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Circuit of Ireland drivers get to see the best of Northern Ireland... for a change

Kris Meeke

For far too long, rallying has been stuck in the hinterland, cast out to far-flung places. Out of sight, out of mind.

Sure, the stages all across Northern Ireland – and Ireland for that matter – are great but more often than not the service areas are located in some soulless industrial estate and even a cattle mart or two.

Not this year's Circuit of Ireland. It is right in the heart of Belfast, the rally cars, their service vehicles and hospitality units stretched out beneath the spectacular Titanic building. It is a superb setting and one which is much appreciated by the European contingent, many here for the first time.

So too was the choice of the beautiful Ballycultra Village at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, where yesterday's qualifying stage was based. The shiny state-of-the-art rally cars famed against the backdrop of 18th century houses and shops was a photographer's dream – as was the donkey which just happened to wander through the village.

It was the prelude to a noisy and colourful ceremonial start at the front of Belfast City Hall last night with Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir flagging off the cars, which were led by European Championship leader Craig Breen.

Over the next two days the cars will be centre stage in Newtownards, Ballynahinch, Downpatrick and Lisburn.

Yesterday, it wasn't unusual to see drivers like Robert Consani from France or Jan Cerny from the Czech Republic strolling around the Titanic building and staring up in awe.

As impressed as anyone was Kris Meeke, the Citroen World Championship star having a busman's holiday by joining the TV team from Eurosport.

"All credit to Bobby Willis [the rally director]," said Meeke. "He's got the ERC back to the Circuit of Ireland and hopefully now the rally can have a home because that's what it has been lacking over the last 10 years.

"It hasn't had a base, a place to work from, but here we have a fantastic venue in the Titanic Quarter to go with the great stages which I believe are among the best in the world."

Belfast Telegraph