World Rally Championship: NI's latest bid to host round fails

Wales Rally GB
Motorsport UK 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.

The latest talks to bring the World Rally Championship to Northern Ireland in 2021 have broken down.

There was speculation the British WRC round could have made the switch from Wales to Northern Ireland next year.

Tourism NI chief John McGrillen told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that talks were underway with WRC promoters last June.

However that has been spiked by Tourism NI on the grounds the event does "not represent best value for money".

Bobby Willis - the man who paved the way for the Intercontinental Rally Challenge to come to NI in 2012 followed by the European Rally Championship in 2014 and 2016 respectively - travelled to Rally GB with North Antrim MP Ian Paisley and Tourism NI representatives in October to hold fresh talks with both WRC and Motorsport UK officials.

Those close to the bid believe the competition, which is followed by 836 million globally, would help rejuvenate the Northern Ireland economy after COVID-19.

However, it appears that the coronavirus pandemic has scuppered the hopes of local motorsport fans.

The case to relocate Rally GB from its current base in Deeside in Wales to Belfast next year was pulled by Tourism NI bosses, however a spokesperson did acknowledge that the WRC is a "positive opportunity to profile the destination globally and to celebrate its motor sporting heritage".

WRC aside, Tourism NI has confirmed there is currently "no guarantee of support for any future events".

Northern Ireland has produced a number of top flight drivers - including Kris Meeke and co-drivers such and Aaron Johnston who sits alongside Oliver Solberg, the son of 2003 WRC champion Petter.

It also formed part of the competitive route when the WRC first came to Ireland in 2007 and again two years later.

WRC round would be 'as big as the Open'

Following Tourism NI's decision Paisley, who is the head of Northern Ireland's Motorsport Taskforce, described it as a missed opportunity post Covid-19.

"The World Rally Championship has huge economic benefits," he said. "The economic benefits would be as big, if not bigger, than the Open Championship."

Paisley said £17m was needed to bring Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and eventual winner Shane Lowry to Royal Portrush last July. By comparison, £2m would safeguard the services of six-time WRC winner Sebastien Ogier, defending champion Ott Tanak and Hyundai Motorsport team-mate Thierry Neuville.

Meeke - a former works driver with Citroen and more recently Toyota in the World Rally Championship - has supported the bid.

"Down through the years many of the great drivers have done the Circuit of Ireland and Ulster rallies," he said recently.

"Everyone knows the kind of challenge we can offer teams and drivers if the World Rally Championship came here. They'd love it. It would be an amazing addition."

Kris Meeke
Five-time WRC rally winner Kris Meeke has backed the bid

Hugh Chambers, head of Motorsport UK, has said Northern Ireland insists that not all is lost in the future despite the set back.

"The discussions with Tourism Northern Ireland about the opportunity to bring the World Rally Championship to the north of Ireland in 2021 have come to an end," he confirmed.

"Against the backdrop of the wider public healthcare emergency and significant economic shockwaves, the affordability of a major new world Championship event, such as this was - inevitably - going to be measured against the prioritisation of public investment.

We were heartened by the cross-community support that the event galvanised up to this point, and hope that the goodwill generated can be brought to bear at an appropriate time in the future. Our immediate focus now is delivering a first-class event in the north of Wales this October."

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