Belfast Telegraph

Circuit of Ireland Rally: Now everyone is Rallying round to say our race should be World Championship event

By Sammy Hamill

The dust has settled, the countless hours of lost sleep are being recouped and already the talk is of next year; of the future of the Circuit of Ireland Rally.

In the wake of what has been universally hailed as an outstanding event and called, by one senior visiting official, a "beautiful rally", there has been a clamour for the Circuit to be promoted from European to World Championship level. The calls, astonishingly, are mainly coming from outside Northern Ireland.

Yes, last weekend's rally was that good. And don't just take my word for it.

Esapekka Lappi, the brilliant and charismatic young Finnish winner, said: "In my opinion it is good enough to be in the World championship. It is so nice. I like the people, the organisation has been perfect and the roads are incredible."

It was a view shared by almost any number of drivers you spoke to, from Craig Breen to Robert Consani, Sepp Wiegand to Robert Barrable, and including Kris Meeke who was holding a watching brief from the Eurosport helicopter. No surprise, of course, that he would love to see the Circuit in the WRC and his Abu Dhabi Citroen team lining up in front of Belfast City Hall!

But the strongest calls have come from national motorsport magazine journalists, men (in the main) whose job it is to report on rallies all over the world. Headlines like "Ireland deserves a WRC round" and "I would love to see the Circuit in the WRC" were followed by glowing but reasoned reports on why our most famous rally should be upgraded.

"You almost had to feel sympathy for the European Rally Championship – the Circuit of Ireland's calendar host for this season – in the way the series was entirely overshadowed by a single event," wrote David Evans in Autosport, going on to say he "couldn't agree more" with the idea of the rally moving to the World championship.

There were lots of others on the same theme.

But being an outstanding event is not the sole criteria for being part of the WRC and Bobby Willis, the rally director who rescued the Circuit when it was on its knees six years ago, takes a much more pragmatic view.

"From a personal point of view I want the World championship, of course I do. I want this event to be the best and the WRC is where we have to be," he says.

"But not yet. We have got to walk before we try to start running and the No.1 priority for me is to be the best in the European championship – that's the main target."

Few realise the commitment it has taken from former international co-driver Willis to raise the rally from near extinction to the level it enjoyed this year.

It is his tenacity and determination – he's been described as a Jack Russell, a persistent little terrier snapping at your heels and impossible to discourage – which has been responsible for, as he likes to say, the "re-awakening of this sleeping giant".

He is the promoter and the financial burden rests solely on his shoulders.

It has cost him a considerable sum of money personally since he took over from the Ulster Automobile Club, particularly last year when the Easter blizzard wiped out the rally at the last moment.

Bills still had to paid even though there was no rally and very little income.

It cost close to £500,000 to stage this year's ERC round but that figure could be multiplied by a figure of four to move to the WRC. Willis believes the money could be found, especially if the rally were to become cross border again and the Irish tourist board added their support to their Northern Ireland counterparts, but he is wary of the logistics involved.

Currently it is run by Willis and his little "kitchen cabinet" – they literally meet in the kitchen of his east Belfast home – of key aides including clerks of the course Andy Gilmore (international) and Alan Bolton (national). They are all volunteers, part-timers, who devote countless hours to make it happen.

A World championship rally could not be organised on this basis. It would take full-time commitment.

For instance, when Rally Ireland was staged in 2007 and '09 the three main players, Ronan Morgan, Sean O'Connor and David Marren, were employed professionally and they were backed up by others who took three months, six months leave of absence from work.

Willis is realistic. "The paperwork alone would keep someone in employment for a year," he observed.

So, the World championship will remain the long-term goal, the ultimate goal, but in the meantime Willis says he is committed to the European series and is optimistic the championship will be back next year.

Unlike in the past, when he has been left dangling, waiting until the last moment to hear if funding was in place, he has already secured a commitment from Discover Northern Ireland for a further two years.

Adept at building support from ministers and MLAs at Stormont, Willis has persuaded local councils to buy into the project, too, as part of his plan to "bring the rally to the people" with town centre stages in Lisburn and Newtownards as well as re-groups in Banbridge, Downpatrick and Ballynahinch. And the master stroke was centring the whole thing in the Titanic Quarter in the heart of Belfast.

It was fantastic to see the overseas crews looking around it awe as they set up camp right in front of the stunning Titanic building. City centre service areas are rare, even in the World championship, but to position it in such an iconic part of Belfast and then to devise a route over some of the finest stages anywhere in the world, all within a 30 mile radius, was the icing on the cake.

A sunny weekend helped, of course, allowing Eurosport to broadcast stunning pictures all around the world of Northern Ireland in all its Easter glory.

As impressed as anyone was former Monte Carlo Rally winner and now ERC boss Jean-Pierre Nicolas who said: "This is a beautiful rally. Bobby and his team have done a great job with the stages and the service park could be one of the best of the season."

Perhaps the last word should go to the happy Lappi. He was wary to begin with, not sure how he would cope with Ulster roads. But he was soon in his element, arriving at the finish of the Hamiton's Folly stage, for instance, wreathed in smiles.

"Crazy, crazy," he laughed. "You have to be mad to drive these stages flat out. I'm loving it!"

Weren't we all.

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