Never before, in a history dating back to 1958, had a British Rally Championship event been held on a race circuit. Yet the 2021 BRC started at Oulton Park at the end of May.
Uniquely, this was a round of Britain’s premier rallying series run solely within the confines of a track, as a result of the pandemic. Typically, the BRC runs on the forest tracks of Wales and Northumberland, plus closed roads in places such as the Scottish Borders, the Isle of Man and Ulster.
Now, no one can argue that a wide and smooth 2.6-mile track is anything like Hafren Forest or the Torr Head coast road, and there are those within the sport who bemoan the use of circuits for special-stage rallies. It’s not proper rallying, they say – but then proper rallying has been on enforced bed rest for 16 months.
These aren’t normal times and, more than any other branch of motorsport, rallying has been decimated by Covid. Not since February 2020 has a significant rally run in the UK, and we will be well into the summer before rallying really gets going again.
At the same time, racing is now in full swing with busy paddocks and capped crowds.
The success of the Circuit Rally Championship shows that there’s support for rallies like this, and the Neil Howard Stages, usually held at Oulton Park in November, found a replacement slot on the Whit Monday bank holiday.
Faced with a decimated calendar for the first half of the year and no events until the summer at best, the BRC took the bold decision to hook up with the Neil Howard Stages. It was a brave move that drew some grumbling from dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts, but there was a lot of good thinking behind the move.
Without running at Oulton Park, the BRC wouldn’t start until mid-July at the earliest, and that wasn’t great news for drivers, their sponsors or, most importantly, the thousands of people who earn at least part of their living from rallying.
Additionally, a rally at a track is incredibly accessible for the fans, supporters and sponsors. Instead of a remote forest or equally remote section of closed public road, here was an event that could be easily and fully spectated by many.
As two spheres of rallying combined for the first time, the entry list was probably the best ever seen in the UK, and the BRC entry was full of young talent, just as it should be. The pace was as hot as the lovely summer weather, and rally cars explored the limits of the Cheshire parkland track and its access roads for a full 10 hours.
Admittedly, it was a less challenging event than might be expected for the BRC, but the competition was fierce. Will it be repeated? Well, it was the result of extreme circumstances, so there’s no immediate plan to do it again. But never say never.