Circuit of Ireland geared for step up to World stage
The World Rally Championship is set for a major shake-up - and the Circuit of Ireland could form part of a fresh future.
Already a flagship round of the European championship, it is said to be one of a group of up to 13 rallies which are under consideration for a new WRC slot as motorsport's governing body, the FIA, and the promoters look to rejuvenate the series.
Abu Dhabi, Canada, Chile, Croatia, India, Japan, Jordan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Russia and Turkey as well as Northern Ireland are all reported to be ready to run a candidate or even full WRC round.
However, with the championship calendar restricted to 14 rounds, few have any real hope of displacing existing events.
But sources within the WRC say changes are coming and a number of current rounds are under threat, including Italy and France. Even Rally GB could be in danger.
"These new candidates are serious and they're coming with very strong propositions," said a WRC insider. "There's real pressure on existing rallies now."
The possibility of the World championship returning to Ireland remains a long shot but the Circuit, voted the Best Event/Festival Experience at the recent NI Tourism Awards, is held in high regard by the WRC promoters who recognise it as an outstanding rally brand, an iconic event known around the world.
Oliver Ciesla, head of the WRC promotions company, said: "If there is a proposal to take the championship to Ireland then we are interested in that.
"We know all about the fan base there."
Circuit of Ireland director Bobby Willis, who rescued the rally from near oblivion in 2009, is playing his cards close to his chest, saying he is "flattered" the Circuit is being talked about in World championship circles but for the moment he is "happy" for it to be part of the European series.
However, it is no secret he would love to see the Circuit rise to the highest rung on the rally ladder and he was in Portugal recently, where Kris Meeke scored his second WRC win, talking to some of the top decision makers.
While reluctant to get into detail, Willis points out that, unlike many of the other potential candidates who would have to run trial events, the Circuit is already close to World championship level, an FIA approved rally, although it would need increased support from the Stormont government and tourist bodies.
He acknowledges there is no likelihood of the UK being allocated two rounds of the championship but he is well aware there are question marks over Rally GB, not least since Natural Resources Wales put forward a proposal to almost double the cost of using their forests.
Counting against the Circuit is the desire to take the championship to new places, notably Asia and the Middle East, but there is realisation too that some countries do not have the resources or expertise to stage WRC events.
The FIA's Jarmo Mahonen said: "We have to do something. If we stay with the current rallies then nothing will ever change."
But will the changes elevate the Circuit of Ireland to World championship status?