It is second in importance only to the World championship itself but now the Intercontinental Rally Challenge could be coming to Northern Ireland next year.
The Belfast Telegraph understands the Circuit of Ireland is in line to replace the Rally of Scotland as the British round of the global IRC series which was won so memorably in 2009 by Ulsterman Kris Meeke and the Peugeot UK team.
Despite being highly praised, and won earlier this month by Skoda’s reigning champion Juha Hanninen, the Scottish event has run into date and funding difficulties for 2012.
In the provisional schedule for next year it was to move to the Spring but the proposed March date has been ruled out because it would coincide with (bizarrely) the start of the breeding period in the Scottish forests for the Capercaillie, a protected species of grouse. There are problems, too, with a switch to February which hosts the opening round of the IRC, the Arctic Rally, the Swedish round of the World championship and the start of the Scottish national championship.
With publication of the 2012 calendar imminent, it seems the IRC organisers are running out of patience and are preparing to offer the British round to the Circuit of Ireland.
Saying the Scottish organisers had “put themselves in a very fragile situation”, Francois Ribiero, motorsport development director of Eurosport, the satellite broadcasting promoters of the series, confirmed: “We have a back-up plan and the Circuit of Ireland is one possibility.”
Bobby Willis, who took over the running of Ireland’s most famous rally two years ago, has been pursuing a place in the IRC and in 2010 gained Supporter Event status for the Circuit.
Today he wouldn’t be drawn on the likelihood of the rally being promoted to full IRC status but said: “I wouldn’t like to comment on what is speculation at this stage but it is no secret that our ambition has always been bring a major rally championship such as the IRC series to these shores as part of the plan to restore the Circuit of Ireland to its former heights.”
The Intercontinental Challenge was set up in 2006 as a more affordable alternative to the World championship, providing a platform for up-and-coming drivers and a showcase for the new breed of Super 2000 cars.
It proved to be the launching pad for Dungannon driver Meeke who won the series two years ago and has now graduated to the World championship with the BMW Mini team.
Featuring factory-supported teams from Skoda, Peugeot, Ford, Proton and Honda, it has a spread of events which stretch from Finland to the Azores, the Ukraine to Cyprus.
With its Eurosport backers, it has also brought a new dimension to television coverage, broadcasting the action live for upwards of 10 hours on some rounds. Eurosport claim it had a cumulative audience of close to 80 million last year.
If the rally was offered an IRC place, extra funding would have to be found to accommodate a championship of this level.