ALTHOUGH the prospect of staging a round of the World Rally Championship in Northern Ireland this year has floundered due to Tourism NI formally rejecting a bid for funding, former Circuit of Ireland rally director Bobby Willis isn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet.
About a decade ago Belfast man Willis set about rejuvenating the Circuit of Ireland — an event he described then as “a sleeping giant”.
The reincarnation began in 2010 in the shape of a candidate round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) before subsequently becoming part of the European Rally Championship (ERC) for the first time in 23 years with Willis securing the event in the province in 2014 and again in 2016.
As the profile spiralled upwards, Willis wasn’t ready to rest on his laurels. He really wanted World Championship status for the rally and intrinsic to that plan were his contacts at the top echelon of the sport.
Politics also played a crucial part, akin to when Rally Ireland was a round of the WRC in 2007 and again two years later.
In its WRC debut in 2007, Rally Ireland was the penultimate round of the series and it began with a Super Special Stage in the grounds of Stormont Parliament Buildings before it took the roads in the counties on either side of the border with Sligo as the base.
Two years later, and with the FIA working with a rotational calendar, the event was the first round as Sligo continued as base with stages again on either side of the border.
Sebastien Loeb won both events. Opinion varies as to whether Rally Ireland was a success, did it impinge on club events in its aftermath?
There is no doubt it remains a major coup to have brought the WRC to Ireland and the exposure of the island to a worldwide audience struck a resonance with the tourism bodies.
However, it also had financial implications and the governing body here (Motorsport Ireland) had to bail out the 2009 event. Indeed, many feel that reverberations from that event are still being felt.
Meanwhile, Willis continued with his dream even though the ERC hasn’t revisited Ulster since 2016, but that is more to do with the political instability (at the time) of the Northern Ireland Executive.
Yet, all the time Willis was looking at the bigger picture and while Rally GB has been centred in Wales for the a long number of years, the WRC Promoter and Motorsport UK are keen for the event to move to different parts of the United Kingdom — Northern Ireland and Scotland being within those parameters with the former seen as being in pole position.
Willis intensified his efforts, but kept his cards close to his chest and, understandably so, at all times funding remained key and he kept his political allies up to speed by illustrating the economic benefits that can accrue from having a round of the WRC.
Willis doesn’t require the same funding as was poured into the British Open Golf Championship in Portrush last July. In recent months positive indications emanated from Westminster, boosted in no small way by the return to business at Stormont.
But in recent weeks Tourism NI has rejected Willis’ bid as the Covid-19 situation takes prominence. Willis understands the situation and although down, he is certainly not out and will re-circle the wagons at the appropriate and right time.
All sport is in unchartered territory and Willis knows that when the pandemic is over, Rally Northern Ireland, as a round of the WRC, could just be what the province needs.
“Yes, of course I am disappointed, especially after so much hard work by so many people to make it possible. But look, that disappointment is nothing in comparison to what the country, indeed, the world is facing right now,” said the Belfast businessman.
He added, “not being able to run a rally, however big, means little in the greater scheme of things.”
The disappointment is obvious, but Willis is also a realist.
“It’s (seeking a round of the WRC for Northern Ireland) for another day. We have to get through this crisis (Covid-19) first and then see what we can do in the future. We haven’t given up yet.”
The 2020 World Championship that has only completed its first three rounds — Monte Carlo, Sweden and Mexico — has no exact date for a resumption and is more likely to wait on government guidelines from the relevant countries.
Meanwhile, John Naylor, president of Motorsport Ireland, will await next month’s government announcement before deciding on a plan for motorsport that remains suspended until June 1.
“There might be a way of getting motorsport (not necessarily rallying) up and running, but it will have to be done in such a way as is viable, achievable, and be within the guidelines that will be there. The one thing we are not going to do is take any chances.” he said.
Asked if he could see a situation where there would be no motorsport for the remainder of 2020 he added: “I’m hoping not, but anything is possible. I am not making long-range decisions, it’s not that we are not having discussions, I think we have it parked for the right length of time.”
Naylor remarked that it may be possible to run other disciplines aside from rallying, but all guidelines will need to be followed. He also added that discussions with the insurance company are continuing on a regular basis.