Vincent Hogan: Breen's success can't stop storm clouds gathering
In Argentina last week, Craig Breen recalled a recent night in the Midlands when the threat of cancellation loomed over the entire Irish motorsport calendar.
The meeting in Tullamore on January 10, called by Motorsport Ireland (MI) in light of crippling rises in their annual insurance premium, offered clubs the starkest of choices. Either accept the imposition of heavy entry fee levies or draw an unequivocal line through the 2017 season.
For Breen, now competing at FIA World Rally Championship level with Citroen, the starkness of the predicament facing his sport was shocking. Roughly 70pc of Motorsport Ireland’s business is rally-related and it is also the discipline in their care most susceptible to heavy claims.
“Everybody was very nervous, very anxious at that meeting,” Breen recalled. “You know we’ve got some of the best roads in the world and we desperately want to hold on to our sport. Closed road rallying is something that’s very, very rare in the world and it’s always been something that we’ve really treasured in Ireland.
“So the thought of our sport being killed, well, it didn’t really bear thinking about.”
How close did it actually come to that?
“Very close,” admits MI Chief Executive Officer Alex Sinclair.
Having already cancelled four events in January, the nuclear button moment would have come if they had to pull the rug from under February’s Galway International rally. Only with the support of their 34 affiliated clubs could the governing body accept an insurance deal in which the annual premium runs to €1.3 million, compared to €500,000 in 2015.
However, the crisis is still far from averted.
With prohibitive levies now in place, entry figures are down across the board. From an average of 124 entries for a national rally in 2015, the average thus far in 2017 is just 84. Sinclair believes the drop is directly linked to the increase in insurance costs. And the potential implications are unsettling.
“At the moment, we’re looking at having to put up another €125,000 of our own reserves, which are not very big, to pay the bills,” he explains.
“Whatever shortfall there is, we have to make it up. So the whole thing is still on a very fragile standing. The big fear is that certain events won’t run at all this year and then we’ll be faced with an even bigger problem.”
As of now, Motorsport Ireland has insurance coverage with a Lloyds broker for the remainder of the season and a commitment for next year.
Beyond that, they must simply hope that a claims-free 2016 can become the norm for the foreseeable future. Sinclair refuses to be critical of the insurance industry for the hiked premiums, believing the problem lies instead with the legal system in this country.
Describing “an impossible situation that we simply couldn’t make any better”, he explains: “We did a deal with this broker for two years, but what we found was that there was nobody else interested. The message we were getting was that ‘look, as far as we’re concerned, the judicial system in Ireland is like the Wild West and we don’t want anything to do with it...’
“The message is that they cannot put in place any reserve or estimate on what is likely to happen in the event of there being a big accident.
“Obviously, the only thing we can do to help solve our problem is to have a claim-free five years or so. And that’s our target.
“In the meantime, we are at the mercy of the insurance industry, who, incidentally, get blamed left, right and centre for all sorts of ills in this country.
“But you have to ask yourself why, logically, would they not want to go into court here in front of a fair-minded judge? The reason is because the cost involved in doing so here is just horrendous. And it’s outrageous that that should be the case. It’s justice denied, effectively.”
Sinclair believes that the Personal Injuries’ Assessment Board needs to be given more teeth.
“At the moment, it’s just being bypassed,” he says. “Lloyds in London is the biggest insurer in Europe and they don’t want to touch the Irish market. What does that tell you? There’s something wrong somewhere.”
He also believes it is only a matter of time before the difficulties are replicated in other sports, with rugby especially vulnerable.
A cancelled season would have had calamitous implications for a myriad of small industries dependent upon motorsport in this country, not to mention the governing body itself.
Competition car-preparation businesses especially would have been plunged into crisis, while the employment status of the tiny staff within Motorsport Ireland itself would also have been jeopardised.
The governing body has recently begun to engage with schools adjacent to motor clubs, running a course to educate students on a broad safety message.
“The kids love it,” says Sinclair. “They’re shown the difference between a rally car and a normal road car, educated on the very different ways two similar looking cars are built. They’re shown all the safety equipment in a rally car.
“Our message is that it’s a safe sport to take part in, but we need everybody attending to also take precautions and not do idiotic things. Because it only takes one accident. Our future is on the line.”
Breen’s love of the sport goes right back to a childhood spent following his dad Ray (a former National Rally Champion) to events around the country. As he now competes at the sport’s highest level, he attributes his remarkable success to the innately competitive nature of Irish rallying, both at National and Tarmac Championship level.
He also believes that the predicament his sport now finds itself in here is an unjust one.
“I’ve competed in just about every conceivable type of rally, from a small single-stage event to full World Championship status,” he says. “And Ireland has an incredible standard for competitor and spectator safety. It’s second to none.
“That’s something I’m very proud of. But it’s very important that the message gets across to everyone now, spectators included, that the future of the sport is on the line here.
“We’re in the middle of a crisis and it’s vital that we keep our sport safe because, if we fail to do that, it’s what’s going to bring our sport down.”