When the 2021 car racing season gets underway this weekend, competitors will have a lot to look forward to – and not just because racing opportunities have been few and far between over the last 15 months.
ollowing years of decline, car racing is about to get the shot in the arm that it needs in order to survive. Earlier in 2021, Mondello Park reached an agreement with Motorsport Ireland (MI), the governing body of Irish Motorsport, to become the promoter of the MI Circuit Racing Championship for the next five years.
With a new permanent organising team in place and control over the make-up of the Irish Championship, Mondello Park has already rung the changes under the new title, Irish Championship Car Racing (ICCR), with more changes are the way.
As Mondello Park is the only Irish circuit, visitors to car events could have been forgiven for thinking that the venue was already in charge. The reality was that an archaic system, stretching back to the dawn of motor racing, was still operating. Under the old arrangements, race dates were the property of organising clubs with a different one running each event, leading to huge inconsistencies in the levels of promotion and organisation experienced by competitors and fans.
The circuit’s managing director, Roddy Green, explained the process that led to MI making the biggest change to Irish car racing since the late 1960s, when road races were abandoned in favour of the newly opened Mondello Park.
“Over the past decade, entry numbers were dwindling across all classes and the atmosphere that used to surround car race events was gone.
“The old club structure served the sport well, going right back to the early days of racing, but as the number of volunteers in each club reduced some clubs seemed to be going through the motions to some extent,” said Green.
“There was very little to mark one event out from another and very little to get excited about. Competitors did not feel engaged as there was no overall championship promotion (so) they just turned up, did their racing and went home with no sense of being part of something exciting or important.”
A lack of direction has been one of the sport’s biggest issues. New race classes were introduced, with little control by Motorsport Ireland and over time the number of classes needing track time grew while the number of drivers in each fell dramatically.
Events had to stretch over two days to accommodate a smaller number of drivers than would have previously raced on one. In addition, the ability of an Irish Championship class to decide its own calendar saw substantial parts of some championships move out of Motorsport Ireland’s jurisdiction with trips to Kirkistown and Bishopscourt in Northern Ireland and the likes of Anglesey and Brands Hatch in the UK.
In the case of the former headline single-seater championship, Formula Ford, a gradual move northwards led to the total demise of the championship at Mondello Park, leaving no obvious route into racing for young drivers looking for a motorsport career. The result of all this was poorly supported events which lacked on-track action, making them unattractive to spectators.
“Before putting in an expression of interest to Motorsport Ireland as part of its tendering process, we looked at the sport as a whole to see what was working and what was not”, said Greene.
“The Golden Mondello documentary, which aired on RTÉ around the circuit’s 50th anniversary celebrations, reminded us of just how strong Irish circuit racing used to be and made us determined to get the glory days back.
“We looked at events which had been a success in recent years and the ones with a theme and additional side attractions stood out. Our Historic festival and the Formula Vee festival showed us what could be achieved and the ultimate aim would be to run all of our events along those lines.”
“In terms of competitor numbers, the main feeder for circuit racing around the world is kart racing. The lack of a suitable path from karts into cars in Ireland over recent years has led to many drivers sticking with karts when they reached car racing age, by-passing Irish racing completely and heading to the UK and Europe at too early a point in their development, or dropping out of the sport altogether.
“We will be addressing this by putting an attractive Junior programme together, which will offer competitive and affordable racing, as well as back-up in the form of a training programme including driver coaching, physical training, media training and nutrition.
“A premier single-seater class is also on our radar. The BOSS championship, for older Formula 3 and F3000 cars, is a fantastic series but it does not really offer the kind of preparation for a racing career that young drivers need. We are looking at some internationally recognised one-make single-seater classes and also more modern one-make saloon championships in order to provide a career path for young racers looking to go either the single seater or saloon route.”
With all of the work put in so far by the ICCR team, what differences will competitors see on June 12 and 13?
“The first differences have been seen already with our dedicated ICCR web site, social media presence and the announcement to competitors of our permanent race organising team,” said Green.
“From now on, drivers will have the same officials and same event structures to deal with at every event. Other than the organising team, drivers will initially see only cosmetic changes. We aim to consolidate things during 2021 and put some stability into the sport in order to create the platform to develop over the next three to five years.
“We’ll be looking at classes that work and those that don’t and plans will be put in place for phased changes to the class structure. We will also work on creating a more level playing field with fairer, more consistent rule enforcement both during racing and in terms of the technical rules of the sport.
“The next stage will be the development of our events, particularly when spectators are allowed to return. We may make some changes along the lines of our successful Dunlop Masters Superbike Championship where Sunday’s race day concentrates on a couple of feature classes, with the rest of the programme being built around that.
“We will also have more attractions on offer away from the track. The big changes will come in 2022, when we begin to put more of our plans into action and start to see the benefits of the sense of community we aim to bring back this season.”
With so many demands on people’s time and resources these days, the landscape for all spectator sport has changed and motorsport is no exception. To get people back to what is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking, it must be seen to be an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.
Motorsport Ireland has recognised this and must be given credit for taking the massive step of handing the future of its sport over to Mondello Park. Come Saturday, a new era will dawn for Irish car racing and after so many years of decline, that’s something all Irish race fans should be looking forward to.