by John Kenny

The organisers of the Donnelly Group Circuit of Ireland Rally say they are determined the event will remain part of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) in 2013.

The famous old rally, the second oldest in the world after Monte Carlo, played host to the third round of the IRC over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend with the Skoda Fabia of Finland’s Juho Hanninen winning after a tense battle from Norwegian team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen.

Indeed it was a clean sweep for Skoda who saw Czech driver Jan Kopecky bring his Fabia home in third.

It was also a good two days work for the Irish contingent with Craig Breen (Peugeot) Robert Barrable (Skoda) and Garry Jennings (Mitsubishi) all placed inside the top eight which earned them championship points.

Now, having earned a place in the IRC, as well as continuing to be a counting round of the ITRC, the Circuit of Ireland would like to remain as part of the International rally calendar next year.

Set up in 2007, the series has attracted some top manufacturers including Skoda, Peugeot and Ford which runs under the M-Sport banner and is a Championship run for non world rally cars such as S2000 or Group N machines.

Backed by the pan European TV sports channel, the IRC is a much less expensive series in which to compete in comparison to the World Rally Championship (WRC) and was won by Ireland’s Kris Meeke and co driver Paul Nagle for Peugeot back in 2009.

“As with any international rally, it all depends on funding,” said Bobby Willis, the event director of the Circuit of Ireland and the man behind the push to get the event on the IRC calendar this year.

“Eurosport are very happy with the way it was run and the drivers that took part thought it was very good hard rally.

“They liked the different conditions on the unique Irish tarmac surfaces and while we would have liked a few more International cars and drivers, overall we are also well pleased.”

Funding for the 2012 running of the Circuit of Ireland came from Failte Ireland, the Northern Ireland tourist board, the Donnelly Group, plus the Belfast, Lisburn and Armagh City Councils and Willis himself in an event that saw its 15 stages run entirely in the North.

“The Circuit of Ireland is a real ‘sleeping giant’ and I think we have started its reawakening.

“The next step is to get it on the 2013 IRC calendar and get stages running in the Republic next year.”

The last co-operative event between the two governments was Rally Ireland, a round of the WRC back in 2009

While finances probably wouldn’t stretch to running another WRC round here anytime soon, serious consideration should be given to extending Ireland’s involvement in the IRC, the second tier of world rallying.

“The co-operation we had was excellent, even though we only ran stages in the North,” said Willis

“We took quite a financial risk in backing an IRC round and it’s likely that the event will lose money, but the tourist boards seemed to be happy with the returns with full hotels in the Armagh area and a decent return from spectators on the live stages in Belfast and Lisburn.

“We will be sitting down shortly to re-evaluate what we have learned from this year’s running of the Circuit of Ireland and see what the next step forward will be.

“Ireland is a much smaller place financially since we hosted two rounds of the WRC back in 2007 and 2009, but I think that we are heading in the right direction and running an IRC round will hopefully ensure we get a bigger profile for rallying which I believe can be raised even further.”

Whether Willis continues to be the event director after three years at the helm now remains to be seen.

He has taken the Circuit of Ireland to new heights, moving the rally from being just another round of the ITRC and placed it firmly on the international scene and through Eurosport Irish Rallying will be seen around the globe because of its involvement in the IRC.

The Donnelly group and its owner, Terence Donnelly, are to be commended for their backing, but for the Circuit to keep growing it needs bigger sponsors and indeed more government involvement if it’s to remain a force on the world rally stage.

The organisers of the ITRC also need to take note of what Willis has done in respect of the other five rounds of their championship.

It’s a championship that is in need of a radical shake up and indeed, in some respects, its being over shadowed by the smaller Dunlop National series which has a much better PR machine and is liked by sponsors, drivers and teams alike.