Echoes of an earlier age of motorsport as the 2016 Circuit of Ireland had its official launch in Conwy Square Newtownards and with a mere five weeks to the flag drops on the 85th anniversary of Ireland’s most famous motorsport
This year the event is bigger than ever and building on the success of the 2015 event once again it is a counting round of the high profile European Rally Championship and the British Rally Championship returns, which was last featured in the Circuit back in 1991.
Also the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship is part of the package.
With regards to the British Rally Championship the Circuit is regarded as the jewel in the crown.
Already in the first week of entries been received, the organisers have received 80 and the maximum is 140 and Event Director Bobby Willis made it clear that some drivers will simply not get a start this time round.
The Circuit of Ireland being incorporated in the European series has ensured global TV coverage and last year an audience of 40 million enjoyed not only the high speed action but the stunning scenery of Northern Ireland.
The Circuit is one of 10 rallies in the prestigious FIA European Rally Championship calendar and will be the only round of the ERC in the UK and Ireland.
Last year over 78,000 people came to view the stunning stages across counties Antrim and Down and organisers anticipate the three day festival will this year attract over 80,000 visitors and spectators from countries worldwide.
Amongst the drivers who attended the launch were FIA ERC Junior driver Chris Ingram and former British Rally Champion Neil Simpson, both of whom are looking forward to taking part and in particular tackling such iconic stages as Glendun and Torr Head and in fact the two are to be joined to produce a truly spectacular 31km long stage.
Ingram said: “This year I’m signed up for a factory drive with Opel Motorsport and am looking forward to making a double debut with both Opel and a new co-driver, Kat Bekker.
“Kat is a superbly experienced and talented co-driver with an impressive record.
“We’re both looking forward to some fantastic and challenging roads at every stage of the Circuit.
“It’s a brilliant event and very well organised and also secures excellent television coverage.”
Rally fans will have several opportunities to see the rally action from Thursday, April 7 to Saturday, April 9 with the Qualifying Stage based at Antrim Castle Gardens on Thursday followed by a ceremonial start outside the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum and that evening.
Friday features rural stages close to Larne and Ballymena and includes a refuel halt at the Ballymena Showgrounds.
Friday’s route also includes stages the already noted Torr Head and Glendun as well as a passage control at the Dark Hedges and a regroup at Bushmills Distillery.
A special Ards TT Stage will take place in Newtownards town centre on Friday evening and competitive rallying on the Saturday will include stages close to Banbridge, Ballynahinch and Dromore with town centre regroups in Downpatrick and Banbridge.
The rally will finish back in Belfast on the evening of Saturday April 9 and will culminate in a special closing ceremony outside Queen’s University when the 2016 winners will be presented with the famous historic Circuit of Ireland trophy.
First Minister, Arlene Foster, who attended the launch event, herself a strong supporter of the sport, in referring to the Circuit itself, “we have what it takes” and she praised Bobby Willis and his team for not only organising such an event but for promoting Northern Ireland.
She added: ““This world famous annual rally is undoubtedly Northern Ireland’s most internationally recognised motorsport brand and as one of our key sporting fixtures, it continues to bring in large crowds of visitors, showcasing our tourism product and our outstanding scenery.