By RTÉ Sport's John Kenny
As an occasional rallycross competitor myself, it is great to see Ireland being represented in the newly formed World Rallycross Championship this season by 37-year-old Dubliner Derek Tohill, a double European Touring Car Rallycross champion.
Rallycross, a series of short sharp races for saloon cars, is run on a combination of both tarmac and gravel and has been in existence since the 1960s, coming into its own with the following decade’s oil crisis.
The sport is credited as being invented by Robert Reed, who was the producer on ITV’s World of Sport programme at the time.
The first event took place at Lydden Hill in the UK back in 1967, where it quickly became a staple of Saturday afternoon sports' viewing in Britain in the 1970s.
Irish drivers also embraced rallycross and produced many British champions with the likes of Derek Jobb and multi-title winner Dermot Carnegie.
The European Rallycross Championship has been running since 1976 but it has largely been ignored by Irish drivers except for when rounds came to Ireland in the late 1980s and into the 1990s.
Since the turn of the 2000s, however, Tohill has largely ploughed a lone field for Ireland in the ERC and he has demonstrated his skill in taking the Touring Car class title in 2010 and the Division 2 title for two-wheel drive cars in 2013 in his Ford Fiesta.
"Tohill is largely unknown at home and has had most of his success in Europe"
That win last year won the Dubliner the Motorsport Ireland International Driver of the Year accolade and a subsequent test in a four-wheel drive 600bhp VW Polo at the end of last year.
Now Tohill has decided to forgo the ERC and make the step up to the newly formed WRC series which is backed by Monster Energy and run by the internationally famous IMG group, who wanted to run an Irish round but this was deemed unfeasible on financial grounds, according to Mondello Park.
Tohill said: “The plan is to go with Citroen for the 2014 season.
“It’s all a bit tight having said that ahead of the first round at the beginning of May in Portugal, as I’m trying to tidy up the contact with the French manufacturers at the moment and it does not give me much time to work with business and sponsors.”
Tohill is largely unknown at home and has had most of his success in Europe. He started to compete in rallycross events in 2004 after watching his father George compete in the sport for over ten years.
The younger Tohill won his first ever rallycross heat in a Citroen Saxo and in 2008 competed in a full ERC, driving a Group N Honda Civic, becoming the first Irishman to win a round outright in Poland that season.
He finished fourth overall in the final championship standings in 2008 at his first attempt in the ERC, while in 2010 he won the Touring car class in his Ford Fiesta.
Having taken the runner’s up spot in 2012, last season Tohill won the Division 2 series also in his rear-wheeled drive Fiesta and was set to continue in the ERC before IMG decided that the time was right to introduce a world series.
“I have reached an agreement to do a full season in the WRC, but I still had to find in the region of €250,000 in addition to getting a sponsor,” said Tohill.
“Luckily I have a free entry [as a result of winning Division 2 last year] which is worth around €20,000 and I have to make full use of that in 2014.”
Having made the decision to upgrade to the WRC, Tohill will now be racing against some of the world’s top names in 2014, including Petter Solberg, the ex-world rally champion and American Ken Block, who is more known for his unusual driving techniques which are hugely popular on YouTube, as well as also competing in the World Rally series.
It was also recently announced that Jacque Villeneuve, the former F1 world champion is the latest driver to join the WRC ranks and the Canadian will be driving a 600hp, four-wheel drive Peugeot 208 prepared by Albatec Racing
Tohill said: “In every class of the WRC there are plenty of top class drivers and to be world champion you will need the breaks.
“It has been a lot easier to run my own team in the last few years, but the WRC is a big step and having corporate and manufacturer support has changed everything.
“But with everything in life you have to go with the change and it’s going to be a busy period as we gear up for the first round in Portugal.”
The 2014 WRC will comprise of 12 rounds taking place in Portugal, Great Britain, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and Argentina.