Last week rally fans across Ireland finally got the answer to a question that has long been sitting on their lips. Is the World Rally Championship coming back to Ireland?
The answer? No. Well, not this year anyway.
If you told me 12 months ago that I would spin this news into a positive story, I would have laughed it off.
The reality is that circumstances have significantly changed in the past year. At present, Rally Northern Ireland’s switch of focus to 2022 is actually news to gratefully receive.
As coronavirus continues to run its course in Northern Ireland nobody can dispute the sensible decision to withdraw plans of holding an international event this year.
“There are bigger things going on at the moment which are really important,” said event promoter Bobby Willis. “That needs to be what is concentrated on.
“I think it is fairly obvious that the conditions aren’t right to plan the rally in 2021.”
But as one door closes another opens. Northern Ireland’s chances of appearing on a WRC calendar doesn’t end in 2021. Discussions will continue between Willis and WRC promoters to get the event back on the calendar.
“The great thing is that the promoters are very keen to come to Northern Ireland,” Willis told Rally Insight.
“They are already very enthusiastic about returning. I would say they encouraged me to continue to explore every avenue to see whether we can do it.
“To be honest, it is a fantastic opportunity that we have got here for little Northern Ireland to have this opportunity to host a round of the World Rally Championship.
“We have great infrastructure, we have the name, the reputation, and the love for the sport that I suppose they are looking for.”
WRC’s interest in Northern Ireland was confirmed by the WRC Promoter’s managing director Jona Siebel in Friday’s press release:
“It’s sad the WRC will not enjoy the beauty of Northern Ireland this year, but the pandemic continues to impact the global economy. Our enthusiasm for a WRC round there remains strong and we look forward to continuing our discussions for 2022.”
So we have gathered that Rally Northern Ireland is still very much a possibility.
Of course, such a big event requires public funding. With Parliamentarian Ian Paisley Jnr also fighting the event’s cause, Willis is keen to balance funding with a return on investment.
It is something Willis admitted to learning a lot about over the last three or four years. He was also keen to point out Northern Ireland’s success stories such as Giro d’Italia and The Open.
Both events showcased the best of the region right across the world. Rallying’s world championship would do the exact same.
But why is last week’s news a blessing in disguise?
It all comes down to the man motivated to make Rally Northern Ireland happen. The man who “reawakened the giant” when the Circuit of Ireland gained European Rally Championship status.
Bobby Willis is a man who has lived and breathed motorsport all his life. It has been his career and hobby, and now he is determined to give something back.
Willis has got the experience, the knowledge, and the contacts to make Irish rallying’s dream become a reality.
Most importantly, he is doing it to benefit the island of Ireland and benefit motorsport in the island of Ireland.
To refocus his efforts on delivering the best event possible in 2022 means that WRC’s return to Ireland coincides with the earliest time we can expect rallying to get back to normality again.
“Let’s say 2022 is when rallying is properly coming back,” explained Willis. “If by ‘22 we know we have a world championship status rally coming back and all that comes with that, that will bring people back to rallying.
“A world championship event coming to these shores will make a massive difference. That is one of the things that we all need to be striving for.”
Rallying is as big in Ireland, both sides of the border, as it is anywhere in the world. There are so many casual fans waiting for an event like Rally Northern Ireland to reignite their passion for motorsport.
It’s a culture largely created by the original Circuit of Ireland. An event that captivated the whole island with the crowds, atmosphere, and coverage that went with it.
An event to the stature of what Willis has planned is the only thing that can come close to that again.
“I have met so many people in the run up to where we are today and I’m continually reminded of the love and connection that so many people have for our sport. That is the amazing thing and that is why I keep going on with this.
“We have the opportunity to host a round of the World Rally Championship. Look at how well The Open Championship was received in Portrush, we have got to all pull the oars together to make this happen.”
Willis has been a man on a mission over recent years. He’s determined to see the world’s best rally drivers tackle Northern Ireland’s demanding asphalt roads in the fastest rally cars ever designed.
To have a WRC event showcase rallying’s return in Ireland next year will be well worth the wait.
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Cover photo courtesy of European Rally Championship