Thursday 27 July 2017

'People ask me if i'm mad. but the circuit needed my help' his plans to resuscitate the rally to its former glory

Bobby Willis reveals to Vincent Hogan

Killarney, always Killarney. It's been like a mantra coming back at Bobby Willis ever since his decision to take control of the ailing Circuit of Ireland rally and attempt some kind of resuscitation.

Willis is Rally Director of this year's event, which starts in Dundalk tomorrow, yet readily acknowledges that the 2010 version will amount to little more than a compact illusion. Dubliner Gareth McHale runs as number one seed for a rally in which the entire stage activity will be confined to a tight, little pocket of the North East.

It's a tame incarnation of what was once a five-day marathon that enraptured spectators the length and breadth of the country. Willis understands precisely how far the event has fallen, which is pretty much why he has invested his own money in a rescue plan.

"The thing you always hear about the Circuit is, 'Ah, I used go to Killarney ... '" He sighs with a wistful smile. "I swear that 95pc of the people I've mentioned the Circuit to, come back with that comment.

"Not 60pc. Not 70pc. Actually 95pc associate it with Killarney."

It is Willis' ambition to restore a cross-border structure to the second oldest rally in the world. Yet, in the short-term, he feels compelled simply to return the brand to some form of respectability after years of inertia and decline.

"Maybe I'm stupid taking this on," he says. "If so, in five years' time, let them come and tell me I'm stupid. But I want to make this work and I just wish I could invigorate other people who have the wherewithal to come in and help.

"People keep asking me, 'Are you mad?' But I don't think I am. How I spend my money is up to me. The Circuit is a fantastic brand name. You know I've been lucky enough to be paid for motorsport for the last 30-odd years and I just feel I want to give something back now.

"The Circuit needed some help. I've watched it for a number of years, knowing it needed help. And I suppose I just decided that, if I didn't do it now, it was just going to need a lot more help in the future."

The Belfast consultant runs a world-wide rally maps business and was the navigational brain behind Volkswagen's clean sweep of podium finishes in this year's Dakar rally. He is also a former international co-driver, having partnered many of the world's best pilots, including Dakar legend, Jean Louis Schlesser.

In 2007, he ran the spectacular floodlit Stormont Super-Special stage for Rally Ireland, an event that has since conceded its World Championship status.

Yet, Willis' earliest rallying memories are almost all associated with Easter weekend and the Circuit of Ireland rally. And he accepts that Rally Ireland's misfortune may now work in the Circuit's favour.

This weekend's event runs with 'supporter event' status to the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, won by Ireland's Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle last year. And Willis doesn't write off the possibility of the Circuit acquiring full IRC status within 12 months.

"We have to work to get IRC next year," he says flatly. "We have to. Now, whether there's a slot, they can't tell me. I mean, if I went to them with €1m, we'd have it next year. But I haven't got €1m. And I believe I'm right in trying to improve the profile of the rally before we go after the money.

"If I go today, with nothing behind us, people are going to laugh at me.

"And I suppose what has happened to Rally Ireland has possibly helped the Circuit because people now view this as the possible future. What I would like is that we'd all join together and go forward now."

There is a deeply personal thread to his motivation too. The very day last summer that Bobby was due to make his Circuit presentation to the controlling Ulster Automobile Club, he lost his 20-year-old daughter, Deborah, in tragic circumstances.

"I suppose it's changed my outlook on life a little," he says with a smile bearing the world of sadness. "Somehow in my head, I think I'm working like this for her."

Willis has recruited some of the most respected figures in Irish rallying to make this work, among them Gordon Noble, Tom Walsh and Michael Orr. And his sole wish for this weekend's rally is a resolutely simple one.

He inherited the job at a time of turmoil in the sport and has, essentially, had just six months to put the 2010 Circuit together. "My hope is just to run a good, safe rally with nobody hurt," he says. "Just get the profile back up a little.

"Once it's over, we'll immediately start planning for next year. A lot of people have given us a lot of trust this year and we don't want to let them down. People say it's impossible to do a five-day rally again, but I say nothing's impossible!"

investment

"It just takes investment, ideas, thinking outside the box. Maybe you could take cars on trailers and do stages in Killarney, Galway, whatever. Who knows? My vision is to get that rally back up to being a top European rally again.

"The IRC is a fantastic series but, being a support event, doesn't really give us any guarantees. That said, money-wise, we'd certainly need an awful lot less to do it than was needed for Rally Ireland which, I understand, was somewhere in the region of €2m.

"I can assure you I'm doing my damnedest to make this work."

The event gets under way with a ceremonial start in Dundalk town centre today at 11.0 and the highlight will be an 18-mile night stage running south of Banbridge later on this evening.

The top 10 seeds in this weekend's Circuit of Ireland are:

1 Gareth McHale (Focus WRC), 2 Derek McGarrity (Subaru WRC), 3 Tim McNulty (Subaru WRC), 4 Aaron McHale (Focus WRC), 5 Kevin Barrett (Subaru WRC), 6 Craig Breen (Fiesta S2000), 7 Alastair Fisher (Mitsubishi Evo), 8 Garry Jennings (Mitsubishi Evo), 9 Richard Cathcart (Subaru Impreza), 10 Alan Ring (Mitsubishi Evo).

Irish Independent

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