Key stakeholders – including politicians, Motorsport UK and WRC Promoter – met in Westminster this week to create an action plan to restore the UK to the World Rally Championship calendar.
The last time the UK featured on the WRC’s global tour was back in 2019 – the final year the Welsh government backed the rally – but several attempts have tried, but failed, to return the rally to the schedule ever since.
All of those attempts have been led by Bobby Willis who has been planning to take the WRC to Northern Ireland, but the required funding hasn’t been secured to make it happen.
But on Tuesday, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Motorsport (APPG) met with all the concerned stakeholders – including Willis, Motorsport UK CEO Hugh Chambers, WRC Promoter event director Simon Larkin and managing director Jona Siebel as well as M-Sport’s Malcolm Wilson and Richard Millener – to discuss how to collect the relevant funding and how to provide the UK with a long-term future in the WRC.
Chambers told DirtFish: “I think all the individual stakeholders that were present are equally enthusiastic about the prospect of the WRC coming back to the UK and in this particular instance in 2024 in Northern Ireland.
“The difference that that meeting made was making sure that everybody was aligned in a plan to get there. I don’t think anybody feels any more enthusiastic about it, but I think we feel more confident that there’s an action plan for all the stakeholders to be aligned.
“And, to put it bluntly, this is a funding challenge. It’s not a logistical challenge, it’s not a support of the general public challenge, this is a funding challenge and I think we’re clearer after that meeting about the scale of that challenge and the responsibility and where it sits for that funding to be crystalized.”
An end of April deadline has been set for a final decision to be made on a 2024 event – a deadline Chambers said was “raised by the politicians in the room and confirmed by the WRC Promoter”.
But although Chambers feels that “April is the realistic and correct target” he also believes there’s a “degree of flexibility” to it.
He said: “This is about being in time for the WRC Promoter to get their calendar in place for 2024 and, probably more importantly, we’re looking at a closed-road event in Northern Ireland and to get the closed-road orders and get them through the process and the system, there’s a very restricted number of closed-road orders that can be issued in Northern Ireland.
“In order for a WRC event to take place it would have to take quite a significant portion of those closed-road orders, so we would need to do so in a timely manner.”
James Sunderland, Bracknell MP and co-chair of the APPG, said “there’s certainly a consensus of parliamentarians who want this to happen”.
He told DirtFish: “We were hopeful of a return in 2023, this year, MSUK of course ultimately made the decision that there was too much risk and it wasn’t going to be a goer in ’23, so we’ve reinvigorated the whole process for ’24.
“But the difference now is actually we’re all speaking and we’re all on one page. I even spoke last week with Stefano Domenicalli, the CEO of Formula 1. He was with us in Westminster last week, I spoke to him about this very issue, and he was absolutely clear that F1 must also do what it needs to do to make sure that the UK has its round of the world championship.
“The UK is too important to motorsport not to be hosting a round of the world championship. So we are pushing quite hard but it all comes down, as always, to money.”
Given the scale of the finances involved, Sunderland couldn’t promise that the reinvigorated project would necessarily be successful but has vowed to give it his all.
“For me as a politician I’m just a back-bencher, albeit with a passion for motorsport. But for me as a back-bencher to be promising that the government’s going to be funding this is pie in the sky,” Sunderland said.
“But what we’re going to do is present the case and we’re going to meet the right people – I’ll talk to the prime minister, I’ll talk to the secretary of state, I’ll talk to the sports minister – and we’re going to try and present the case to those who can make the decision to support it as to why this is so important.
“But the suggestion that the government’s just going to fund it is not realistic in the current climate. I’m afraid the solution is commercial sponsorship, commercial arrangements, it’s perhaps a bit of support from government, it’s Tourism Northern Ireland, it’s everyone coming together at the same time, all with the stars aligning, with the promise of cash to make this happen.
“And that’s going to be a tough ask, but we’ve got to keep going.”