It blasts into action at 5pm this evening with the Titanic Super Special against the backdrop of the new multi-million pound Titanic Belfast and the Harland and Wolff cranes.
It is 33 years since a driver from outside Ireland and Britain won the Circuit of Ireland — the late Pentti Airikkala in 1979. A few years ago, Bobby Willis took over as event director and promised to “reawaken the sleeping giant”. As the third round of the IRC, part of the dream has been realised with Skoda trio Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway), Jan Kopecky (Czech) and Juho Hanninen (Finland) bringing an international flavour.
How the Irish trio of Craig Breen, Alastair Fisher and Robert Barrable perform against their S2000 rivals should make for an interesting situation. In addition, the performance of Garry Jennings (Mitsubishi EvoIX) will add further spice throughout the 15-stage rally that finishes in Armagh tomorrow evening.
Mikkelsen is well aware of Irish rallying from his endeavours in the Irish Tarmac series and he won the Fastnet Rally in Skibbereen in 2007. Last year he won the IRC and is favourite to embellish his 18-point lead in the current campaign. Like Mikkelsen, Kopecky also prefers tarmac while Hanninen, a former IRC champion, seems to perform better on gravel.
As fans flock to the various stages around Down and Tyrone they will have the opportunity of watching how the Irish challengers will fare against the IRC stars. Breen, Fisher and Barrable are unlikely to be fazed by the presence of the trio.
Breen, who makes his debut in a Saintéloc Racing Peugeot 207 S2000 is not lacking in confidence: “The car is well balanced and it has a very powerful engine. I’m convinced that I have a winning car. Even though I’ve never driven in the region, I know the type of roads we’re going to tackle. It gives me a small advantage and I aim to win as I’m on home turf.”
Fisher, fresh from his WRC Academy victory in Portugal last week, switches to the more powerful Fiesta S2000, a car he drove to second overall in Donegal last year. The nephew of the late Bertie Fisher, Alastair is acutely aware of the tradition of the Circuit.
“It’s very, very special because what Uncle Bertie achieved winning the rally three times is something I’m very proud of. I certainly hope I can do a good result. I just have to focus and do the best I can.”
Meanwhile, Robert Barrable’s challenge received a boost earlier this week with Skoda Ireland’s marketing manager, Raymond Leddy agreeing a rolling sponsorship agreement with the Barrable team. Having notched up a brace of IRC points in Ypres last year, the Swords ace will have his eyes on a larger points haul from the Circuit.
Fermanagh’s Garry Jennings (Mitsubishi) could give the S2000 aces plenty to think about and will hold no fear of their reputations. The top 10 also features Germany’s Sepp Wiegand (Skoda), French ace Mathieu Arzeno (Peugeot) and Donegal’s Donagh Kelly (Mitsubishi).
Elsewhere, the entry includes Marty McCormack (Citroen DS3), Alan Ring (Mitsubishi), Mark Donnelly (Renault Clio), Jonny Greer (Citroen DS3), Danny Barry (Mitsubishi), brothers Sam and Josh Moffett (Mitsubishi) and Tommy Doyle (Renault Clio).
The national category includes the World Rally Cars from the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship and the Northern Ireland series, although they compete over the same stages, they are not eligible to win the main event. Derek McGarrity (Mini WRC), Eugene Donnelly (Toyota Corolla WRC), Darren Gass (Subaru WRC) and Kenny McKinstry (Subaru WRC) are the top quartet.