Rally heritage at stake if WRC UK bid fails again, says M-Sport boss

The UK has become a backbone of rallying’s top flight, appearing on the inaugural calendar in 1973 and holding a spot on the schedule until 2019 courtesy of Rally GB, formerly known as the RAC Rally.

However, the event dropped off the calendar in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and has failed to return.

A bid fronted by promoter Bobby Willis to bring the WRC back to the UK in Northern Ireland has made three attempts to join the calendar – in 2021, 2022 and 2023 – but was unable to secure the necessary funding, believed to be approximately £3 million.

A fourth attempt to revive the Rally Northern Ireland project for 2024 is currently underway, which resulted in a meeting last month between the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Motorsport, an informal group of members of UK parliament, senior representatives of the WRC, Motorsport UK and event promoters, as well as Tourism Northern Ireland and Events Northern Ireland.

A deadline of April was set to secure the funding to allow the event to go ahead in 2024.

M-Sport founder Malcolm Wilson and team boss Millener were among those that attended the meeting, which has reignited hopes the UK could return to the WRC calendar.

However, Millener believes this could be the bid’s “last shot” and if it fails, it could be further damaging for UK rallying’s rich heritage, which includes two world champions in Colin McRae (1995) and Richard Burns (2001).

“I think all the people in the meeting had the same goal, we would love to see Rally GB or Rally UK in one way or another,” Millener told Autosport.

“I think there is a real possibility that if we don’t get this together, who’s to say when the next Rally UK could be. For me, that is really sad news because for me going to Rally GB was what got me into rallying.

“It is a sport in the UK that is covered in history and we are on the verge of losing it. There is a genuine want to make it happen but yes we have got to find some funding.

“Northern Ireland is the potential location to begin with and I think it will be a fantastic location. There will be loads of fans and it will be a good atmosphere. It has got everything it needs to be on the calendar and I think it will be a real shame not to see it happen.

“Finding the funding is not going to be easy but we have kind of got one last shot at it. I know there is enough people in the UK and Ireland to help make this happen but we need to work together.”

Elfyn Evans (GB), M-Sport Ford WRT, Ford Fiesta WRC 2019

Photo by: McKlein / McMaster

The WRC continues to be supportive of the Rally Northern Ireland project, recognising that the UK is a key market for the championship.

WRC chiefs even left a slot on the 2022 calendar open for the rally until the last minute to allow Rally Northern Ireland to secure the required funding, before having to replace it with Ypres Rally Belgium after funding efforts failed.

The FIA has also thrown its support behind the bid, with rally director Andrew Wheatley confirming his team is in regular communication with Motorsport UK to help the bid come to fruition.

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“From the perspective of the FIA we are in regular communication with Motorsport UK to offer up our support to make sure they can run an event that ticks all the boxes,” Wheatley told Autosport.

“From the promoter’s perspective it is clear the UK is a significant market and the FIA’s perspective it is clear, Rally GB was one of the backbones of WRC back in the day and we would love to see it back into the championship, but it has to be the right package for everybody, the local organisers, the ASN, the promoter and the FIA.

“I think we need to work in close collaboration to understand how we can find the best package to go forward. There is no question everybody wants to have Rally GB back in the calendar, it is a question of how?

“I’m very hopeful and confident that there are some people working behind the scenes at the moment who really passionately want Rally GB to come back in one form or another.”

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