Behind the scenes on the 2012 Donnelly Group Circuit of Ireland.

By Eric Ritchie

4 a.m. and alarms are going off all over Carlisle and Brampton!  Me, I’m tucked up in bed in my Newcastle hotel room, with another hour to go before I am also rudely awakened. Our rendezvous, Newcastle Airport, at 6 a.m. on Thursday 5th April. It sounds like something out of the Apprentice. The “we” is, Alan Cathers, Rob Grant, David and Bev Love, Heather Grizedale and of course me.  Thanks to Lord Sugar, aka John Parker and Nick aka Brian Kinghorn, we are off to Ireland to spend the Easter weekend with the guests, dealers, VIP’s, directors and staff of Skoda, as they compete in the 2012 Donnelly Group Circuit of Ireland Rally.

Alan confident in the fact that he met the sales director of Easy Jet at a boozy bash earlier in the year, decided to test the strength of his new friendship  by taking on board two items of hand luggage. Despite the fact that this could have cost him over £2000 in excess baggage charges, he boldly marched through security as the rest of us were strip searched. What is it about airports in the early hours of the morning that bring out the best in the “jobs worth’s”? However, after our short flight we were greeted at Belfast International Airport by BK and big brother Stephen and the lovely Diane.

First stop, after the traditional Ulster Fry breakfast, was to pick up the vehicles we would be driving for the next few days. Courtesy of the Donnelley Group, the event sponsor, we would be driving a fleet of VW Caravelle’s and very nice they are to be sure. At around £45K each so they should be! Mine still had the polythene wrapping paper on!

Lord Sugar and Nick’s next master stroke was to enlist the talents of one Michael Gibson. Michael is an Irish rallying legend having won the Irish National Championship on several occasions. More recently he has sat in the hot seat beside the likes of Mark Higgins and Neil Simpson.

We unwrapped a couple of the shiny new white Caravelle’s and set off on our mission to find the best spectator points for our Skoda guests. Not as easy as it sounds, given that we had to get forty or fifty people into the stage and out again usually after the first twenty or so competitors. The Circuit not only attracts thousands of spectators, but added to that, manoeuvring a convoy of 10 caravelles through the Irish lanes takes a bit of planning. Michael proved to be an absolute star and by the end of our day we had a selection of incredible vantage points.

The Irish are really canny open hearted Cumbrian people, but with a different accent. Watching Michael’s interaction and negotiation with farmers and land owners would have certainly won him a place in Lord Sugar’s boardroom. We finished our first 19 hour long day with an amazing Chinese buffet in Bangor and fell into bed. Thankfully Alan doesn’t snore, but I really don’t think that it would have mattered.

Friday saw us collecting our guests from the city airport and ferrying them to the four star Culloden Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast. I thought that we had attracted a whole new group of excited teenage girl rally supporters, but it turned out that JLS were also in the hotel and were performing to a sell-out audience in the Odyssey Arena. A busy weekend for Belfast! Come the moment of departure to the first stage, the Titanic super special, Heather, on her maiden voyage with the team, used all of her wonderful people skills as she was allotted the managing director of Skoda, Alistair Stewart and his son Charlie in her Caravelle. No problem to cool Heather.

We left the Titanic super special in convoy and were given a police escort through the centre of Belfast!  They directed us through red lights and stopped all of the Friday evening traffic for our impressive cavalcade.  What did I tell you about Michael? I can just imagine that happening here can’t you? Hopefully, we impressed the guests even further when we arrived at Legane, the first real stage of the evening. Michael had arranged for us to park the vehicles in Robert’s farm overlooking the fantastic downhill 90 left corner. Our car park was in the silage pit. Thankfully it was empty. I can still smell the Irish stew!

Saturday saw us up again bright and early at the Culloden hotel waiting for our guests. We once again crossed Belfast with the impressive cavalcade. Rob was our rear gunner and the trick was to use the radios to keep the convoy together. When we reached one of our viewing areas in the Hollow stage, we drove for a good half mile between hundreds of parked vehicles. Much to the amazement of our guests, we parked our Caravelle’s in the drive of a bungalow literally 300 yards from the viewing point we had chosen on the stage. The lady of the house even opened up her house to allow our guests to use the toilets! The rest of our day was spent watching some very fast cars including of course our Skoda’s. Central servicing was in Armagh and this gave us and our guests to see the event really up close and personal.

Jimmy McRae was driving one of the opening cars which was in the guise of a Police Car. Jimmy can almost call the event his own as he won it seven times between 1980 and 1989. Colin and Derek Ringer went on to carry the family honours, with their Scooby Legacy win in 91. As part of the day, I was asked by Joseph Donnelley the sponsor of the event to introduce him to Alistair Stewart the MD of Skoda. As Mr Donnelley and I made our way through the crowds, we were greeted by “how are you all doing there”. Cathil Curley emerged from the sea of spectators and greeted us with his huge Irish grin. What followed was the highlight of my day, as Cathil engaged Joseph Donnelley and they both engaged Alistair and his son Charlie. The stage commander and four or five marshals all joined in and we ended up ended having the “craic”. Cathil is an Irish legend and a real ambassador for our sport. He won the event back in 1974 in a fearsome Porsche Carrera. It is one of the advantages of being an old geezer, when I could quite honestly tell Cathil that he was one of my rallying heroes.

There are some great names in the history of the circuit as I discovered when I was doing my pre-event research. Paddy Hopkirk, five times winner. Roger Clark three times winner. Russell Brookes three times winner.  I also discovered that it had been won in 1960 and again in 1963 by an Austin Healey Sprite. So don’t be surprised if you see my Froggie out in the event next year! Five years after Cathils Porsche victory, the great Ari Vatanen won it in a Chevette. I think that was what inspired me buy the wolfrace wheels for my company Chevette, which was supplied by SMT back in the days when Rob was a mere slip of a young salesman.

Skoda had a real nip and tuck day, with sometimes less than four seconds separating the top two places. Absolutely fantastic for our guests who saw tarmac rallying at its very best. Sadly this Titanic battle was brought to an end when Andreas, absolutely on the limit, spectacularly clouted a straw bale side on and knocked himself out for 40 seconds. He carried on to finish the event in second place by had little recollection of finishing the last stage. After an overnight in hospital with a perforated ear drum he was pronounced fit and ready for the next round of the championship which is the Tour de Corse.

Skoda finished one two and three on the podium meaning that the post event celebrations in Armagh left a few sore heads on the Sunday morning. However, as we ferried the guests back to the comfort of their hotel, we were diverted off the M1 as there was a suspected unexploded bomb on the carriageway.

So Bernie, it happens in Belfast as well as Bharain!

Sunday was our cleaning up day, with guests to the airport, vehicles cleaned and back to Mallusk leaving Brain and I to travel home on the ferry on Monday. But not before we made one last visit to the all you can eat Chinese buffet in Bangor. I thought that I would burst!

Skoda is an amazing company to work with. They are undoubtedly at the top of their game. This is the third IRC event we have now done with them and it is a joy to work with such a great bunch of people. Roll on the next event. I think that it would be awesome if Lord Sugar and Nick could arrange for our wonderful team to cover all 13 rounds of the IRC calendar. Now wouldn’t that be a challenge?