Belfast Telegraph

Reduced scale for Circuit of Ireland Rally

By Sammy Hamill

The Circuit of Ireland Rally will go ahead next year — it just won’t be part of the new European championship.

Nigel Hughes, chairman of the Ulster Automobile Club, insisted last night that Ireland’s most prestigious rally will be staged on its traditional Easter date.

He expressed his regret that the event would not be in a financial position to take up the invitation to be included in the European series but stressed: “There is no question of the rally not taking place.

“It will go ahead but on a reduced scale and will be part of the Irish Tarmac championship and the Northern Ireland championship.

“The press release which was issued yesterday by the Circuit of Ireland organising team was misleading.

“It is only the international category, the European championship category, which has been cancelled.”

Although run under the auspices of the UAC, the event has been masterminded since 2009 by Belfast rally consultant Bobby Willis who guided it into the Intercontinental Challenge this year and saw Finland’s Juha Hanninen win for the factory Skoda team.

The Intercontinental Challenge has now been superseded by the new FIA-sanctioned European championship which is promoted by the Eurosport TV network.

The Circuit was selected from 21 candidates to be part of the 12-round series.

But moving up the ladder comes at a high cost — in access of £300,000 — and Willis, who ultimately takes financial responsibility for the event, has had to say enough is enough.

“This was an extremely painful judgement for me to make and one that I did not enter into lightly,” he said.

“I had publicly expressed concern in October over funding for the 2013 rally.

“We have received significant backing from Government but we were falling short of our full funding requirements and given the delay this has imposed it is now impossible to organise an international sporting event of this magnitude in less than three months.

“Over the last three years I have invested my own money and resources into getting the rally up and running in the hope that additional funding would materialise before the event.

“But I am no longer willing to play Russian roulette with my own finances in order to safeguard a rally that has worldwide appeal, attracting a TV audience of some nine million viewers, even though it is so close to my heart.

“I’d like to thank our principal sponsor the Donnelly Motor Group and public sector bodies such NITB and some of our local councils who bought into my vision for the rally with their support.

“Most of all I’d like to thank the volunteers and spectators who made the rally so special in recent years.”

The Circuit will be replaced in the ERC by the Rally Islas Canarias in the Canary Islands.

According to UAC chairman Hughes, Willis “remains on board” for next year’s Circuit which is expected to move out of its planned Belfast base to a new venue and will be staged as a one-day national rally for competitors in the Irish Tarmac and Northern Ireland championships.

Willis is also expected to use the extra time to explore the possibilities of returning to the European series in 2014 — and secure the funding required.

Belfast Telegraph

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