Although Patrick Elliott’s late withdrawal – due to business commitments – has denied the Birr Club of their top seed, the Subaru WRC quartet of Niall Maguire, Derek McGarrity, Mel Evans and Kevin Barrett will battle through 120km of special stages to secure maximum points.
Maguire is still weighing up a title bid and adopting a wait and see attitude.But Barrett, who gained his first national event victory on the Galway Summer Rally last season said: “My plan for 2010 is to win the championship.”
The presence of both McGarrity and Evans is a boost for the Birr club and the Dunlop organisers. McGarrity faces a busy weekend. He is the top seed for the Northern Ireland Championship at Kirkistown tomorrow and will travel on to Nenagh for his national debut. Evans is no stranger to national events and, with a second place in the 209 Fastnet Rally under his belt, the Welshman will be familiar with the pace of the series.
Defending Group N champion Kevin Kelleher, former showroom champion Garry Jennings and Thomas Fitzmaurice, who led the 2009 showroom campaign for a time, all in Mitsubishis, should be closer to the top seeds given the extra power from the 33mm restrictors. Fellow Mitsubishi aces Aidan Bourke and Trevor Bustard complete the top ten.
Meanwhile, a cracking modified entry features rally.ie champion Mike Quinn (Ford Escort), Trevor Mulligan, Manus Kelly, Washington James, Daniel McKenna and Ed Synan. Over 15 crews will line up for the opening round of the Dunlop Junior Championship where the winner qualifies for the Billy Coleman Award, joining the top two Junior competitors from the main championship. The first of the day’s six 20km stages begins shortly after 10am.
The Hankook Northern Ireland Rally Championship begins tomorrow with the Kirkistown-based Pedro Pet Foods Rally. Over 100 crews line up for the six-stage event that is a mixture of loose and sealed surfaces. Reigning champion Derek McGarrity (Subaru S12B) heads the entry from the Subaru of Gary White, with former national champion George Robinson (Subaru) and young Dromara driver Stuart Biggerstaff completing a Subaru quartet.
On his first outing in a World Rally Car and, indeed, his first stage rally, Biggerstaff was in superb form, finishing second overall. Dominic McNeill (Escort WRC) and the Group N Mitsubishi’s, of Raymond Johnston, Mark Massey and Connor McCloskey are also competing, the latter has hinted that he may switch to a World Rally Car for some of the other events.
Meanwhile, Kenny McKinstry (Subaru WRC), partnered by Harvey Bell, is the top seeded Irish driver in Rallye Sunseeker as the ANCRO Gravel Rally Championship gets underway in Bournemouth and Poole. The Banbridge man, who won the series in 1999 and the Sunseeker in 2002, faces the likes of Steve Perez (Ford Focus WRC), Marcus Dodd (Hyundai Accent WRC) and Paul Bird (Ford Focus WRC). Six-time event winner Dodd will be pushed hard by double Rallye Sunseeker winner Roger Duckworth while Steve Perez in the ex-Marcus Gronholm Ford Focus WRC and fresh from his victory in the recent Wyedean Rally, will pose a strong threat.
Elsewhere, double British Rally champion Jonny Milner returns in his venerable Toyota Corolla WRC. Andy Burton (Peugeot Cosworth) is a late entry. Northern Ireland’s, Jonny Greer (Mitsubishi Evo 9) is amongst the Group N entry. Following this evening’s ceremonial start (6.15pm) the action begins tomorrow morning.
Eddie Peterson (Mini Special) takes a two-point lead over Steven Ferguson (Mini Special) into Sunday’s 12th round of the Hewison Autotest series in Longford. Third placed Eamonn Byrne (Mini) is 19 points further adrift. Tomorrow’s Garda Síochána MC Sporting Trial at Aughfarrell, Brittas starts at 11.30am.
Tim McNulty (Subaru WRC) will contest the West Cork Rally as a shakedown for the Circuit of Ireland Rally in early April. At present, entries for the Clonakilty event are close to the 100 mark, both Kenny McKinstry and Hugh Hunter have expressed a strong desire to compete.
Entries for the Circuit of Ireland Rally (April 3/4) opened this week, and the UAC organisers have capped the entry at 135 crews.