World Rally Championship driver Kris Meeke has called on the Northern Irish Government to help safeguard the future of the Circuit of Ireland Rally
The European Rally Championship round gets under way in Belfast on Thursday evening to a backdrop of financial uncertainty, despite event director Bobby Willlis' attempts to play down the situation.
AUTOSPORT understands the Circuit of Ireland is run with £140,000 backing from the government - compared to the £7 million it cost Discover Northern Ireland to bring last year's Giro d'Italia bike race to Belfast, or the £3 million that has reportedly been paid to bring the Tall Ships race to the city in July.
Meeke told AUTOSPORT that similar funding would not only secure the event's long-term future, but make hosting a round of the WRC a realistic target.
"When the Giro d'Italia came to Belfast last year, there was a lot of television coverage and the event got great exposure, but what could Bobby do with that kind of investment?" the Northern Irish driver said.
"That sort of money would get the Circuit into the World Rally Championship for five years. Over five years in the WRC, the Circuit would generate unbelievable exposure for Northern Ireland.
"Yes, the tourism board is working with the event, but we need to get behind the Circuit properly, so does industry.
"I know I'm biased, but we have an amazing rally here this week and everybody will come out and have a great time, not knowing how things are hanging in the balance and how much of this event depends on the work Bobby's doing.
"It's good now, but it has the chance to be the best in the world. Everything is here: the roads, the infrastructure, the service park and most of the all the enthusiasm of Bobby and his brilliant team.
"The WRC should be the target for this event and, with the right backing, that target is totally achievable."
Willis was quick to defend Discover Northern Ireland's investment, but admitted times are tough.
"Without them we wouldn't be here," he said, "there's no doubt about that. But things have to change or there's a danger the event could die and that really would be a tragedy.
"I grew up knowing this as one of the biggest and best rallies in the world and we have the chance to be back there again.
"There's no denying it's been quite tough. And I don't really see a way that my team can carry on putting this event together while we're all trying to do full-time jobs. Certainly, I don't think my bank balance can sustain another year!
"Everybody wants the Circuit and everybody sees the benefit of it - you only have to look at the fantastic capacity entry for evidence of that - but we need a firmer financial footing to go forward, it's that simple."
Irishman Craig Breen starts from car number one, chasing his dream of victory on the Emerald Isle's biggest rally, which finishes in Belfast on Saturday night.
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