Wednesday 11 December 2019

Vincent Hogan: True drive and vision must be worth rallying behind

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

I suspect there are days in Bobby Willis' life when he feels like a man who's just opened a convalescence home in Harold Shipman's old house.

People look at him as if, perhaps, he hasn't quite thought this thing through. You see Bobby has taken on a hill of problems the size of the Sugar Loaf. It's called the Circuit of Ireland rally.

To most of his friends, this is like electing to climb up the outside of the Eiffel Tower, using nothing but a rope.

Actually, the question Bobby's been asked most often this past six months is whether, perhaps, he is certifiably mad. And that's not surprising.

The Circuit -- which starts in Dundalk next Saturday -- is a withered old ghost of Irish sport, glorious in its heyday, but recently allowed dwindle into little more than a local curiosity.

So, at a time when it is considered almost anti-social to go looking for financial backing, Bobby has decided to toss his own money into a rescue plan

It's not so much an investment as an emotional act of faith then because, frankly, it's a long shot if Bobby will see even a fraction of his money again. And, barring a dramatic upturn in the economy, it's not as if potential backers will be wearing a groove up his drive.


So why do it? Because he just considers it a risk worth taking.

Bobby has spent a contented lifetime in motorsport, first as a successful co-driver and, latterly, as the man behind the maps that guided Volkswagen to a clean sweep of podium places in this year's Dakar rally.

His first international event was the '77 Circuit of Ireland, so he has a clear vision of what the rally once was and, maybe more pertinently, what it can return to. For now, though, his plan is based on a simple mix of history and goodwill.

Last Tuesday, he invited some media folk to Down Royal for a Circuit test day where some of the country's quickest drivers took an assortment of bug-eyed passengers for sprints around a demonstration stage, laid out on the racecourse ambulance track.

Ten drivers turned up with their cars, all paying their own way. Now I'm not sure what the golfers in the infield made of the commotion, but I've a pretty good idea. Chances are a sizeable few couldn't have been less impressed had Bobby unveiled a stall selling E-coli in a bag.

Rallying isn't everyone's cup of tea. It's noisy, it's aggressive, it doesn't exactly fight the great fight against ozone depletion and, of course, it closes public roads. It also draws its share of giddy fools with fat exhausts into towns that could do without them.

But there is a vast following for the sport in this country, most of who understand and respect the duty of care a rallying community owes its host. And they're the people whose imaginations Bobby Willis is now hoping to capture.

It won't be easy.

Even this year's Circuit won't venture far beyond the boundaries of counties Down and Monaghan over its two days. In truth, it's no more a Circuit of Ireland then than the Irish Glass Bottle site is Sandy Lane.

But the name alone carries so many great echoes of the past -- world stars like Hannu Mikkola, Ari Vatanen, Michelle Mouton and Henri Toivonen all competed in it during the '80s -- it's hard to knock a man whose ambition is to restore that kind of lustre.

This column took little pleasure last year in predicting the demise of Rally Ireland, yet that event's fall off the World Championship calendar now presents the Circuit with an undoubted opportunity.

You see, next weekend's rally runs as a "supporter event" to the spectacular Intercontinental Rally Challenge, won last season by Ireland's Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle.

Willis has a vision of the Circuit dipping deep into the south again and, ultimately, acquiring full IRC status.

The epic old structure of a five-day marathon, breasting all four corners of the island, may no longer be viable. But something a little more faithful to the title Circuit of Ireland surely is.

It is, after all, the second oldest rally in the world and one that once electrified the countryside with classic stages like the storied climb up Moll's Gap.

For now, you sense Willis is in charge of a name as distinct from an event. The Circuit has, after all, been a bit of a lie for a decade or more, just a tired old shell, peddling the illusion of grandeur.

And he probably couldn't have picked a bleaker time to take on the challenge of rehabilitating it. Yet, on last Tuesday's evidence, he has the palpable goodwill of his sport behind him.

Bobby is essentially on a high chair, facing Chris Tarrant now. Take it that he'll need the assistance of friends.

Don't hang up if he calls you.

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