Eugene eyes up his fourth title - but in an S12
Eugene Donnelly got an early Christmas present - the chance to drive the new car in which he will defend his Irish Tarmac rally title in 2007.
He got behind the wheel of Subaru's latest S12 Impreza for a test session at Cooley Mountain near Omeath at the weekend and the three-time champion declared himself happy, not just with the car but the approach of the Prodrive team who have built and prepared it.
The decision to switch from the aging Toyota Corolla in which he has recorded the first hat-trick of Tarmac titles comes as no surprise but his choice of the S12 has raised some eyebrows.
It is one of the 2006 breed of "passive" World championship cars, cars which do not have the sophisticated electronic systems which control traction, and it was thought he might opt for the slightly older but " active" S11 Impreza as other Irish drivers are doing.
But he says: "It was always going to be an S12. I know people say the S11 is a better car, a proven car, and that the S12 is still something of an unknown quantity, especially as far as Ireland is concerned.
"But if I wanted to move from my Toyota to a current car then it had to be the S12. It is the one that is affordable and, just as important, it comes with the full support of Prodrive. There is no point trying to run one of these cars without the backing of the people who build them.
"I know that the S12 has not been as successful in the World championship as some of the earlier Subarus but I have done my homework and I believe it is the best option for me. The fact that its hasn't been as successful as some of the others just increases the challenge.
"When we bought the first Corolla three years ago a lot of people thought we were mad - going for a car that Toyota had stopped working on in 1999. But it was a gamble that paid off with three Tarmac championships.
"This is a gamble too but the S12 is the future now and there is no point in looking back."
And Donnelly has one other reason for electing to go with the S12. Rally Ireland.
"Winning the Tarmac championship for a fourth time is my primary aim for 2007 and I'm as hungry and excited about that as when I won it for the first time," he says.
"But Rally Ireland is going to be a big thing this year; the chance to go out and compete alongside Sebastien Loeb, Marcus Gronholm, Petter Solberg and the rest of them from the World championship is something I never dreamed I would be doing. I will consider it a privilege to be driving on the same roads as them.
"But I want to do it in a current car. If by some chance I should make it into the top eight and score a World championship point - and I genuinely doubt that will happen - I don't want people to be saying I did it in a car that had an advantage over the current crop of WRC cars.
"I want it to be on merit; I want it to be a real World championship point."
Donnelly is likely to be the only Irish driver in an S12 as the new Irish season begins. Just three cars will be available initially and only one is coming to Ireland in time for the start of the season in Galway in February.
That will come after the Donnelly team host their "open house" party at Walsh's Hotel in Maghera on January 19. Everyone is welcome.