Arriving at Belfast's International airport to be told, "We've put you in the KIA today, sir," wasn't exactly the start to the Circuit of Ireland trip I'd planned. Ordinarily, when I go to a new event, I like to drive some of the stages to get a feel for what the drivers would be talking about. And this time I'd be doing it with a car called Rio.
New event? The Circuit of Ireland might have been running since 1931 and it might be the third oldest rally in the world, but last week was my first time on this iconic rally.
In fact, it was my first crossing of the Irish Sea for a rally since the opening round of the 2009 World Rally Championship. And that's far too long since driving down some proper lanes. And drinking some proper Guinness.
And both were in fine fettle in Belfast and Armagh last week.
But what of the Circuit? And could this really be called a Circuit?
I readily recall some classic battles between the likes of Bertie Fisher, Austin McHale and Jimmy McRae. I never covered the event in a professional capacity, but reported on its demise as it appeared to slip further and further from the international radar.
The slippage stopped last weekend.
Granted, the third round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge presented nothing like the enormous challenge of events gone by - and neither did it have the Monte Carlo-esque multiple start points of the original 1931 edition. What it did have, however, was the kind of international media coverage that could be a lifeline to the future.
David Evans took one for team on the Circuit of Ireland
And we have to thank Bobby Willis and his team for that. Willis has worked tirelessly for the last three years to get the event to this point and he has to be congratulated.
But big decisions beckon for Bobby and his team. Running as a round of the IRC does not come cheap, and considerable demands are made on an individual event by promoter Eurosport Events. The quid pro quo could be found on pan-European mainstream tele last Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
And for those pushing for a longer, more traditional route for the Circuit of Ireland, membership of the IRC might not be the way forward. Moving endless levels of television kit around the country to chase a round-Ireland Circuit would likely be prohibitively expensive and of little interest to Eurosport.
If we want the classic back, a real test of cross-border endurance, the best way forward is to duck out of the IRC and build this event into the biggest fish in the collective ponds of the Irish and British Rally Championships.
That's the future.
Reflecting on last weekend, I thought it was a great rally. And Belfast was a great place to start. It would have been an even better place to start if The Crown hadn't been closed. For those of you who haven't been acquainted with one of the best pubs in the world, get yourself down Great Victoria Street in the centre of the city. When you stand facing the Europa - a place happy to have the tag line 'Europe's most bombed hotel' firmly in its past - you'll be on the doorstep of The Crown. Get in, lean on the granite bar and order the only drink that matters in this part of town.
Except I couldn't. Because it was shut. I suspect this was because it was Good Friday. In this instance, I wasn't arguing with the Friday part...
The great part about Friday was the spectator stage in the Titanic Quarter. Rallying purists didn't get it; it was one of the most artificial stages around. But who cares? I didn't. And certainly the thousands of others standing beside me - including Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson (he wasn't actually beside me!) - didn't seem bothered either.
And why would they be?
Peugeot's monstrous 405 T16 was on display for the fans
The precursor to some inspired IRC skids was a sea-level re-run of Jean-Louis Mourey's film, which should have won an Oscar in 1989. Remember Climb Dance? Half of that double act was in town last Friday and Peugeot's 405 T16 didn't fail to inspire. The noise, the angles, the wings and the wonder left onlookers agog as the thing left the line. Granted there was nothing to match the shocking speed Vatanen carried through Devil's Playground, a long left-hander 12,780 feet above all of Colorado, but it didn't matter. Between the cones in second gear and about three feet above the Irish Sea, the effect was pretty much the same: brutal.
It's just a shame those cars didn't venture into the lanes beyond Belfast. Seeing the 405 or the 205 T16 thundering through the night would have been a real treat.
In fairness, Juho Hanninen and Andreas Mikkelsen weren't a bad second best. In fact, they were tremendous. And the fight between the pair of them for victory on this most historic rally in Ireland was worthy of its name. And theirs. The fight for the third round of the IRC was as good as anything past Circuit masters have mustered.
And Hanninen can take a great deal of pride in being only the second driver from outside of these shores ever to have won - his fellow Finn Pentti Airikkala was the first in 1979.
Much as I enjoyed pretty much everything about last week's Circuit of Ireland, the one thing I was a tad confused and bemused about was the emphasis on everything Titanic. This is nothing really to do with the event, but standing at the pre-event press conference I couldn't help notice the run-down nature of the building. It was shambolic. But shambolic in a nice and kind of arty way.
Turns out, we were standing in the drawing office where the Titanic itself was designed. I was humbled and then confused. My realisation of the place we were in brought an undoubted sense of history and occasion, but thinking deeper, I wasn't sure about all of this.
Memories of the Titanic were very much in evidence
There's now a beautiful building and museum dominating what I assume was a reasonably run down part of the docks, in the shadow of the Harland and Wolff ship builder's famous cranes Samson and Goliath, which is lovely. But I was, and am, not sure what we're celebrating. When the Titanic went down 1,514 of the 2,224 on board drowned and history has shown a shocking attitude to those not fortunate enough to be first-class passengers.
Maybe it was just me, but I would have thought Belfast's bright future would been more worthy of celebration.
One thing which was worthy of celebration was Hanninen's win and the return of a great rally.
Get back on track. Join today for unlimited access to all Autosport news and features.
Are you an Autosport magazine subscriber? Activate your online account
Your Autosport Plus membership includes:
- Unlimited access to Autosport's news - no monthly cap.
- Read the best motorsport features, analysis and opinion.
- Explore Forix, our comprehensive motorsport stats database.
- Choose from monthly, yearly and two-yearly packages.
David Evans is the rallies editor of Autosport and Motorsport News. A successful rally driving father ensured an early introduction to motorsport and, fascinated as he was by rallying, the fourth estate was of equal interest. Having read (or at least looked at the pictures) from the age of two, he joined <i>Motoring News</i> in 1996 and later moved to Autosport in 2002.@davidevansrally More features by David Evans