With just five weeks to the 85th Circuit of Ireland Rally, top international drivers Neil Simpson and Chris Ingram took a break in their preparation schedules and travelled over to Northern Ireland to help officially launch this year’s Circuit which takes place from 7-9 April.
They were joined by the First Minister, Arlene Foster, who attended the launch event with a special video message of support sent by the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Local drivers Brendan Cumisky and Fintan McGrady also attended with Circuit of Ireland Rally Event Director Bobby Willis and gave fans a taste of what’s in store this year.
FIA ERC Junior driver Chris Ingram first competed in the Circuit in 2012 when he was 17 and at the 2014 event won the prestigious Colin McRae trophy despite not being able to finish the rally on the second day! At the 2015 Circuit Chris took third place and this year has ambitions to win the ERC Junior Championship.
“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.”
Former British Champion Neil Simpson has been a rally competitor for 25 years and 2016 will be his third Circuit of Ireland event. The Skoda UK rally star is set to take part in the full British Rally Championship as well as several ERC rounds.
“The Circuit is a fabulous rally and I’ll be competing in my Skoda Fabia R5. Later this year in August I’m also delighted to be taking part in ERC championship round, the Barum Rally in the Czech Republic – home of Skoda.”
The Circuit of Ireland 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. For the first time in almost a decade it will also be part of the British Rally Championship (BRC). The Circuit is also counting rounds of the Irish Tarmac Championship and the Northern Ireland Championship.
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. The event will be broadcast on Discovery, Eurosport and global partners, BT Sport, Channel 4 and Irish networks to over 40 million viewers across the world.
Speaking at Ards Arts Centre in Newtownards Town Centre, where the thrilling ‘Ards TT Special Stage’ will be held on Friday evening, 8th April, Bobby Willis said:
“I’m so proud and excited that we are launching this historic event for 2016 with the support of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and so many of our regional council partners.
“Right here in Newtownards and across locations in the fabulous scenic counties of Antrim and Down we’ll be witnessing some of Europe’s top drivers revving up for action over a three-day period. It really will be a hallmark event for Northern Ireland and a superb rally spectacle.
“It’s fantastic that rally stars Neil Simpson and Chris Ingram have travelled from across the water to be here today joined by some of our talented home-grown drivers.
“I’d also like to welcome BRC Manager Iain Campbell and David Gray from the Irish Tarmac Championship. The Circuit continues to enjoy huge support at both national and international levels and it’s likely to be a fantastic fight to be first to the podium on the Saturday afternoon.
“This year we revisit iconic stage locations close to Lisburn, Downpatrick and Banbridge as well as the Ards TT town centre stage. But we are also taking in Antrim, Ballymena and the North Coast region featuring Game of Thrones locations and the Causeway Coastal route.
“For the first time ever we are joining two of the biggest and most outstanding Circuit stages – Torr Head and Glendun – to create one marathon stage extending over 30 km which will almost certainly test competitors to the limit.”
Launching the 2016 Circuit of Ireland Rally, the First Minister Arlene Foster said:
“It is an honour to launch the 2016 Circuit of Ireland Rally, one of Northern Ireland’s finest home grown sporting events.
“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.
“With global viewing figures of 40 million in 2015, the invaluable exposure generated by the rally hugely increases Northern Ireland’s profile as a place capable of staging international events at the highest level and contributes significantly to the development of the Northern Ireland tourism economy.
“I congratulate everyone involved for their work in keeping this premier rally at the top of the agenda for drivers, spectators and visitors alike and I commend Bobby Willis and everyone at the Ulster Automobile Club for their unstinting work to make the Circuit of Ireland the huge success that it is.”
The Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said: “The longevity of the Circuit of Ireland is testament to the esteem with which it is held by competitors and spectators alike and its reputation has been further enhanced by its status in the ERC calendar.
“2016 looks set to be another sporting success with stages in counties Down and Antrim. With stages at the foothills of the Mournes with jumps, to fast road surface and sharp corners thrown in for good measure, you would be hard pressed to find a more scenic backdrop anywhere in the world. And with these high speed stages being beamed across the world to over 40 million people provides the north of Ireland with exposure money simply can’t buy.
“I know Bobby Willis and his team have been working hard behind the scenes getting everything ready for the 2016 Circuit of Ireland Rally and I have no doubt it will be a memorable one.”
Mayor of Ards and North Down, Alderman Alan Graham commented: “We are delighted to host the official launch of the 2016 Circuit of Ireland and be part of the build up to this prestigious and exciting motorsport event. In five weeks, here in Newtownards and across the countries of Antrim and Down, we will see some of Europe’s top drivers compete in the 3-day spectacle of racing. It is going to be superb.”
Fans will have several opportunities to see the rally action from Thursday 7th to Saturday 9th April. The Qualifying Stage of the rally will be based at Antrim Castle Gardens on Thursday 7th April, followed by a ceremonial start outside the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum and that evening.
Friday 8th April features rural stages close to Larne and Ballymena and includes a refuel halt at the famous Ballymena Showgrounds. Friday’s route includes stages encompassing 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 8th April. 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 9th 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.
The King’s Hall complex in South Belfast will this year be the site of the Rally HQ and Service Park, where competitors and team personnel will converge over a four day period from Wednesday 6th April.
Entries for the 2016 Circuit of Ireland close on Tuesday 15th March.
The Circuit team would also welcome new volunteers to help manage each of the stages and anyone interested can contact organisers via the volunteer page on www.circuitofireland.net.
For up-to-date information visit http://www.circuitofireland.net . Follow on www.facebook.com/circuitofireland or www.twitter.com/CircuitIreland .