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Coronavirus: What will be the impact on Northern Irish motorsport?

By Andy Gray BBC NI Sport

What will be the impact on Northern Irish motorsport?

 

We are in times like we have never experienced before.

Much has been made about the future of our society, our schools, our businesses and our lives. Ultimately, the truth is, nobody really

knows the impact this virus will have.

Sport as we know it has ground to a halt, and while health is very much the priority, questions are being asked about what lies ahead

when some degree of normality is restored.

So how will motorsport, which means so much to so many in Northern Ireland, be impacted by the outbreak?

From race organisers to circuits, competitors to team owners and grassroots to racing clubs, BBC Sport investigates how local

motorsport could be affected by these unprecedented times.

Road racing is firmly in Northern Ireland’s DNA, however, the coronavirus outbreak will only pile the pressure on a sport which is already

struggling.

The Isle of Man TT, North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix are three international casualties, but the national road racing scene has also

been heavily hit with the Cookstown 100 and Tandragee 100 postponed.

Anne Forsythe, clerk of the course at the Tandragee 100, says that while calling off the event was disappointing, racing needs to be put in

perspective in the current climate.

“Ultimately, our number one priority is about keeping people safe, and in that regard the decision to postpone the event was a relatively

easy one,” said Forsythe.

“It’s not just about the competitors and those involved in the event, but we have a duty to look after the residents, land owners and business

owners around the event. We need to show compassion and look out for each other.

“We all have to play our part, and it would not have been appropriate to put a strain on medical resources.

“If they manage to flatten the curve of the virus, then there may be a glimmer of hope that there may be some motorsport towards the end of

the season.

“If it is possible to reschedule, we will be there, but if it is not possible then we can have our 60th anniversary celebrations next year.”

 

Forsythe admits that rescheduling all postponed events will be difficult, but is adamant that the Tandragee 100 will bounce back stronger and

highlights the socio-economic impact that motorsport plays in Northern Ireland.

In June, a Motorsport Taskforce Report from the Department stated that the gross annual economic impact of motorsport in Northern Ireland

is approximately £100 million.

“Every aspect of local motorsport has a huge volunteer army, and until this passes over we are not sure how we are all going to be affected,”

added Forsythe.

“There’s a huge aspect of community and the social interaction around the event means that it is more than just the motorsport. It contributes

to the health and wellbeing of our society.

“From a social and community perspective, it would be fantastic if there are some motorsport events that are able to go later in the year because

of the benefits that it can bring.

“As long as there are enough competitors who want to go racing, then I feel obliged to do everything in my power to put everything in place to

make the event happen, as safe as possible.

“It’s a way of life for many families, so while there have been a growing number of challenges and an increase in cost, if there are enough people

willing to help the event, I would never say never.”

There aren’t many people respected more in racing paddocks across Ireland than John Burrows. After retiring from road racing, the Dungannon

native continued his involvement in the sport with his Burrows Engineering team.

However, with racing plans put on hold, Burrows feels motorsport has to take a back seat in the current climate.

“The bottom line is motorsport is irrelevant right now and we all have to look after each other,” said Burrows.

“The health of everyone has to be the number one priority. It doesn’t matter where you come from or how much money you have.

“When it comes to health, we are all on a level playing field.”

While there was understandable disappointment when a raft of racing events were called off, Burrows believes that the rapid spread of coronavirus

means the postponements “are at the bottom of the list”.

“A lot of people were saying it was the end of the world when the Isle of Man TT and North West 200 were called off, however in the last week I

think that has been put in perspective,” he added.

“There was a real excitement around the team this season with two new riders and new goals, and I’m very lucky that I’ve some excellent sponsors

who understand the situation and are fully behind what we are trying to do here.

“Foot and mouth wiped out motorsport in 2001, but nobody would have predicted anything like this happening again.

“Hopefully we can get out the far side and at the end of the year we will hopefully get a run out of some kind.

“If anything, we hope that this will make more people interested to come out and support road racing more come next year.”

While teams and race organisers have felt the effects of the recent postponements, drivers and riders from across the world have also been feeling the impact.

British Touring Car Championship race winner Chris Smiley was taking part in the official test at Silverstone when the news broke about the first three rounds of the season were postponed.

While the Carrick driver can continue his training and preparations, he admits the uncertainty surrounding the outbreak is the biggest issue.

