World Rally Championship: 'Hopes are high' for Ireland return

Kris Meeke
Northern Ireland's Kris Meeke has five WRC wins to his name, with Wexford's Craig Breen set to return to the series in Finland

There is increasing optimism that the World Rally Championship could return to Northern Ireland for next year.

The launch of a report by a motorsport taskforce has fuelled hopes that Rally GB will switch from Wales to Northern Ireland in 2020.

The cross-border Rally Ireland appeared on the WRC calendar in 2007 and 2009.

WRC driver Kris Meeke believes the work of the taskforce means that Northern Ireland can have a "prosperous future" on the motorsport circuit.

"There are more and more team members from Northern Ireland working in the WRC and coming out to spectate," said Meeke on the passion for rallying in Northern Ireland.

"I've been following the work of the taskforce closely and it's important that they get the necessary support so they can implement it in the near future."

The Taskforce, which was chaired by DUP MP Ian Paisley, investigated the economic impact of motorsport in Northern Ireland, as well as various safety issues, and has challenged the government to invest more into the sport.

There has also been speculation that Corisca and the German rounds could lose their spots on the WRC calendar, opening up the opportunity for a new tarmac round of the championship.

WRC in Ireland would be 'ultimate dream'

Bobby Willis, event director of the Circuit of Ireland, says that his team has been working hard to make it a reality.

"Hopes are massively high," said Willis. "Everything is realistic and we're certainly all working hard.

"Hopefully once we're through the feasibility study we can keep pushing on.

"We can't say too much until that study takes place but we're all hopeful that it can happen."

Scott Martin, Bobby Willis and Craig Breen
Bobby Willis, here pictured after Craig Breen's Circuit of Ireland success in 2016, has high hopes that the WRC can return to Northern Ireland

For a man who has been involved in the sport for over 40 years, bringing the WRC to Belfast would be like going "to the end of a rainbow" for Willis.

"It's everything I've ever dreamt of," he admits. "It all comes down to the figures and numbers, but having Kris Meeke and Craig Breen can certainly help and they're mad keen to get it over here.

"I know the roads across Ireland are the best about and we have everything going for us, so it would be great if we can pull it off.

"The taskforce gives hope for all of motorsport, not just for one particular event. It gives us opportunities and we've got to be positive for the future."

Northern Ireland's WRC interest is 'no secret'

Craig Breen at Wales Rally GB
Rally GB currently takes place on the gravel of the Welsh forests

In addition to the work of Willis and his team, there have also been positive signs from British governing body Motorsport UK that a return to Northern Ireland would be possible.

Motorsport UK recently signed a three-year contract to extend Wales Rally GB's connections with the WRC but added that there is an "appetite" to move the event to other parts of the UK.

"There is healthy communication between the four home nation governments," said a Motorsport UK statement, which added that "exploratory conversations" have taken place between the Welsh Tourist Board and Tourism Northern Ireland.

The statement also acknowledges that Northern Ireland's desire to bring the event is "no secret" and there is a possibility of a one-year move across the water before then returning to Wales in the future.

Rally Ireland can happen 'without Stormont Government'

Paisley believes that the WRC coming to Northern Ireland "is a real prospect" despite the lack of a local government at Stormont.

"Technically it can happen without Stormont in place, but it makes sense that the political drive is from our government," said the DUP MP.

"If you ask all of the parties whether they want big events to come to Northern Ireland they would all say yes, but the impediment now is to make sure the WRC promoters and the FIA are happy with the contracts.

Sebastien Loeb
Nine-time WRC champion Sebastien Loeb was victorious in the series' two previous visits to Ireland

"We've done it with golf tourism and there's no reason why we couldn't do it with motorsport too.

"The decision and assessment lies with Tourism Northern Ireland but we need the government to step up to the mark to make it happen by signing contracts and making people confident that the money is there."

The taskforce report calls for greater investment in motorsport events in general, using the example of the North West 200, which race officials say gets £70,000 from the government and brings in £12 million to the economy.

The early signs are that Tourism NI is open to looking at the economic impact that the WRC would bring to Northern Ireland, saying it is "gathering information" about a potential Rally GB bid.