The history of ‘The Pirelli’ (as its commonly known) can actually be traced back to a time when the company wasn’t associated with the rally. In the past, it was referred to as the Tour of Cumbria, starting in 1975. Pirelli has long had a presence in the region, with Carlisle in the north of England today home to one of two factories in Britain, and it soon began sponsoring the event.
This support helped elevate the rally into the main British Rally Championship by 1979, when it was won by a young driver from nearby Cockermouth called Malcolm Wilson, who went on to mastermind Ford success in the World Rally Championship under the banner of M-Sport. To this day, M-Sport is still an active participant.
By 1992, the rally had earned international status and Pirelli stepped up to become title sponsor. And so, the Pirelli International Rally was born, and it had a fitting first winner: the great Colin McRae, who just three years later would become world champion with Pirelli. The following year’s winner – Richard Burns – would repeat that feat in 2001. After those future champions, a former great, Finland’s Ari Vatanen, triumphed in 1995 as the first overseas winner.
Crucial to the rally’s appeal is its special stages, which take place in the Kielder Forest, close to the border with Scotland. The area is the largest man-made woodland in northern Europe, but to rally enthusiasts its gravel tracks are what makes it special.
For many years, Kielder was a key part of Britain’s round of the world championship when it would tour the whole country. It became notorious for its fast and sweeping stages, lined by large ditches capable of swallowing cars whole. This ability to bring an early end to a crew’s rally earned it the nickname ‘Killer Kielder’.
These days, drivers wishing to take on Kielder head to the Pirelli International Rally. Drivers like Eyvind Brynildsen from Norway, for example, a regular in the world championship who travelled to England to head up the Pirelli challenge on this year’s event this year. He’s had plenty of experience on some of the most famous stages in the world, but still considers Kielder to be right up there with the very best.
An event that’s both international and local
For Pirelli, with its proud motorsport heritage, the results on the stages are very important, but the event is about a lot more besides that. It’s also a chance for Pirelli to celebrate its close bond with local people.
The factory in Carlisle, which produces some of the most advanced tyres around, has hosted the rally service park in the past, while these days it is the scene of the ceremonial start, where each car is waved off in turn before they drive to the competitive stages. This is combined with a family day for factory staff, with a range of activities and entertainment laid on. The whole company gets immersed in the unique rally experience, with Pirelli also handing out special prizes for its leading finishers.
After a few tough years for British rallying, the Pirelli International Rally is now arguably back to its best as part of revitalised national championship, with leading drivers from home and abroad taking part. And all the plans for the future of the British championship are even bigger and better. But despite the international appeal, it also retains a local feel. As a celebration of all things Pirelli, the event holds a unique place in rallying. Just watch out for the ditches.