Thrills, spills, drama, and controversy – on the face of it, the 2022 Circuit of Ireland Rally had it all. The only problem is that behind the race for rally honours, this year’s Circuit proved to be a struggle.
Last week, I wrote an article explaining why the Circuit of Ireland was only going to feature stages in two specific areas of County Antrim.
The Ulster Automobile Club had an extreme desire to run the rally in 2022 with or without coronavirus restrictions present in Northern Ireland. Glendun and Cairncastle provided two challenges worthy of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship. Okay, more would have been great but two is better than none.
Unfortunately, that is where things began to unravel.
Saturday afternoon’s bogey-time episode has already been well-publicised. Bogey times were given to Alastair Fisher and Josh Moffett on Stage 9. In effect, it put Fisher out of the contention for the Circuit of Ireland win. Stage 9’s repeat, Stage 11, was the final test of the day and with no change in stage conditions, the only chance Fisher could win was if Moffett encountered trouble on Cairncastle’s decider.
That all changed on the crews’ way out to the final stage of the rally. A bulletin was despatched after the leaders had left the service area to say that bogey times had been removed from the whole rally and were no longer in effect.
Moffett and co-driver Andy Hayes were left to come to terms with the fact their comfortable lead was now less than one second. With Fisher on a stage-winning roll, the ITRC leaders had to completely change their mindset while waiting at the start of Stage 11.
The problem wasn’t the bogey-time reversal, UAC got that decision right. Running under the FIA’s regulations for the European Rally Trophy, bogey times should never have been applied in the first place.
If the club didn’t know, it didn’t know, but maybe one senior official should have listened to the young co-driver who asked during recce why bogey times were needed on an international rally. Instead, the co-driver was belittled and told he wasn’t competent enough to understand the regulations.
Somebody clearly forgot the value of the competitor.
After 11 hours of rallying on Friday, the Circuit of Ireland crews arrived at the pre-service regroup. It was eight o’clock, starting to rain, and the relative comfort of their service vans was less than 50 metres away.
They waited, waited, and waited until finally they restarted their state-of-the-art rally cars to drive 20 seconds into their team’s service area. At the time it seemed unnecessary but as rules are rules I reckoned it was just one of those things.
I had heard a few quips regarding the long regroup periods and could do nothing but sympathise. Then I found out the pre-service regroups weren’t even the ones in question.
Such was the spread-out and overextended time schedule, crews were having to park up at the side of the road before, between, and after every stage to do nothing else but put the time in.
While one might appreciate some chill time over the Easter break. These constant 20-minute pauses were the worst that drivers could imagine. Brakes and tyres went cold as the cars sat idle and the crews lost any momentum or focus they had off the back of the previous stage.
Again this was another issue tied back to the club’s willingness to run the Circuit of Ireland in lockdown conditions if required. Even though they were running loops of two stages, the organisers had to adhere to the international target time set out in the FIA regulations.
Competitor relations took another hit when told they would have to print their own road book. That didn’t come to fruition but they did have to print their own time cards.
As for the road book, it was changed a couple of times without detailed information. The last change was released via Sportity with very limited information. For those that did spot the release, the shock on their faces said it all. It was a change made without any formal notification or signatures at the start of the stage.
This was another piece that wouldn’t have helped Fisher and Moffett’s final stage showdown.
Then there were the chicanes. I understand the necessity for chicanes and this ties into both the stage selection to suit a covid-proof rally as well as the issues with bogey times.
Of course chicanes were required on Glendun and Cairncastle. That was expected. But the plastic barriers used didn’t exactly go down a treat. The best way to understand this is to watch an in-car video.
30-second time penalties were to be applied to cars that moved a plastic barrier. Unsurprisingly that turned out to be difficult to police and enforce, and as it happened no penalties were applied.
At least this issue comes back to the stage selection which can be resolved moving forward.
Before I finish, I must praise the hard-working volunteers who gave up their time to make sure we had a rally to attend over the Easter weekend. I had some lovely conversations with brilliant timekeepers and stage marshals. The problems detailed above were not their doing and, in fact, they were the ones who had to bear the brunt of the consequences throughout the weekend.
These volunteers were at the ready when a paramedic was needed for a spectator on Cairncastle as well as dealing with a resident’s car left in a box junction on Saturday morning.
As far as I can tell, there is no shortage of experienced, intelligent, and well-meaning individuals that can ensure what happened on this year’s Circuit of Ireland doesn’t happen again.
The Circuit of Ireland returned for the first time in six years last weekend but it fell short of the high standard set by its famous name.
Do we want to see this giant back to its former rallying glory? Of course we do. And it doesn’t need to be a full-blown “Circuit of Ireland” – that’s clearly not achievable.
If last weekend’s broken bonds can be mended, let’s hope the lessons are learned and 2022 will be put down to post-covid teething problems.