Covid precautions influenced Circuit of Ireland Rally route

The Circuit of Ireland name returns to Irish rallying this week for the first time since 2016. The Wastewater Solutions backed event hosts the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship’s third round of 2022.

It has been three years since the Ulster Automobile Club’s last rally, a Dundrod-based Easter Stages Rally. The event makes its post-covid comeback with its iconic Circuit of Ireland branding and a paradoxical two-stage itinerary.

It’s easy to jump the gun and suggest the Circuit of Ireland “should be longer” or “should cover a greater area of the Emerald Isle.”

The Circuit of Ireland evokes some special memories but in a decade so far defined by pandemics and unrest, such suggestions are mere pipe dreams.

This year’s Circuit has come under fire for its 25:75 ratio of stage to liaison kilometres. The fact that the Circuit follows West Cork, which has a plethora of stages within a stone’s throw of its Clonakilty base, doesn’t help things.

Anyway, we can talk all we like about ifs, buts, and maybes. Sometimes it’s better to hear from somebody who has covered every inch of the Circuit of Ireland’s pre-event plans. Plans that had the rally switch from its Dundrod base to 2022’s more northerly Ballymena headquarters.

Step forward Graeme Stewart, the man who is in all but name the event’s director.

“We were in a lockdown whenever we started planning the event,” explained Stewart. “At that stage we had the 2019 event in a box, ready to go, but there were an awful lot of properties on those stages.

“We have a deadline to put road closures in and if we had gone in at that stage with what we had then we probably would have faced quite a bit of pushback. It would have been unfair for those residents, who normally are very happy to see us, to force an event on them.

“As a result we looked at possible tarmac stages that we could run potentially behind closed doors. That led to the two-stage format – to cut down on people power and inconvenience to homeowners.

“We had to secure an event, making a decision on location last June, and it would have been hard to live without the Circuit of Ireland for another year. At least we were in a position that if there was a lockdown in place then we still could have run an event.”

Situated in the Glens of Antrim, the Circuit of Ireland’s stages will certainly be remote. When word came through of the event’s Ballymena base, it didn’t take long for fans to imagine the prospect of Irish Tarmac’s finest tackling Torr Head’s coastal pass.

The sensational stage won’t feature on Easter weekend, however. Aside from poor signal and a further increase in road sections, Stewart shared some reasons for leaving Torr Head out of the Circuit’s itinerary.

“I would love to have stages like Torr Head and Hamilton’s Folly in every rally that we run but it’s just not possible.

“The traffic on Torr over the Easter weekend is that much greater than years gone by so you are affecting a lot more people.

“Reading between the lines we also thought that it might have been one of the stages in Rally Northern Ireland. There was never any mention of it but I didn’t want it to come to a point where we stopped it from being used on the world round.

“It has all just been a bit of a balancing act.”

Despite all of this, the Circuit of Ireland team has actually put together a rally with 60 more competitive kilometres than the 2019 Easter Stages Rally had. It is also fair to say that Cairncastle and Glendun will provide as stern a test as you’ll find in Northern Ireland.

The competitive distance has been made possible by reversing the confined stages on the Circuit’s second day. A different approach for Irish rallying but one that made sense in the club’s pre-event thought processes.

“Since we started running the Easter Stages in 2018,” added Stewart, “one of the comments picked up from the competitors was that they loved the stages but they just weren’t long enough.

“We were traditionally running seven mile stages and we could have split this year’s stages down and ran four different locations. I think, though, running them to their full length will let the competitors get a really good crack at them.

“Unfortunately we have had to put chicanes in to reduce the average speed on these stages. That would be the only downside but we’ve tried to put them in locations that won’t disrupt the flow of the stage.

“Reversing a stage means that all the junctions and chicanes will be the same for day two. It takes some pressure off the stage commanders and local farmers.

“It should save an awful lot of hassle and the reverse stage should be a completely different animal for the crews as well.”

The reverse stages have made planning road sections somewhat trickier as it removes the chance of having the finish-line of one stage close to the start-line of the next. 

Conversely it allows the crews to recce one stage, turn around at the end and recce the reverse version without any additional travel.

Planning this year’s Circuit of Ireland has been the ultimate balance of managing many usually straightforward items. The rally is certainly different than its previous versions but you can’t fault the volunteers who have done all they can to make it happen.

Now, all that remains is to find out who can master the bumpy bends of Cairncastle and Glendun this Easter weekend. At the end of the day, that’s the motivation for doing what we do.

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Photos courtesy of Kevin Glendinning, Kevin O’Driscoll, and Bill Swann