BIG NAMES TO RETURN TO IRELAND?
A potential Circuit of Ireland return moved a step closer after event organiser Bobby Willis was joined by government officials on a ‘factfinding’ mission to Rally of Spain.
North Antrim Member of Parliament Ian Paisley and two representatives from Tourism Northern Ireland were in Spain with Circuit of Ireland event director Willis.
Willis told Motorsport News his priority remains to return the Circuit of Ireland to the international rally calendar.
Willis said: “Two representatives from the event’s side of Tourism Northern Ireland came for a site visit to see the potential of a motorsport event. I know this rally very well and it can be fascinating for people of a non-motorsport background to come and see what happens with a major event like this.
“The Circuit hasn’t run for the last two years and it’s not going to happen next year, but we’re targeting 2020 to bring the event back.”
Willis’ presence in Salou sparked speculation of a possible WRC round in Northern Ireland.
Asked about WRC ambitions, Willis said: “I’ve never denied that my ultimate ambition would be to get the Circuit to the highest level of world rallying – that would be an incredible achievement for the team and it’s a level at which I think our event would sit comfortably. But we’re talking to the European Rally Championship, we’re talking to lots of people right now, but, like I said, collectively we’re working towards getting the Circuit of Ireland back on the calendar.”
Britain’s round of the WRC, Wales Rally GB, will return to Wales for the 20th season in succession next year, but MSA chairman David Richards has admitted the event could rotate from region-to-region from 2020 onwards.
Richards said: “They’re [the Welsh Government] willing to support Rally GB for another three years, but they also see that if the event has to expand and go to other regions of the UK as part of that process, they’re willing to support that as well – so long as we’re willing to come back again. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
It’s through such an agreement that the move to Northern Ireland could be on the cards.
Democratic Unionist Party member Paisley accompanied Willis in Spain as chairman of the Northern Ireland’s Motorsport Task Force.
Willis said: “It’s great to have Ian in Spain to see an event running at this level. The Task Force is key to the future of motorsport in our part of the world and having Ian on side with that is vital in areas such as developing the volunteer base and realising the economic impact and value of motorsport in the province.
“When you’re out here on a WRC round like this, it becomes obvious how much work goes in from the marshals and organisers – for Ian to see this first-hand is invaluable.”
The event also gave Paisley an insight into what a WRC round could mean to Northern Ireland.
“I’d love to be able to say we can get it to Northern Ireland,” said Paisley. “That’s one of the reasons why I’m here this week, to look at the potential for a big motorsport event like this. And do we have the hunger and the capacity to take on something like this? This is Formula 1 standard and this is Formula 1 for the working man and it’s [about] trying to make sure we could cope with this. I think we could and I think we’d do it brilliantly, but obviously it costs money and Bobby has to persuade the government [of the benefits].
“The potential return on investment is good and that’s a positive. If Bobby can sell that to the boffins calculating the numbers then maybe we can get them to look favourably on the possibility of getting a WRC round to Northern Ireland. That’s a conclusion Bobby, his team and, I’m sure, all motorsport fans like me in Northern Ireland would love to get to.”
Paisley also paid tribute to Willis’ hard work and dedication to return the Circuit of Ireland to former glories and possibly beyond. “This man’s a rock star,” he said. “The intellectual property and knowledge he brings is a fantastic asset and I think we’d be mad if we don’t capitalise on that sooner rather than later.”
The WRC has been seen twice in the Northern Irish lanes when a crossborder Rally Ireland ran out of Sligo in 2007 and 2009.
Craig Breen was the last Circuit winner
Ireland last hosted the WRC in 2009