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International Circuit Challenge: No Circuit of Ireland but Bobby Willis sets up fresh rally challenge

By Sammy Hamill

Sweden's Fredrick Ahlin and Scotland's former British champion David Bogie are among the drivers lining up to take part in the International Circuit Challenge, a new event which is aimed at filling the gap left by the cancellation of the 2017 Circuit of Ireland Rally.

Based in Ballymena and taking place over two days, April 7 and 8, it will feature 30 invited drivers in internationally recognised R5 cars. They will tackle eight stages in the Mid and East Antrim areas with the whole event being streamed globally on the internet.

Preliminary plans were announced at the Autosport Show in Birmingham by Bobby Willis, the man who built the Circuit of Ireland into a top European event. He had to withdraw the rally from the 2017 European Championship when guarantees of funding could not be secured before the ERC deadline.

But rather than allow the momentum built up over the past eight years to diminish, Willis has stepped in with an innovative event to bridge the gap until the Circuit can return in 2018.

"It is regrettable that due to circumstances beyond our control we could not run a European Championship Circuit of Ireland this year but the intention is to be back in 2018," said Willis. "I feel it is important to keep the team together; to maintain the momentum and it's always good to try something new. It was also imperative for us to retain the road closing order which enables the Circuit to take place."

Willis says he has already had positive feedback from a number of leading Irish drivers including Desi Henry, Joe McGonigle, Jonny Greer, five-time winner of the Circuit Derek McGarrity and Marty McCormack, whose new R5 Skoda Fabia featured on the British Championship stand at the National Exhibition Centre.

"The reaction from the British Championship teams has been equally encouraging," said Willis.

"For example, Martin Wilkinson, of the CA1 Sport team, which ran both Ahlin and Bogie in the BRC last season, has confirmed both his star drivers will be entering. With drivers from England, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Wales all showing a keen interest, I think we can expect a very competitive international field."

The rally will be based at Ballymena Showgrounds and will be made up of two stages of around 10 miles which will be covered twice each day. The live TV streaming will be hosted by former World production champion co-driver Trevor Agnew, who guided the pioneering internet coverage of last year's Circuit.

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