x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Rally-mad Bulgaria bucks World Cup and soft economy

Neither economic crisis nor a clash with the football World Cup can dampen enthusiasm for rallying in Bulgaria as the country steps up to join the world championship circuit.

SOFIA // Neither economic crisis nor a clash with the football World Cup can dampen enthusiasm for rallying in Bulgaria as the country steps up to join the world championship circuit. "It's been really a long wait as we've been preparing for it for more than 15 years," Georgi Yanakiev, president of the Bulgarian automobile federation, said ahead of this weekend's first World Rally Championship (WRC) event in the country.

"It's my dream and I'm pleased it's a reality now." Financial constraints mean organisers in Bulgaria, home of a successful European championship rally for four decades, have had to be careful with their spending plans for the three-day event which starts today. They have also made sure to fit the rally timetable around the World Cup in South Africa, which reaches its climax with the third-place play-off tomorrow and the final on Sunday.

"Unfortunately, it has happened during an economic crisis and it made the whole process even more difficult," said Yanakiev, a former motorcycle racer who had competitive success at the domestic level and has led the federation since 1980. "As you know Bulgaria cannot afford to spend too much on the organisation of many sports events," "We're not even a car-manufacturing country but we're glad to have so many companies which were ready to help.

"Of course, we're realistic and we know it'll be one of the least luxurious rallies. "At the same time, we know that [world governing body] FIA officials are aware of our potential. "But don't get me wrong. This will be the 41st Rally Bulgaria; it's a competition with a big history." More than 300,000 spectators are expected to watch the rally, which will take place around Borovets, Bulgaria's oldest winter resort and a site for Alpine ski World Cup races in the 1980s.

"Fans play a big part in every competition and we know it'll be an event with very good attendance as we have so many rallying fans in Bulgaria," Yanakiev said. Ivo Steganov, a rally fan, said it will be "emotional" for Bulgarian fans to see drivers such as Sebastien Loeb, Kimi Raikkonen and Mikko Hirvonen. "Bulgaria in the global series. Isn't it amazing?" He added he was pleased the schedule was arranged so he could also watch the World Cup.

Loeb, the six-time world champion who leads this season's standings, had a chance to sample the local enthusiasm when he appeared at a demonstration event in Sofia on Sunday. "It's my first time in Bulgaria and it's very good to see such a passionate crowd, such a good atmosphere," the Frenchman said. "It's a new rally but I see we have so many fans despite the fact that we've never been here before."

* Reuters