Circuit of Ireland: High-flying Barrable drives home a message of intent
Favourite Breen left in shade as Dubliner sets Circuit bar high
Robert Barrable laid down a marker for his Circuit of Ireland Rally rivals by setting fastest time on the qualifying stage - for the second year in a row.
The talented ex-racing driver from Dublin went on to finish third last year, narrowly missing out on second behind the factory Skoda of rising Finnish star Esapekka Lappi when he took a trip through a gateway in the dying moments.
Barrable went on to contest a number of WRC2 events in last season's World championship but he is back on home ground again in the same R5 Ford Fiesta and seemingly in top form as he edged out European championship leader Kajetan Kajetanowicz and rally favourite Craig Breen over the short qualifying stage in the Holywood hills.
"I seem to have this qualifying stage cracked - now I just need to be fastest on all the rest," he joked.
"Seriously though, I have a good feeling with the car, no problems at all, and I'm looking forward to it."
The qualifying stage doesn't count in terms of the overall rally but is used to determine running order, Barrable having first choice of which position he wants to start.
It is important on gravel rallies but not so critical on events like the all-tarmac Discover Northern Ireland Circuit although it can provide an early psychological boost.
And with the recent rain likely to have left grass verges waterlogged, the front-running cars are certain to drag mud onto the road, making it more treacherous for following drivers.
In the circumstances it was no surprise when Barrable chose No.1 when the drivers assembled at Belfast City Hall last night ahead of the ceremonial start.
He will be first on the road today followed by Kajetanowicz and Breen who also opted to take early starting positions.
Kajetanowicz was second quickest R5 Fiesta, exactly half a second slower than Barrable, and picked No.2. In Ireland for the first time, the Pole quipped: "It is a lovely island, very green.
"Trouble is some roads are green too; very slippery!"
Breen in his Peugeot Rally 208 T16 was third fastest and although he said he was happy with the time and his car, he seemed tense, perhaps the weight of being rally favourite starting to weigh on him.
His Academy team-mate, the newly promoted Charles Martin, set the fifth best time just behind fellow Frenchman Robert Consani in his distinctively-liveried R5 Citroën DS3.
They picked five and four respectively.
Close behind was former British junior champion Marty McCormack, lining up for the first time in an S2000 Skoda Fabia.
He is planning to move on to the World WRC2 championship later in the season and insists this is a "get to know you" outing in the Skoda.
"We've been working hard on the set-up of the car and I'm happy with my time on the qualifying stage but I'm going to walk into this one rather than try to run too soon," he said.
The Draperstown driver starts at six ahead of two more home contenders, Jonny Greer and Sam Moffett.
Moffett, who figured strongly last year before being forced to retire his Fiesta, admitted he struggled a bit, saying he felt nervous and wary of the patches of mud dragged onto the road.
"I just need to settle down and find a good rhythm," he said.
Searching for rhythm, too, was Alastair Fisher who felt he clipped something at the edge of the road and backed off fearing he had punctured a wheel of his Fiesta.
He was only 11th fastest and starts further back than he would have wanted.
Also off the pace was Russian Alexey Lukyanuk, only 12th fastest.
He said he found it hard to adapt to Irish conditions, especially as he had not been able to test his Fiesta here before starting the qualifying stage.
Young Ulsterman Jon Armstrong and England's Chris Ingram set identical times at the top of the European Junior time sheets in their R2 Peugeots while Sweden's Emil Bergkvist, leader of the ERC Junior standings, was third in his German Opel junior team Adam.
Out of the 45 ERC registered drivers to do the qualifying stage, David Botka was slowest, having unluckily picked up a front right puncture near the start in his Mitsubishi Lancer.