The Circuit of Ireland- a critique- with Art McCarrick
March 15, 2013 by Art McCarrick
It was one of the most well known sports events on this island. If it didn’t pass your door it passed the door of someone you knew as it wound all over Ireland for 5 days every Easter. It was one of the select few events which transcended sport, running on both sides of the border even throughout the darkest days of “the troubles”. But little by little the Circuit of Ireland began to lose everything that had made it unique until only it’s name remained and now, even that has disappeared. Instead of the Circuit of Ireland this year, we will have the Easter Stages Rally instead. The name change grinds the gears of some die hard fans and purists but some, including this author, don’t think it’s actually such a band thing. Let’s have a look why.
Since the mid 80s’ the Circuit of Ireland has become ever shorter as spiraling costs saw the 5 day marathons that used to cover every province of Ireland become a 1 day rally located solely in the southeast corner of Ulster. The only tangible link to its history remains in name only and for this year at least, even that is gone. Difficulties in finding a suitable sponsor has seen the “Circuit of Ireland International Rally” cancelled for this year and a shorter event, to be known as the “Easter Stages Rally” will run in its place under a national licence. But this isn’t the first time the rally has had a change of name, or licence. In 2007, the organisers were faced with legal action by a former sponsor if they ran a rally called the Circuit of Ireland, so they ran the Easter International Rally instead. And if you dig further back into the long history of the Circuit you’ll see that it actually originated from an event called the Ulster Motor Rally. It ran under that name from 1931-1935 and in 1936 it became known as the Circuit of Ireland Trial. It was only in 1956 that the event gained the Circuit of Ireland Rally title that we all now know. So why do people pine for an event called the Circuit of Ireland so much and why are people so worried about the possibility of losing it?
Well it’s to do with that old chestnut, nostalgia. From the 60s’ on, the Circuit became one of the great challenges to both man and machine and it attracted the best drivers from across the globe. Have a read of these names that competed on the Circuit at, or very close to, the height of their powers. Hannu Mikkola, Timo Salonen, Ari Vatanen, Stig Blomqvist, Juha Kankkunen, Henri Toivonen. It’s an impressive list. With 8 world titles and 71 world championship rally wins between them there was no doubting their talent behind the wheel but none of them ever won the Circuit. That’s how hard it was to win. It was a specialist event and in all its guises only once did a driver from outside Britain or Ireland ever win it. That man was Pentti Airikkala in 1979. On the Circuit, local heroes could challenge world champions, it was magical. Starting near Belfast, down the east coast to the Wicklow Mountains, down to Killarney (and later Waterford), up the west coast and back across the border to where it started, it was the Circuit of Ireland in name and in nature but that soon changed. While the heady days of the mid 80s’ raised the profile of the sport and made the rally a household name, the decline of the Circuit in the eyes of many can be traced to that period too, when the last 5 day Circuit was held in 1986. The descent thereafter was pretty rapid. 1991 was to be the final year of involvement with the British Rally Championship and the following year the event lost it’s international status.
Should the Circuit let go of its past in order to have a brighter future?
The event kept getting shorter but even cutting its distance by almost half in a decade wasn’t enough to stop the Circuit falling out of phase with modern rallying. It was still too long, too expensive and professional teams and drivers shied away. It was as clear an illustration as you could get of how quickly the sport was changing. Dwindling entries throughout the 90s’ signaled change was needed and after the 1999 rally it was given an overhaul. The time-frame for the overhaul lasted longer than planned however. The event didn’t run in 2000 and an outbreak of foot and mouth disease put paid to any form of Circuit in 2001 and when it finally came back in 2002 it was much changed from what we were used to. There was no run down to the classic stages in the Wicklow mountains and the rally had a new compact, cross border route based out of Enniskillen. With the changes though, came a question that still hasn’t gone away. Should the Circuit of Ireland keep it’s name if it’s no longer a circuit of Ireland? And this is where it gets tricky. Many fans longing for the good old days of the 5 day marathons believed the event had become an insult to the name and its heritage. In one sense, it’s hard to argue with them but on the other hand a 5 day, all Ireland rally is no longer possible on so many grounds and everybody still recognises the name of the Circuit of Ireland which can help when trying to court sponsors. However even that argument has difficulty standing up now after the 2013 event has had to be cancelled because a willing sponsor could not be found.
And all of this confusion has led to an interesting little identity crisis recently played out through social media. The Easter Stages have embraced Twitter (@EasterStages) and have done sterling work through this platform to promote their event. Over the last few weeks though, they have run competitions to raffle off some IRC Circuit of Ireland hats. A nice gesture but you’d have to ask would this event be better to be more independent minded and try and cut ties with the Circuit and all the history (and hats) that come with it. Meanwhile, the Circuit of Ireland Twitter account (@CircuitIreland), which has been dormant for quite some time (their Twitter avatar is from the 2010 event) has recently sprung into life. On Wednesday, it tweeted support for a blog on the Easter Stages saying:
“It’s always going to be the ‘Circuit’”
Interestingly, the Easter Stages account tweeted the same article with slightly more progressive text accompanying it:
“We don’t care as long as you enjoy it”
So where does it go from here? Well first up, we’ll have a good rally at Easter, regardless of the name. But beyond that, the Circuit needs to take a look at itself in the mirror. It is no longer the premier event on Irish soil or the rally that everyone yearns to win. Killarney and Donegal have taken the crown that the Circuit used to hold. They have benefited from steady bases and in the case of Donegal, a steady sponsor. Constantly moving base for the past decade hasn’t helped the Circuit and we all know about the sponsorship problems . Whatever form the Circuit reappears in after this year, when international status will hopefully be regained, I personally think the event should just be called “The Circuit”. It is what the event has been affectionately known by rally fans for years anyways and it won’t offend the purists. It’s a hat-tip to the past, yet it’s a look to the future and at this stage another name change or re-branding can’t do any more harm to the rally. It can be difficult to let go but we must remember that the Circuit of Ireland is just a name, it isn’t a mission statement. Divers on the Cork 20 rally don’t have to drive for 20 hours anymore, the Dakar now takes place on another continent, Arsenal no longer play at Highbury and Lansdowne Road is now the Aviva Stadium. We need a reality check here but that’s easier said than done on an island where we constantly struggle with our identity. It’s just not simple but one thing is for sure, the Circuit can no longer be saved by its history. Whatever form it takes, it must embrace its future.