A bulging entry due to its inclusion as the second round of the European Rally Championship and counting rounds of the Irish, British and Northern Ireland Rally Championships, has brought unprecedented anticipation of an event that only a few years back was floundering, and certainly well below the calibre expected of the iconic rally.
Today, close on 40 of the new generation R5 cars and the more conventional cars will be led by top seed and last year’s winner Craig Breen, who is favourite.
He secured a deal to drive a David Greer Motorsport run Citroen DS3 R5 with support from Lakeland Tyres. Breen, currently with the Abu Dhabi Citroen Team, was pushed all the way last year before pipping Polish ace Kajetan Kajetanowicz.
Kajetanowicz (Ford Fiesta R5) returns and having experienced the Irish terrain last Easter could be a tougher opponent on this occasion.
One of major imponderables is how will Welsh wizard Elfyn Evans fare in the DMACK shod Fiesta R5. His ability is unquestionable but it is the performance of that particular tyre that will shape his destiny. From the heady heights of competing at the top echelon of the WRC with M-Sport, Evans has slipped down the rankings and competes in the WRC2 category and the British series. In theory he will be expected to beat Breen.
The Circuit is the one event that can determine who is the best young driver.
It will include Cork’s Keith Cronin in his Citroen DS3 R5. He remains a precocious talent but time is running out to make it to the pinnacle of the sport. Remarkably and while he has three British Rally Championship titles to his credit, this is his first outing on the Circuit of Ireland.
In the past some drivers have won on their maiden voyage, it’s not outside his compass but his bid to stay in the hunt for a fourth British title may take precedence.
However, that first Circuit would be more noteworthy. He has taken maximum points from his ITC rounds in Galway and Clonakilty but had a problematic outing in the BRC opener and finished well down the order, hence the need to score strong points.
Tyrone’s Alastair Fisher (Fiesta R5) is also capable of being in the mix. He figured well in Clonakilty until a high-speed accident ended his rally. His uncle, the late Bertie Fisher, won the Circuit in 1995, ‘97, and ‘99. Others in the top 10 include Briton Tom Cave (Fiesta R5), Frenchman Robert Consani (Citroen DS3 R5), Sweden’s Fredrik Ahlin (Fiesta) and Scottish ace David Bogie (Skoda Fabia R5). Derry’s Marty McCormack (Skoda Fabia S2000) occupies the number 16 berth.
There are several other Irish drivers seeded behind the ERC contenders, including the Moffett’s Josh and Sam (Fiesta R5s), Desi Henry (Skoda R5) and Stephen Wright (Fiesta R5) all of whom will be concerned about the possibility of losing time in the event of stage blockages. The start order for Saturday is based on overnight results.
Killarney’s Rob Duggan, driving for the Vauxhall Adam outfit, is aiming for top points in the British Junior Championship. In the national event Derek McGarrity (Ford Fiesta WRC) is the top seed followed by Wesley Patterson (Ford Escort), Keith White (Ford Escort), Robert Blomberg (Mitsubishi Mirage R5), and Frank Kelly (Escort).
This mornings three stages will be followed by a remote service in Ballymoney with another two stages prior to service in the King’s Hall and the Newtownards TT stage tonight at 7.50pm that ends the opening day.