Insight: Reviving a legend

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Recapturing the essence of a one-time rally milestone requires some fresh thinking

When event director Bobby Willis took on the job of running the Circuit of Ireland rally three years ago, he described the task as akin to “waking a sleeping giant”. Having long since lost the kudos factor associated with winning, not to mention the arduous route, the rally bore little resemblance to what it once represented when Willis became boss.

Central to his bid to revive the event was a slot on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge schedule, something Willis achieved at a second attempt for 2012.

The promise of international crews, television coverage on eurosport and the profile that Willis craved meant the IRC provided the missing ingredient to the master plan, the cost of which he largely underwrote. Willis has form when it comes to putting on a show having organised rally ireland’s superspecial stage in the grounds of Stormont castle back in 2007. Much of that bravado was in evidence in the build-up to this year’s circuit, with Willis determined to think outside the box at every turn.

Rather than attempt to recreate what had been good about the rally in the past – the marathon route and the through-the-night competition, for example – Willis went for a fresh approach to establish a rally for families rather than the diehard enthusiast.

He resisted the temptation of a cross-border route and instead went for a compact schedule around the cathedral city of Armagh, west of Belfast. He also came up with a masterstroke: a stage in the Titanic Quarter in Northern Ireland’s capital on that most symbolic of dates, Good Friday. It provided crucial revenue – the only venue where fans could be charged for access – but more importantly it brought the chance to showcase rallying to a new legion of fans.

They included the First Minister Peter Robinson, who was given a high-speed ride in IRC champion Andreas Mikkelsen’s test car on the Titanic stage prior to the competitive action getting underway. Afterwards Robinson said the event would receive full government support, having been suitably impressed by what he saw.

The battle for victory wasn’t bad either, with Mikkelsen and factory Škoda driver Juho Hänninen at loggerheads with four stages to go until Mikkelsen slammed into a hay bale on the Lisburn street stage and had to settle for second, having been briefly concussed.

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