Elfyn Evans is the man to beat in Circuit of Ireland Rally
Elfyn Evans laid down a "catch me if you can" marker in the Circuit of Ireland Rally's qualifying stage ahead of the ceremonial start in Lisburn last night.
The young Welshman, leader of the British championship, left many of his rivals, including last year's winner Craig Breen, trailing in his wake as he blew them away over the short stage on the outskirts of Antrim. He was almost five seconds faster than anyone else in his R5 Ford Fiesta - and the stage measured little more three miles.
True, it doesn't count in the overall rally which starts in earnest this morning but the times from qualifying allow drivers to pick their starting positions and, to a man, they had agreed in advance it was important to be close to the front because the weather indicated the stages would become muddier and greasier with the passage of every car.
"Ideally I want top three," said Breen as the crews assembled in the picturesque gardens of Antrim Castle.
"Because there has been so much rain, mud is going to dragged onto the roads and the further back you are in the starting order the more difficult conditions are going to become."
He just missed the top three, setting fourth fastest time in his R5 Citroen but he was over six seconds slower than Evans who topped an all Fiesta 1-2-3 ahead of European championship leader Kajetan Kajetanowicz and home hero Alastair Fisher.
The Ulsterman had been fastest in the practice runs over the qualifying stage earlier in the day and was pleased to stay close to the front.
"The conditions are very difficult, very greasy, and it would have been so easy to make a mistake but we had a good run and I'm happy with third," he said.
Keith Cronin, another of the favourites, was a couple of seconds slower than Breen in fifth place in another Citroen, admitting he had been in a ditch on the first corner, and former British junior champion Marty McCormack made it four Irish drivers in the top six in his S2000 Skoda Fabia.
But it was the margin of Evans' dominance that had everyone talking. He was more than a second a mile quicker than anyone else when qualifying stages are usually decided by fractions of a second.
Yes, he has come from the World championship where last season he was competing at the sharp end against the likes of Sebastien Ogier and Kris Meeke and has won two rounds in the WRC2 second division this year, but there were questions over how his DMACK tyres would cope in their first exposure to Irish conditions.
The early answer was emphatically "very well indeed".
The top 15 got to choose their starting positions in Lisburn last night but there were several who had bigger worries - like whether they would start at all. Among them was former British champion David Bogie who crashed in practice, his Skoda being dragged away on a towrope.
Frenchman Robert Consani and Hungarian David Botka made it through qualifying but their cars were immediately headed for the service park at the King's Hall for urgent repairs. Aleks Humar fared worst, somersaulting his little R2 Peugeot into a field.
But Evans was imperious even if he did dismiss his performance as "nothing special" and claiming he had "made a few mistakes".
Goodness knows what will happen if he cuts out the errors - and it stays wet.