Ireland needs a Plan B for its WRC bid

If Ireland struggles to gain government funding for a WRC return, it may need to look elsewhere

Rally Ireland, Sligo 15-18 11 2007

It’s funny how timings align – or completely fail to – sometimes.

This Tuesday, Motorsport Ireland dropped the news no rally fan on the Emerald Isle wanted to hear: government funding would not be forthcoming in time for Ireland to gain a slot on the 2025 WRC season.

Motorsport Ireland had been bidding for a three-year contract with the WRC Promoter, with rotating host locations of Waterford, Tralee and Limerick across each edition. But to do this required one enormous and critical puzzle piece: five million euros of government funding per year.

The Irish Government said it needed another six months to evaluate the proposals, the day before the deadline Motorsport Ireland faced to confirm its bid for a calendar slot – one which had already been extended by two weeks.

In my case the timings did line up, entirely by accident.

A few weeks ago I noticed an email drop into my inbox about tickets for the Central European Rally, the World Rally Championship’s unique three-country event that traverses Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. One thing caught my eye: seated tickets for the opening superspecial were €80 ($85, £68) a pop. That struck me as surprisingly expensive. So I reached out to Oliver Runschke at ADAC.

We are all beholden to the dollar. Or the euro, in the case of Ireland and Germany. That Ireland’s ambitions to rejoin the WRC calendar were contingent on that €15 million arriving is no secret. But the funding model for rallies has been slowly shifting over the decades; more events are having to become commercially viable with minimal contribution from government.

Central European Rally is one of those. Like Finland, Sweden and a few others, it sells rally passes to access stages, a core pillar of its economic strategy. It was the same story for Rally Germany, which was on the WRC calendar between 2001 and 2019 and also organized by ADAC.

“Nowadays it’s really hard to get government funding,” Runschke tells DirtFish. “During the last years of Rally Deutschland, we got a little bit of government money from Saarland, where we did the rallies. But the Minister of Sport was a former rally co-driver himself, so he was a supporter of the sport.”


ADAC received Saarland backing when it ran Rally Germany

Ireland is not in that same situation; Minister for Sport, Physical Education and the Gaeltacht Thomas Byrne is no dyed-in-the-wool rally man with miles clocked up in the driver or navigator’s seat. Quite simply, this is a business transaction. It’s about the return on investment. And this was a challenge ADAC faced when CER was designed to pick up from where the Mosel-based Rally Germany had left off. In the end, partnering with the Czech Republic helped it find some of that backing.

Consider why Great Britain lost its rally; Wales’ tourist board no longer wanted to cough up sufficient money after backing it for several years, and national government didn’t step in. In large countries that feature international events possessing larger reach than rallying, coughing up for a WRC event can be a tough sell when contrasted with other sports; the WRC is a far more enticing prospect for small or emerging markets.

“I think generally in Germany and with the Central European Rally, it’s a different animal,” Runschke points out.

“With our partners in the Czech Republic, we get support from the government, as it were. The Central European Rally has another level of public interest because for a small country like the Czech Republic, a rally is a big event, because they don’t have so many big international sporting events like Germany has. In Germany, you have the [football] Euros, we have European Handball Championship, but then they have the occasional World Championship events in whatever discipline. In Germany, you have enough sports, and you also had Formula 1 races in the past; you have MotoGP, which the Czech Republic doesn’t have anymore.

“So in general, CER is a big event, which was visible because at the start of last year’s rally, in front of the Prague castle, the Czech Prime Minister was there. In Germany, it would be less likely that the German Chancellor would wave the green flag to start the rally!”


Prague start is a key ingredient of Central European Rally

I reckon Runschke is on to something here. It’s a litmus test. Swedish PM Ulf Kristersson had a passenger ride around Umeå’s Red Barn Arena in Jari-Matti Latvala’s Toyota Celica this year. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek PM, was at Acropolis Rally’s opening superspecial for its long-awaited return to the WRC calendar in 2021. Jüri Ratas, former PM of Estonia, ensured he was front and center of attention when Estonia broke into the WRC in 2020. You can’t move an inch in Naivasha without running into some sort of local dignitary. And remember the time Jens Stoltenberg, who was Norway’s PM during its brief stint in the WRC, rang Petter Solberg to ask why he wasn’t competing in 2013?

So here’s a question for any of the Irish people reading this: can you envisage Simon Harris, or whoever might become Taoiseach next year, doing the same in Ireland?

Yes, Ireland doesn’t have the Euros. It doesn’t have handball. But it is going to spend €58m on the 2027 Ryder Cup, according to the Department of Tourism and Sport’s most recent estimates. The €15m over three years needed for Rally Ireland might seem paltry in comparison.

Is the Ryder Cup making its way to Prague any time soon, though? No. That’s got to help the WRC seem a more enticing prospect.

I’m sorry to say I don’t have a happy ending, or even a silver lining, for this story. For large economies, the WRC does not appear to be sufficiently shiny a sporting vanity project. The glistening metal of a golf club draws the eye more easily than the reflection of a Rally1 car in the puddles of Irish lanes.

Rally Ireland, Sligo 29/1-1/2 2009

Will top-flight WRC machinery ever return to Ireland's roads?

Maybe Ireland will get lucky. Maybe Simon Harris is secretly mad for a twin-cam. But when it comes to government investment in sport, economic return on investment is secondary. It’s as much an emotional decision, even for those controlling the purse strings.

It’s why CER’s economic model is only partially reliant on government money. That €80 ticket is a bit pricey, yes; the €99 rally pass is a bit more reasonable. But on balance, if you want to build a WRC round that can last the test of time, the economic model can’t have the public purse as a first port of call.

“You can’t make a business model for a rally with government money, because it changes occasionally, and then you have different parties; that’s not a good long-term plan to have,” says Runschke. “You need to have good partners, a good local backing also from local partners, and from your local sponsors. And ticket sales is also part of that.”

CER is midway through its ‘three-year plan’ (a 2025 calendar slot is not guaranteed, though), which in turn was built on a model pioneered two decades earlier. If the public purse isn’t being controlled by a rally fan, perhaps it’s time to find a different purse that is.