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Plans to bring World Rally to Northern Ireland scuppered by coronavirus but Willis not giving up hope

 

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Not coming: Big stars like world champion Ott Tanak will not be gracing NI roads next year

Not coming: Big stars like world champion Ott Tanak will not be gracing NI roads next year

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Bobby Willis

Bobby Willis

Not coming: Big stars like world champion Ott Tanak will not be gracing NI roads next year

The World Rally Championship is not coming to Northern Ireland in 2021 and probably not for the foreseeable future - Covid-19 has seen to that.

Tourism NI has formally rejected a bid for funding to bring Britain's round of the WRC series to Northern Ireland next year, ending 18 months of negotiations and speculation. The decision was conveyed to Motorsport UK in a letter earlier this week.

Rally GB has been based in Wales for the past two decades but the British governing body was keen to see it move to different parts of the UK in coming years and Northern Ireland was top of the list.

However, without an Executive in place at Stormont, negotiations dragged even though the head of the tourist authority here, John McGrillen, who appeared before a select committee at Westminster, indicated there was a positive case for investing in the rally.

Indeed, as recently as six weeks ago, with Stormont back up and running, sources say there were encouraging indications that approval for funding could be given.

But Covid-19 changed all that and now the Northern Ireland Executive has other priorities.

The decision comes as a blow to former Circuit of Ireland rally director Bobby Willis, who has driven the campaign to bring the World Championship here.

He was behind the revitalisation of the Circuit of Ireland some 10 years ago, raising it to Intercontinental Challenge level, and then brought the European Championship to Ulster in 2014 and '16. His aim always was to attain World Championship status for what he termed "the sleeping giant".

When Motorsport UK announced they wanted to see the British round circulate around the UK, he got fully on board, over the past two years building an economic case for a WRC event which would have been called Rally NI.

He is disappointed with the decision to call a halt but says he fully understands it was probably inevitable in the present circumstances.

"Of course I am disappointed after so much hard work by so many people to make it possible but that disappointment is nothing in comparison to what the country - the world - is facing right now," said the Belfast businessman.

"Not being able to stage a rally, however big, means little in the greater scheme of things."

However, Willis makes the point that Rally NI would be just the kind of event Northern Ireland will need to help rebuild the economy once we emerge from this crisis.

"It would be a huge boon to the hospitality industry, our hotels and so many other areas of business which would benefit from bringing a World Championship event here. It would generate millions of pounds for the economy and also show that Northern Ireland is open for business again to a massive worldwide audience," he said.

"But that's for another day. We have to get through this crisis first and then see what we can do in the future. We haven't given up yet."

Confirming negotiations, for now, have come to an end, head of Motorsport UK, Hugh Chambers, said: "Against the backdrop of the wider public healthcare emergency and significant economic shockwaves, the affordability of a major new World Championship event such as this was, inevitably, going to be measured against the prioritisation of public investment."

Currently, the 2020 World Championship, like all other motorsport, is suspended with a tentative date to restart in July with the Safari Rally in Kenya.

Wales Rally GB is not scheduled to take place until the end of October and plans are continuing in the hope that it can go ahead, Mr Chambers saying: "Our immediate focus is running a first-class event in the north of Wales."

The first three rounds did take place in Monte Carlo, Sweden and Mexico with six-time champion Sebastien Ogier leading the standings for Toyota but the prospects of seeing him and the likes of 2019 champion Ott Tanak on Northern Ireland roads will have to wait.

Belfast Telegraph