What has happened to Irish circuit racing?

Despite some interest in the Irish Touring Car Championship (ITCC), single seater and saloon car racing in Ireland remains in a deep crisis and the latest statistics from Motorsports Ireland’s licence department make for depressing reading.

Up to 31 May this year, the governing body has lost almost 1,000 licence holders since the peak in 2008, a figure which also includes rallying and circuit racing drivers.

However, while rallying seems to be holding up, circuit racing is not.

With no premier single seater class in Ireland, no sign of Formula Ford making a reappearance any time soon, and with a handful of top Irish drivers racing abroad, there is no suggestion yet of a resurgence of circuit racing in Ireland.

These championships produced some very healthy grids and an exciting crop of young drivers in the 1990s.

There is one bright spark in the Ginetta junior series which was introduced last year in an effort to get youngsters involved in motorsport.

The new one-make class is aimed at 14 to 17-year-old competitors and uses the Ginetta G20 Coupe.

Ginetta junior made its debut last year in Ireland and its inaugural winner was Niall Murray, which gave him a part-funded prize drive in a Ginetta G40 as part of the British Ginetta Junior Championship which supports British Touring Cars (BTCC).

Sixteen-year-old Murray, who hails from Dublin, has had a number of top 10 finishes in the British series this year and also had a couple of podium finishes, taking second place in race three of the championship at Donington Park.

‘The series here has started well, but the numbers this year have been weaker than we would have really liked,’ admitted Paul Grogan, the PR officer for the Irish Ginetta series.

‘The good thing is that we have had new winners this year after Niall Murray ran away with it last year, with the likes of Andy O’Brien, Sean Doyle and Jake Byrne all taking the chequered flag.’

Murray, who has had one or two reliability problems this year in the British series, is one of only a handful of Irish drivers now racing in Britain.

There were a host of young Irish hopefuls plying their circuit racing trade in the UK in the not too distant past, but they are thin on the ground these days.

Cormac O’Neill, who raced in the senior British Formula Ford Championship last year for the Irish-owned Cliff Dempsey racing, struggled somewhat and dropped back down to the Kent 1600cc class this year where he easily won the opening two rounds at Silverstone.

However, he missed the triple header at Anglesey due to the pressure of exams but hopes to be back for more races in the UK 1600 series later in the year.

Dubliner Aron Smith lies in third place in the UK Renault Clio Cup after back-to-back wins in Thruxton which earned him the Motorsport Ireland Young Driver of the month award for April.

The third year engineering student is a brother of Gavin Smith, who raced in the likes of British Formula 3 and the BTCC, and has had a great start to the 2011 championship which is also part of the BTCC package.

Kevin O’Hara from Donadea, Co Kildare, was due in the Far East recently for the first race of the Formula Pilota (Formula Abarth) series in China, driving for the team run by his brother John, but the race never happened for the young Irish driver.

Nineteen-year-old Gary Thompson is in his second season in Japanese Formula 3 in the National Class for cars one year or older and he too is racing for a team run by John O’Hara.

The teenager is hopeful of moving to the senior F3 class and perhaps on to Formula Nippon, a series that has been won in the past by the likes of Ireland’s Eddie Irvine and Richard Lyons.

Others who are racing abroad this year include 28-year-old Matt Griffin, who is competing in the FIA GT3 European Championship, and Eoin Murray from Meath, who is likely to compete in the Italian Seat Championship with backing from Seat Ireland.

In the US, Peter Dempsey ran into contract and sponsorship problems in his bid to finish out the Indy Light series.

However, he returned to the Indy lights series in the US recently behind the wheel of an Andretti Autosport car, the team which also ran Ireland’s Adam Carroll in two races in the Indycar series in 2010.

Dempsey teamed up with young Briton Stefan Wilson, taking second place behind Wilson in an Andretti Racing 1-2.

Peter McKenna, the current Irish Young Driver of the Year, is competing in the US Star Mazda class.

McKenna was seventh in the series after the opening three races of the 11-round championship won last year by Irish-American Conor Daly, son of Irish F1 legend Derek Daly.

Daly actually lead the Indy Lights series at one point, but he has quit US racing to concentrate fully on competing in the GP3 series in Europe which has produced disappointing results so far.

The Irish Status Grand Prix team lead the series with Britain’s Alexander Simms at the top of the drivers’ standings at present, while the team lie second overall.

All in all, Irish circuit racing, both here and abroad - despite one or two notable exceptions - is at its lowest ebb in decades.

Motorsport Ireland needs to get a more a more hands on approach, stop blaming the recession and actually get our championships back on track before we run out of the young lions of Irish motorsport.