Belfast Telegraph

Now Circuit of Ireland drives onto World stage

Rally bids to join list of major events headed here

By Sammy Hamill

Top rally driver Kris Meeke has thrown his weight behind moves to include the Circuit of Ireland as part of next year's prestigious World rally championship.

The Rally Argentina winner from Dungannon says he is excited about "even the possibility" of taking on the likes of World champion Sebastien Ogier in his own backyard.

The Circuit has been a hugely successful part of the European championship for the past two years, generating positive promotion for Northern Ireland and leading to calls - importantly from outside Ireland - for it to be elevated to the World championship.

Now it seems the promoters of the WRC have been listening and are considering including it in the 2016 calendar, adding the Circuit to the list of marque events to be staged here in recent years including the Giro d'Italia, the Irish Open golf and the visit of the Tall Ships. The Open golf championship is set for Portrush in 2019 or 2020 and a Tour de France start is also on a Stormont ministerial wish list.

A World championship Circuit of Ireland would be big, bringing not just the top teams and drivers but thousands of spectators as well as global television coverage. But it will come at a cost, perhaps as much as £2m to £3m., offset by another tourism dividend.

Ulsterman Meeke, who drives for the Abu Dhabi-backed Citroen factory team, feels the investment would be worth it for the publicity and feel-good factor it would generate. "Everybody knows how popular rallying is in Ireland and it would be incredible to have the World championship back again," he said.

"I might be biased but we have some of the most amazing rally roads in the world and to be able to take on guys like Sebastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala, Thierry Neuville, Robert Kubica and all the rest of them here in Northern Ireland would be incredible."

Meeke is aware that behind-the-scenes talks have taken place between various interested parties in the past few weeks but chief organiser of the rally, Bobby Willis, is refusing to be drawn.

Ahead of flying off today to attend the Ypres Rally in Belgium and a meeting with senior European officials, he would only say: "We have promoted two very good rounds of the ERC over the past two years and are very happy being part of that European family.

"I think everyone would like to see the World championship returning to Ireland but for the moment there isn't anything to talk about. It is just speculation."

However, the speculation has come out into the open this week with one of the UK's leading motorsport magazines headlining its front page with: "Ireland closes on WRC round". And in a two-page spread the well-informed World championship correspondent of Motorsport News, David Evans, reports the Circuit is "on the verge of joining the World championship".

The "on the verge" headlines may have overstepped the mark but the suggestion has not been dismissed by the WRC promoter Olivier Ciesla, who said: "We know that rallying is in the genes of the Irish people and we would never say never."

Talk of the World championship has been in the air since Easter when the then Stormont Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment Arlene Foster said she was interested in the step up from European to World championship status and indicated that if Willis "came forward with a new and improved plan" her department would be willing to work with him.

The World championship usually allocates one round to each country and the UK already has Wales Rally GB - but their current contract runs out this year.

This, in part, has fuelled the Circuit of Ireland speculation, especially as it is already a high-class event and one which would not have to submit to the "candidate rally" process.

Belfast Telegraph


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