Eugene Donnelly shocked rallying fans in Ireland on Thursday by unveiling a Hyundai i20 R5 which he intends to run over the next three years. The news went viral across social media drawing out Donnelly’s many fans but is the 51-year-old the answer to the many questions currently hanging over the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship?
The five-time Irish Tarmac champion will certainly bring fans back to the ditches and with this year’s championship missing its traditional opener, the Galway Rally, having Donnelly back in 2018 may be its saving grace.
Looking beyond 2018, though, is this move enough to sustain the championship over the length of the deals three-year phase and does it do anything to attract the younger generation to Irish rallying? Unfortunately, I doubt it.
Irish rallying needs battles between its top drivers of which it has no shortage. Keith Cronin, Alastair Fisher, Sam and Josh Moffett, Rob Barrable and so the list goes on. Don’t forget the raft of talent in the R2 categories, Rob Duggan, Jon Armstrong and Callum Devine to name a few. The drivers are there, so too the rallies and fans, but what’s missing is exactly what Donnelly has done so well. Get backing from an international sponsor.
The common plea of talented rally drivers, “I just can’t find the sponsorship.” I in no way am belittling the problem because at 22-years-old I’d love to rally myself if I had a way to fund it. How though can Donnelly find a sponsor to back three-years of rallying while others can’t manage a single season? Simple, he has sold the Irish stages, something the championship itself seems to struggle to do.
And so we find ourselves back to Donnelly’s deal with Hyundai and MRF Tyres. With title backing from the Indian tyre company who is worth $2.5 billion, I might add, and who seem keen to get into the motorsport market. Already heavily involved in the Asian-Pacific Rally Championship, MRF viewed Donnelly’s offer as a great way to complement its effort to become more recognised in Europe. The size and seriousness of the company should be represented by its close proximity to the main stage at Autosport International, rubbing shoulders with M-Sport and the like.
Backing Donnelly in return for tyre development on a renowned type of asphalt and the recognition that goes with it. It doesn’t sound like a bad deal. I can’t help but think how great an opportunity it would have been for the Irish Tarmac Championship to have MRF as a sponsor. Offering incentives for competitors, something that is missed all too much currently and is the perfect way of building the waves of young rally talent the island has.
Donnelly’s news on Thursday was brilliant for Irish rallying and gives an extra dimension to the championship. What would be even better over the next couple of years would be to involve some of Ireland’s next generation of rally drivers into the deal and give vital experience to the likes of Armstrong and Duggan. Irish Tarmac battles between drivers keen to prove themselves, battling for titles in the process, is what the championship needs for future growth. Whether Donnelly and MRF can offer that in the future remains to be seen.
With ITRC sponsorship under the spotlight in 2018, the question remains, why can’t Ireland’s top rally championship get a big-name sponsor like MRF who would have had the potential to bring a new era to the famous and much loved Irish Tarmac Championship.