Circuit of Ireland poised for return to ERC calendar
ONE of the most iconic events in Irish sport, the Circuit of Ireland Rally, is poised to return to its former glory as a round of next year's European Championship.
Subject to final approval by the FIA, motorsport's world governing body, the Circuit will run in its traditional Easter slot as part of a revamped 12-round ERC calendar, thereby attracting some of the most exciting drivers in international rallying.
The news emerged from a meeting of the FIA Commission in Geneva yesterday, prompting event director, Bobby Willis, to describe it as "a real step forward for Irish motorsport".
Willis took charge of the Circuit, the second oldest rally in the world, in late '09 when it was no more than a withered ghost of its former self.
In the rally's heyday years of the '80s, world greats like Hannu Mikkola, Ari Vatanen, Michele Mouton and Henri Toivonen all came to sample what was then a five-day marathon. Willis did manage to get the event included as a round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) in 2012, but the rally did not run this year due to a funding shortfall.
It is now expected to return as a two-day "flagship event" of the new-look European Championship on the weekend of April 18-19 and will be the only Irish or British round included.
Willis, a former co-driver whose first international event was the '77 Circuit, has expressed a strong desire to return the rally to its old cross-border status with, in time, iconic stages like Moll's Gap in Kerry possibly making a return.
But next year's event is set to remain Ulster-based, focusing particularly on stages in counties Down and Antrim.
The 2014 European Championship will be broadcast on Eurosport with in excess of 10 million viewers expected to tune in to coverage of the new Circuit of Ireland.
In 2010, Willis, who runs a world-wide rally maps business, remarked to the Irish Independent: "People keep asking me am I mad? I don't think I am."
Three years later, a place in the ERC is just one rung down from the World Championship, a status Rally Ireland briefly held until it was discontinued after the '09 event.
As an integral part of the European Rally Championship, the 2014 Circuit of Ireland expects to sign up a who's who of international drivers and co-drivers.
Top competitors being linked to ERC campaigns in 2014 include Bryan Bouffier from France, Sepp Wiegand from Germany, Andreas Aigner from Austria as well as Waterford driver Craig Breen and Robert Barrable from Swords.