Financial uncertainty drives Circuit of Ireland off road in 2017
There will be no Circuit of Ireland Rally next year, a decision taken reluctantly by promoter Bobby Willis in the face of uncertainty over funding.
It was Belfast businessman and former rally co-driver Willis who stepped in to rescue the Circuit when it was on its knees in 2009, taking control from the Ulster Automobile Club and building it into one of the outstanding events in Europe, winning accolades from both tourism and business bodies.
But it has become a victim of its own success. In the past seven years an enthusiastic Willis has underwritten the financial liabilities himself, supporting it through the difficult days of 2010 and 2011, then taking a serious hit when the rally was cancelled at short notice in 2013 because of the severe blizzard which blanketed parts of the planned route.
There was no rally but bills still had to be paid and it cost him personally many thousands of pounds.
In the past three years, as the rally has grown into a flagship round of the European championship, there has been guaranteed funding from the Northern Ireland government as well as private sponsors and local councils who have seen the benefits the event brings in terms of television coverage - 40 million viewers worldwide last year - and spending by competitors and spectators.
But that agreement has ended and no decision on an extension is expected until later in the year. Willis says this is too late, pointing out that the complex planning is a year round project.
"Essentially we start shortly after the de-brief from the previous event and once we set the wheels in motion we are obliged to make financial commitments which have to be met whether the funding is in place or not," he explained.
"We have had fantastic support from councils across Northern Ireland, tourism bodies, private sponsorship and the NI Executive. I believe we have delivered an excellent return on investment for all our partners, with the substantial growth achieved in the last seven years.
"We have been working hard with our key funders to plan ahead for 2017 but regrettably firm confirmation of the financial support package required has still not been agreed and it is now too late for us to plan the 2017 event correctly."
Willis refuses to point the finger of blame, accepting there are other priorities for a Stormont government only recently in place and now facing the challenges of Brexit.
The re-structured local councils are also still bedding in.
"We understand the limitations and pressures on the NI Executive in particular but unfortunately we cannot risk proceeding without that financial certainty," he said.
The growth of the rally - it had a world record number of entries in the new R5 division this year - means the financial commitments are increasing and Willis feels the risks are too big for him to take.
"I have had the privilege of managing the Circuit of Ireland since 2009. In that time the event has grown significantly and now hosts the European, British, Irish and Northern Ireland championships," he said.
"Last year we had in excess of 40 million television viewers worldwide. Another hundred thousand viewers in 130 countries followed the event via live streaming in what we believe to be a first for a rally of this scale.
"Year on year the event has brought increasing social and economic dividends for Northern Ireland and, in particular, the tourism and hospitality sector. But the growing success and size of the event necessitates precise long term project planning, additional resources and inevitably more financial investment.
"The decision not to run next year has been the most difficult one I have ever had to make and will be extremely disappointing for a wide range of people including the hundreds of volunteers who have contributed so much. The Circuit of Ireland Rally has reached a level of success unimaginable only a few years ago, attracting an enviable international entry list and with opportunities for even more growth within our grasp.
"For those reasons it is vital that the 'Circuit of Ireland' brand is protected. To run it next year, in the current format, without the right resources and necessary planning period would be to do the rally a gross disservice."
Very much at the forefront of his mind is the potential for the rally to become part of the World championship. Its promotion has been widely discussed and just recently Oliver Ciesla, head of the WRC promotions company, said: "If there is a proposal to take the championship to Ireland then we are interested in that. We know all about the fan base there."
The World championships has always been Willis's dream and he feels the rally's soaring reputation could be damaged by scaling back in 2017.
"We will take the time to discuss where we go in the future with the key stakeholders to enable the Circuit of Ireland Rally to come back and realise its full potential," he said.