“We’re really disappointed not to be able to start the season as planned, but we have to look at the bigger picture and the health of everyone has to come first,” said Smiley, who had joined Excelr8 Motorsport for the new season.

“There is obviously a pretty big impact from a drivers’ point of view. We need sponsors to go racing, and it’s expected there will be a big economic hit so no one is sure how that will be affected.

“When it comes to training, I will still make sure I get out every day to keep myself sharp and fit, and I have a simulator at home so I can stay fresh in that regard.

“No one can be certain as to when we can get out on track again, but race organisers made the right decision, and all I can do is make sure I am as ready as possible for when we get the green light.

“We just have to sit tight for now, but there are bigger things to worry about and fingers crossed we will be able to get back out in the car soon.”

While racing is put on hold, permanent circuits face a potential headache of trying to squeeze in as many of the postponed events as possible when engines are reignited.

Downpatrick circuit Bishopscourt faces that same issue, and manager Roy Biggerstaff believes that motorsport has to pull together to make sure it comes through the current pandemic intact.

“It will have a massive impact at the circuit,” admits Biggerstaff.

“We depend on gate receipts to run the circuit and keep things going, but we aren’t prepared to putting the public’s health at risk.

“As with everything in motorsport, safety is paramount. Every event uses a lot of medical facilities and we don’t want to put any stress or strain on their resources.”

With the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, and postponed events already looking for a slot later in the year, Biggerstaff says that the circuit will be constantly reviewing the situation.

“We are fully booked for the year but we have a plan. However we can’t jump into it until we see how things go,” he added.

“We have headaches in the past and we have got through it.

“It’s a private circuit and it is going to be hard. We’re all supportive of each other in local motorsport, and although it will be hard, we’ll try to help each other to bounce back.

“Those who work in motorsport tend to be a resilient bunch, so we are aiming to come back bigger and stronger.”

The Circuit of Ireland International Rally, which was set to make its return after a four-year absence, was called off by the Ulster Automobile Club and chairman Bill Swann says postponing the event was “the right thing to do”.

“We have a responsibility to public health, and that is why we have pulled the plug,” said Swann.

Organisers of the West Cork Rally, also a round of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship which was set to run on 14 March, was called off and he admits that it may prove difficult to reschedule both events.

“We have to negotiate with the Department of Infrastructure regarding road closing orders to secure a new date and hopefully they will understand our position,” he said.

Swann says that although the financial blow has been limited by calling the Circuit of Ireland off early, the club will still face financial implications.

“Financially our club has taken a big hit,” he added.

“We had the support of councils and sponsors. We will have to go through the process with them again because we will not be the only event that they are supporting”.

“However we decided that regardless of the expenditure, we were going to take a conscious decision to postpone the event for the benefit of public health.

“There was a petrol shortage in the 1970s, the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 and heavy snow in 2013, so we have been able to overcome obstacles in the past.

“It will impact all disciplines of motorsport but all we can do is rebuild, then try and go again.

“It is a setback, but we just have to take it on the chin and move on. We cannot afford to make a decision which puts the public in jeopardy, there are many people who are losing their jobs and livelihoods and we have to recognise their difficulties and keep things in perspective”.

“We had to make a call to do the right thing, and on this occasion I am convinced that we have.”

At a grassroots level, the Northern Ireland Karting Association admit decisions to run events will probably be taken out of their hands.

“With the directives from Motorsport UK regarding the running of events, we have suspended all kart races in the province until the end of June,” said Keith Wilkinson, secretary of the NI Karting Association.

“Like our fellow motorsport disciplines this was the right decision. With the health and wellbeing for everyone involved in our sport being our first priority, while allowing our medical teams to be better utilised else where.

“All we can do at present is look forward to going racing later in the year. However the uncertainty of when that will be is our issue at the moment.

“The truth is, nobody knows what will happen next and we will have to follow the advice we are given.

“Our four kart clubs will endeavour to hold their events, however with the number being postponed, foresee an issue further down the line with the availability of circuits.

“Every championship or series across motorsport who have had rounds called off will be bidding to try and get their races rescheduled.

“Not everyone is going to be able to get a date to re-run their events and the longer it goes on for, then the more events who will be trying to pitch for the available spaces and there will need to co-operation between everyone.

“In these difficult times we now all need to look forward to something positive and getting back to normal and we, as an Association, will now be working to ensure that our karting events go ahead and provide racing that everyone can enjoy.”

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