Belfast Telegraph

Loeb on his way back

By Sammy Hamill

Ireland will be back in the World Rally Championship in 2009 - but Irish fans won't have to wait for two years to see the return of Sebastien Loeb and Co.

Instead Rally Ireland has been selected to kick-start the 2009 series, replacing the Monte Carlo Rally as the opening round on the provisional dates of January 29 to February 1 - in just 13 months time.

Coincidentally, the date was announced at the FIA's World Motor Sport Council meeting yesterday in Monte Carlo.

It was always known that last month's Rally Ireland, which for the first time was the penultimate round of this year's championship, would not be part of the 2008 series, the FIA proposing to introduce a new rotational format from 2009 onwards.

It means the championship will be reduced from its current 16 rounds to 12 but with most rallies taking place on alternate years. So Rally Ireland is in for 2009 but stands down in 2010 to make way for the return of the Monte Carlo Rally.

And Wales Rally GB, which is the final round of the 2009 series, is off the 2010 calendar.

The new format will please the manufacturer teams who have been campaigning for a reduction in the number of rounds. But it won't please all of the participating countries although Rally Ireland's co-promoters, Sean O'Connor and Ronan Morgan, were happy with the news.

"We're delighted, of course, and honoured that Ireland has been awarded the most prestigious position of opening the 2009 WRC series," said Morgan.

"We had heard rumours in the past week or so that we might be given the January date and it gives us a fantastic opportunity to launch the 2009 championship. But I'm afraid all holidays are going to have to be cancelled now!

"Instead of having 18 months or so to prepare we're going to be straight into planning for January 2009. We haven't even begun discussing it with the various government agencies yet so there is a lot of work to do."

Morgan revealed that the intention would be to continue the cross-border theme, again using Sligo as the rally base.

"And we would love to go back to Stormont if they will have us," he said, adding: "This is a direct result of the hard work by the thousands of volunteers who worked on our event, our fantastic fans and the outstanding levels of political support we have received since we started the project.

"The residents of each stage must also be commended for their co-operation and support in making Rally Ireland the huge success it was this year."

Ireland's first WRC event took place just under a month ago and proved the turning point of the series with Marcus Gronholm crashing out and Sebastien Loeb taking the victory which all but ensured he became champion for the fourth year in a row.

It was hardly surprising that the Citroen ace called afterwards for Rally Ireland to be included in future championships.

But for 2010 he's going to have to get used to some new destinations - like Indonesia, Russia and Bulgaria.

2009 FIA World Rally Championship: Jan 29/Feb 1 - Ireland; Feb 15 - Norway; Mar 15 - Cyrpus; Apr 5 - Portugal; Apr 26 - Argentina; May 24 - Italy; Jun 14 - Greece; Jun 29 - Poland; Aug 2 - Finland; Sep 6 - Australia; Oct 4 - Spain; Oct 26 - Great Britain.

2010 FIA World Rally Championship: Jan 24 - Monte Carlo; Feb 14 - Sweden; Mar 7 - Mexico; Apr 11 - Jordan; Apr 25 - Turkey; May 16 - New Zealand; Jun 20 - Indonesia; Jul 18 - Russia; Aug 8 - Bulgaria; Aug 22 - Germany; Sep 12 - Japan; Oct 10 - France.

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