The phrase we used in the headline of yesterday’s news story was ‘renewed hope.’ Absolutely nothing is set in stone, but there’s some positivity and momentum behind Rally UK’s World Rally Championship bid once again.
Fair play to Bobby Willis. After so many knockbacks, it would be easy to throw in the towel. But Willis has a dream, and he is determined to realize it.
We’re a long way from that point, though. Tuesday’s meeting in Westminster was attended by all the right people and, having spoken to two of the key figures there – Motorsport UK CEO Hugh Chambers and Bracknell MP James Sunderland – it’s evident that it was positive in getting everybody together and creating a plan of attack.
But, unfortunately, it’ll all mean nothing if the money can’t be sought. Ambition and desire has never been the issue, but finances certainly have.
As Sunderland put it: “There is pressure to move quite quickly this year but as always it is not as easy as we think, there are issues and it’s not going to be a walk in the park.”
So, what are those issues?
Ultimately it boils down to not just the amount of capital needed, but how to convince the government that supporting this bid to reinstate the UK into the WRC is worthwhile – particularly considering the nation is heading into another recession.
“There’s so many good reasons why this should happen but ultimately it’s about committing government, and that’s the issue,” Sunderland, who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Motorsport, told DirtFish.
“So how confident am I? I’m relatively confident but the crux of the issue for me is that MSUK has come to the APPG, along with all the other stakeholders, and said ‘we need a government solution to this, we need government funding.’
“There are people in government who are telling me that actually ‘this is a commercial venture and it needs commercial sponsorship to make it viable’. So at this point in time there is no guarantee of government being able to fund it.
“Why? Because the public purse is stretched because we’re £2.2 trillion in the red because there are other calls for funding and every penny’s going to count.
“Am I confident of convincing government they need to underwrite this and fund this? No, I’m not but what we’re going to do, because we love motorsport and we believe in it, is we’re going to push as hard as we can to present a compelling case to the government – both in Westminster and also in Northern Ireland – to fund what they can.
“It might not be enough, the answer might be no, we just don’t know, but what we’re not going to do is give up easily. We’re going to keep going.”
Sunderland estimates the value needed is £3m – Chambers labeled it £3.5m – but either way it’s clearly a large sum of cash; the type that you won’t find underneath the sofa.
And what makes this particular bid rather complex is that there currently isn’t a fully functioning government in Northern Ireland.
“We’ve got the officials, the marshals, we’ve got the countryside, the stages – you name it, everything’s there ready to go we just need to have the right level of funding and I think we’ve been really unfortunate that we’ve been scuppered by, putting the pandemic to one side, the failure of the Northern Irish assembly to sit,” Chambers told DirtFish.
“So Stormont just not sitting means that although we’ve made huge progress in Northern Ireland it basically stalled through the inability of the political process to actually commit.”
How does that change this year? Put bluntly, it doesn’t – the consortium behind Rally UK just has to be resourceful instead.
“MSUK had a commercial arm previously before the pandemic which ran Rally GB, but of course MSUK was dependent on government support from Wales. It was a lot of money from the Welsh government to bring Wales Rally GB to Wales,” said Sunderland.
“In effect sport has devolved and therefore there should be a similar dependency on the government in Northern Ireland but of course there’s no executive right now, so politically the solution may be to get the secretary of state to make an executive decision but of course there will be a dependency on Tourism Northern Ireland and a dependency on those ministers in Northern Ireland who have access to the public purse strings in Northern Ireland.
“The conundrum for me is that you’ve got a request for government funding, that’s Westminster, that’s Northern Ireland sports devolved, and then of course you’ve got dependency on Tourism Northern Ireland.
“For me it’s £3m, it’s a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things. £3m to put a round of the world championship on is not a huge amount of money, but we’ve still got to find £3m and Bobby Willis, who is the rally director and wants this to happen is a brilliant guy and he’s just desperate to get the funding.
“But I don’t know yet where the funding’s going to come from and MSUK and others may have to accept that government funding might not be there. But we’re going to keep trying.”
Government funding isn’t the only solution, but Chambers reckons “around 30-40% of the operating budget of putting on a round of the WRC” comes from government.
Commercial sponsors can of course be sought – and Chambers insisted “we absolutely have a budget lined in for commercial sponsorship” – but he described it as “one of those chicken and egg situations where until you’ve crystalised the product, you can’t firmly take it to market”.
He explained: “It’s all very well having sponsor A saying ‘yeah it looks really interesting, yeah we could be interested in a title rights package that costs X, come back to us when you’ve got the product finalized and you’ve got all of the other funding in place and the event’s going to happen’ because with the best will in the world, somebody saying ‘yes I want to sponsor this’ and the contract then being signed and delivered is quite a journey.
“All we know at the moment is we have a proportion of the budget that will be derived from commercial sponsorship but, by its nature, it would be foolish to be overly reliant on that to the extent that there was a very significant proportion of the budget that was contingent on that success because as Motorsport UK, and you’ve heard me say this before, we inevitably will be the backstop.
“We’re the rights holder, we’re the commercial property holder, and although we work with entrepreneurs such as Bobby Willis who’s done a fantastic job in Northern Ireland getting the momentum behind the event, getting the interest behind the event, but Bobby is not somebody who’s about to underwrite a £3.5m event.
I would reassure people it's never stopped being at the top of our agendaHugh Chambers
“We’ve got to be realistic about those elements of the budget which aren’t crystalized and confirmed before you press the button, because you have to press the button and say ‘yes we’re going ahead with the event’ before you’ve necessarily got all of the income.
“And so you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got the major building blocks of the income which are pinned down such that the variable level of revenue is not back-breaking.
“I can’t, as the CEO of a membership organisation representing 13 different disciplines, go and spend large amounts of my member’s funds on a one-off event. It’s not going to be tenable with our board membership.”
If you chose to look at all this from the glass half-empty perspective, you could reach the conclusion that nothing has really changed. Yes, a meeting happened, but none of these issues are new. And none of them are, so far, solved.
But equally, viewing the glass as half-full, the target is locked. The end of April is the (not totally fixed) deadline to get all this sorted, and there’s desire from all quarters to make this happen.
Nothing has changed as of yet, but who’s to say that it can’t?
“I think if there’s a frustration it’s that I don’t think perhaps everybody appreciates first of all how much work has already gone on in the last few years behind the scenes trying to get the WRC back in the UK – and to some extent that’s inevitable as a lot of these things are discussions and meetings that go on behind closed doors,” said Chambers.
“But I would reassure people it’s never stopped being at the top of our agenda and the other thing is we can bear influence on the decision makers but also the decisions around this sit outside Motorsport UK – it’s not within our control.
“We have to work with the stakeholders and I think the more that the community can vocalize its enthusiasm for an event, show its support for the event and all the stakeholders including Motorsport UK [do the same], the better.
“If the politicians see this as a divisive issue, where everybody’s blaming everybody else, that’s not very helpful. We’ve got to work together on this and I genuinely believe it can happen.
“There are too many bits of the jigsaw puzzle that are in place not to be able to complete it.”