Big names join Kirkistown line-up in bid to fine-tune trophy preparations
It's the opening round of the Northern Ireland Championship but tomorrow's Pacenotes Stages Rally at Kirkistown has attracted drivers whose ambitions may well lie elsewhere.
Drivers like former Irish Tarmac and National champion Declan Boyle along with Marty McCormack, Connor McCloskey, Jonny Greer and Peadar Hurson are viewing the North Armagh club event as an opportunity to shakedown new cars or iron out any early season issues.
Boyle will use it to see if the engine problem which dogged his WRC Ford Fiesta during last weekend's Galway International has been resolved before he starts his Irish National campaign while for McCormack it will be his first serious run in his new R5 Skoda Fabia ahead of the British Championship, where he is expected to be joined by Greer.
Hurson, too, will be out in a new car, his recently acquired WRC Fiesta, before the start of the Irish National series and McCloskey, also getting to grips with a WRC Fiesta, has opted for Kirkistown instead of the Cambrian Rally in Wales and his planned start to the BTRDA Championship.
They all fit into an entry list which is headed by last year's winner Kenny McKinstry, who will be running an S8 Subaru Impreza instead of the S14 he won in 12 months ago. His Banbridge base, in fact, houses three S14s but they have all been booked by other drivers this weekend and he said: "Customers come first."
Those customers include Tom Cave, who will be having his first outing in an S14 in Wales.
Reigning NI champion Derek McGarrity starts at No.2 in the R5 Fiesta in which he won last weekend's New Year Stages at the same Kirkistown venue. He finished ahead of McCloskey who starts at No.3 followed by Greer, Boyle, Hurson and Alan Carmichael in a McGeehan Motorsport WRC Mini.
Robin Phillips, the champion back in 2000, returns to drive an S10 Subaru at No.8 and Kieran Graffin makes a first appearance in Keith Cronin's 2016 Tarmac Championship-winning R5 Citroen.
The event consists of six stages, all contained within the Kirkistown race circuit, starting at 10am.
Meanwhile, Desi Henry is one of a number of Ulster drivers heading to tomorrow's Cambrian Rally, an early outing for the Irish forest champion and his R5 Skoda ahead of the British Championship.
Unlike Martin Cairns, who is also in Wales with his WRC Fiesta, Henry won't be attempting to make an overnight dash back to Ireland for the Loughran Memorial Rally at Carrick-on-Suir.
The entry list there is headed by Cronin in an R5 Fiesta, a prelude perhaps to his bid for a fourth British title with the M-Sport Ford team. If all goes well at Kirkistown, McCormack will be there too, as will former forest champion Josh Moffett in his R5 Fiesta.
Topping the motorsport bill this weekend, of course, is Rally Sweden which began last night with a short superspecial stage at Karlstad. In yesterday's shakedown stage, the Citroens of Kris Meeke and Craig Breen were right up at the front, the latter second fastest behind the privateer Fiesta of Mads Ostberg with Meeke fourth.
"Sweden is a chance for us to have a fresh start after our frustrating event in Monte Carlo, and we had a nice run in shakedown - we learned some things and our speed was quite good, so I'm happy," said Meeke.
"A few drivers decided to save their tyres, because shakedown counts towards our total allocation for the event. But there were only a few tenths of a second between the top four or five cars."
The big surprise was World champion Sebastien Ogier, the Monte Carlo Rally winner, who was off the pace in his M-Sport Fiesta after three shakedown runs.