Belfast Telegraph

Circuit of Ireland 2016: Rally cars set to roar in for special stage

By Sammy Hamill

The connection between Newtownards and motorsport stretches back nearly 90 years and the town's link with the Circuit of Ireland is to continue again with the rally returning for the TT special stage which has proved so popular in recent times.

Cars roared through Newtownards as far back as 1928, the role the town played in the history of the legendary Tourist Trophy races commemorated with a granite memorial in Conway Square.

And it was there that the 2016 edition of the Circuit of Ireland was officially launched, rally director Bobby Willis revealing that the TT stage, which has attracted a capacity of 25,000 spectators in each of the last two years, would be included in the schedule again.

It will be the final competitive element of a Friday leg (April 8) which sees the rally, in its current European championship guise, break new ground by heading up the north Antrim coast via Ballymena and Bushmills where two classic stages from Circuits past - Glendun and Tor Head - are being combined into one, stretching to more than 30 kilometres.

The base this year will be the King's Hall in Belfast with the qualifying stage on April 7 taking place near Antrim and the ceremonial start planned for Lisburn later in the evening.

After north Antrim on Friday, the rally will return to more familiar ground in Co Down for the Saturday leg.

As part of the theme of visiting iconic locations around Northern Ireland, including locations for Game of Thrones, like the Dark Hedges, the finish is planned for the front of Queen's University on Saturday evening.

Willis and the Circuit team where joined for the launch of the rally in the Ards Arts Centre by First Minister Arlene Foster and senior representatives from many of the local councils which are supporting the popular event.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness joined in via video link.

Mrs Foster described the Circuit of Ireland was "one of Northern Ireland's finest home-grown sporting events".

"It is undoubtedly Northern Ireland's most internationally recognised motorsport brand and as one of our key sporting fixtures, it continues to bring in large crowds of visitors, showcasing our tourism product and our outstanding scenery," said Mrs Foster.

"With global viewing figures of 40 million in 2015, the invaluable exposure generated by the rally hugely increases Northern Ireland's profile as a place capable of staging international events at the highest level and contributes significantly to the development of the Northern Ireland tourism economy."

This year the rally encompasses not just the European series, but also the British, Irish and Northern Ireland championships.

Drivers from all four competitions also added their support, including Skoda's Neil Simpson and the UK's Young Driver of 2015, Chris Ingram, who is now part of the Opel team.

He is no stranger to the Circuit, having competed here for the first time when he was just 17 years old.

He has, he says, good and bad memories of the event.

"I have finished on the ERC Junior podium twice, but I also crashed out last year although I still came away with an award - the Colin McRae Flat Out Trophy which I'm very proud of," said Chris.

Entries for the rally, which close on March 15, are already approaching capacity.

They include European champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz and British championship favourite Elfyn Evans.

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