduce European events in terms of distance, time and possibly number of events, so current events are likely to fight tooth and nail to remain in the series and likely new events will be in new terrain or territories that appeal to car manufacturers. In conclusion those of us lucky enough to have witnessed the WRC on the roads of Ireland in 07 & 09 were extremely lucky, and we will have to wait a long time if ever we get a chance to see the likes of it again! Also is the will there to bring a round of the WRC back to Ireland, no doubt spectators would welcome it back with open arms on the provision they were not asked to pay to get on the stages. This idea was floated last time and went down like a lead balloon and was shelved but ‘free’ rallying is not the norm at most other European rounds on the WRC, this may be story for another day!!