The Circuit of Ireland has produced an entry list that any rally in the world would be extremely proud off. In my humble opinion, the entry for the International section will not be bettered in any ERC (European Rally Championship) or BRC (British Rally Championship) event this year. The WRC may have the World Rally Cars but they will not have the strength and depth the Circuit has produced this year. Something pretty special was expected, but the organisers have succeeded in surpassing the expectations of many. The icing on the cake was persuading Craig Breen back to defend his title. With the help of Lakeland Tyres, Davy Greer Motorsport and a few other sponsors, the deal was done to bring Craig and Scott Martin back, this year in a DS3 R5 Citroen. Craig said that the call to defend his title was too hard to resist, especially when he heard the plans for this year’s route! He has to be considered one of the favourites for the win again this year. Who else needs to be considered for the top step of the podium is going to be a difficult task; it might be easier picking the winning lotto numbers!!! Number two on the road is Elfyn Evans, leader of the DMACK team, in the R5 Fiesta, will be out to prove they are serious contenders on tarmac as well as on the loose, and to discount them could be dangerous. Third off the line is Kajetan Kajetanowicz (Kajto), in another R5 Fiesta. Last year the Polish driver came within 6 seconds of taking victory, and no doubt will be doing his best to secure the top step this year!
Alexey Lukyanuk comes to the Circuit on the crest of a wave, having scored maximum points on the last two ERC events, and while he finished a distant 6th last year, with his confidence high he will be a major threat, and will definitely be aiming to be closer to the front! With five and six on the door plates are local drivers, Keith Cronin and Alastair Fisher. Cronin,with navigator Mikie Galvin, in his DS3 R5, should be on a high as he has taken maximum points on the first two rounds of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship (ITRC), and has to be considered one of the favourites. Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble, in a Fiesta R5, are the only ITRC crew that have been on the pace of Cronin, and will be gunning for the top of the leader board in an attempt to turn the tables on Cronin.
The next four starters have also to be highly rated. Tom Cave, in another R5 Fiesta, is at number 7, and has an ace up his sleeve as he is running on Michelin tyres, which are considered by many to be the tyre that will best suit the stages. At number 8 is Robert Consani in a DS3 R5. This is Robert’s 4th visit to the Circuit and his pace is increasing every year. Fredrik Ahlin was the surprise of the first round of the BRC in his Fiesta, as he was matching and beating Evans on some of the stages. Will his first visit to Irish tar hinder his progress? At 10 is David Bogie, and although he has a relative lack of experience in his R5 Fabia, his times from the last loop of stages at the recent Midlands Stages Rally show he has the potential to fight at the front. There are another 12 ERC registered crews that can’t be discounted, but I believe they will be battling for top 5-10 positions.
There are another 16 R5 / S2000 crews who are not registered for the ERC but are still eligible to score points in either the ITRC or BRC, with the leading contenders amongst these guys having the skill and the equipment to be mixing it up at the sharp end of the field. Josh and Sam Moffett have shown in the first two rounds of the ITRC that they can set some blistering times, while Max Vatanen is another driver in a DMACK shod Fiesta; he comes here with high expectations. Desi Henry and Euan Thorburn have set competitive times in their Fabia and 208 T16 respectively…have they the pace yet to challenge for victory?
Next week I will take a look at the other classes within the International field plus the National section of the rally but in rounding up, any crew that makes it back to Belfast on Saturday afternoon in the top 10 will have had a mighty rally, to make the top 5 will have required being very brave, to have made the podium they will have been driving on and over the limit. To be crowned the winner they will have risen above a top class field and no one will be in any doubt that this driver has star potential. Whether we will be celebrating another victorious driver from Ireland (either North or South) it is hard to know, we have drivers very capable of making it happen but equally we have another 30 odd crews trying to stop it happening. So it’s going to be an absolute battle and the place to be is on the ditches, cheering on our giants, and fingers crossed the sun shines and everyone has a safe and enjoyable weekend.