WELSH ace Mel Evans (Subaru WRC) has already made Irish rallying history by becoming the first ever overseas driver to win the national rally series.
As the curtain falls on the Dunlop backed 10- round campaign with Sunday’s Skibbereen-based West Cork Hotel Fastnet Rally, he has set his sights on yet another victory that would bring his winning tally to six events.
Evans has a preference for events in the Munster region, and in particular those in Co Cork. He has stated his desire to win in Skibbereen and join the likes of 2004 winner, Jim Harrison (Subaru) and Norwegian, Andreas Mikkelsen (Ford Escort), who won in 2007, as the only non-Irish drivers to have triumphed since the Fastnet began back in 1982.
Not for the first time, the event is primarily a battle between the Irish and the Welsh, with the Subaru trio of Denis Cronin, Kevin Barrett and Daragh O’Riordan providing the principal opposition to Evans.
Cronin, by virtue of his victory in last year’s Fastnet, is the top seed and having beaten Evans by 11 seconds in last year’s encounter, will fancy his chances of a repeat.
It’s likely to be a fascinating encounter between the pair and while Cronin’s car lacks the cutting technology of the S12B that Evans will pilot, it is not that far behind either.
Dunlop regular Kevin Barrett missed a few events in the autumn and the form he displayed when denied the spoils in the Circuit of Kerry by a tie-break, has dipped a little. There’s no doubt that victory in the Fastnet would provide some consolation.
Midleton’s, Daragh O’Riordan (Subaru WRC) is another to experience a loss of early season form, a return to the strong performance he gave on the Circuit of Ireland will be required if he is to make an impression down in Skibbereen.
Top Group N driver, Kevin Kelleher will be aiming to guide his Mitsubishi to a top finish and if the weather remains dry, he could easily improve on his sixth-placed seeded position.
Welshman James Belton (Subaru WRC) is something of an unknown quantity and may take time to acclimatise to the west Cork terrain.
The battle for the two-wheel drive category sees the traditional Mk. 2 Escorts guided by Donegal’s Declan Boyle, Limerick’s Ed O’Callaghan and Kerry’s Mike Quinn take on the modern-looking Renault Clio S1600 of Carrigaline’s Brian O’Mahony.
Boyle is in contention for the rally.ie award within the Dunlop series with Wicklow’s Lloyd Hutchinson (Mini) and Quinn waiting in the wings while O’Callaghan and O’Mahony are vying for victory in the Southern 4 Rally Championship.
A top four championship finish will be enough for O’Callaghan, who is 19 points ahead. He was demoted to second place on the Cork 20 national event through a five minute penalty (imposed by the Motorsport Ireland stewards), which has since been the source of much misinformed discussion.
The Group N category of the Dunlop series is also down for decision in Skibbereen.
Monaghan’s, Shane Maguire holds a four-point advantage over fellow Subaru ace Sean Flanagan, who will find it difficult to overcome given the fact that Maguire is ultra-consistent and also that there are few capable of splitting the pair in terms of the acquisition of points. Former Dunlop champion Eugene Donnelly (co-driven by Alan Whyte) will drive a Vauxhall Nova as part of a fundraiser for the West Cork Rapid Response.
Elsewhere, local driver Damien McCarthy (Honda) is more than capable of landing a significant result.
Sunday’s action is over eight stages close to Skibbereen, the first of which begins at 8.30am.
Meanwhile, the Castwellan-based Down Rally brings the Petro Systems National Forest Rally Championship to a conclusion. It is also the penultimate round of the Hankook Northern Ireland series.
Cashel’s Pat O’Connell (Mitsubishi) will actually clinch the title once he gains the all-important point for actually starting the event, which will put the title out of the reach of his rival John Reid (Toyota Corolla WRC).
The Northern title rests between Stuart Biggerstaff (Subaru WRC) and Mark Donnelly (Mitsubishi), who are separated by a seven-point margin.
Next season’s Circuit of Ireland and the Rally of the Lakes (both rounds of the Irish Tarmac Championship) will take place within days of each other due to the proximity of the Easter and May Bank Holiday weekends.
Neither club could find a solution to the problem, the only date open to Killarney clashed with the Jim Clark Rally, which returns to the ITC.
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