Breen unable to resist lure of defending Circuit crown
Craig Breen says his priority this year is to establish himself within the Citroen World Rally Championship 'family'.
He knows he must use a limited number of WRC appearances to convince the French team bosses he is the man to drive alongside Kris Meeke when they make a full-time return to the series with a new car in 2017.
But the lure of the Circuit of Ireland has drawn Breen back to the European championship and back to the scene of one of his most memorable victories in 2015.
The 26-year-old Waterford driver will head a record-breaking entry for the April 7-9 event, which features 38 cars in the top R5/S2000 category - believed to be the highest number to take part in any rally in the world.
Breen, who won in a Peugeot 208 T16 last year, switches to an R5 Citroen DS3 to challenge for a second Circuit victory against a line-up which includes reigning European champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz and Alexey Lukyanuk, leader of this year's ERC series, as well as the leaders of the British and Irish Tarmac championships, Elfyn Evans and Keith Cronin.
"My World championship programme with the Abu Dhabi Citroen team has to take preference this year but the Circuit of Ireland is very close to my heart and I really wanted to come back and try to win it again," said Breen.
"I love the rally, I love its rich heritage and the magnificent trophy - I want to bring it back to Waterford for another year."
Kajetanowicz beat Breen to the European title last season after finishing second on the Circuit and the Pole is second in the current ERC series after losing out to Russian Lukyanuk on the opening round in the Canary Islands.
They will both be driving R5 Ford Fiestas as will Welshman Evans, who won the first round of the British championship, the Mid Wales Rally.
The Citroen challenge is led by Breen and fellow Irishman Cronin, a three-time British champion, who tops the standings in the Irish Tarmac series after the first two rounds.
The list includes rising Swede Fredrik Ahlin, second to Evans in the BRC series, young Welshman Tom Cave, multi-Scottish champion David Bogie, Frenchman Robert Consani, 18-year-old Russian Nikolay Gryazin and Finland's Max Vatanen.
The Ulster quartet of Alastair Fisher, Jonny Greer, Marty McCormack and Robert Woodside are included in the top group but, under ERC rules, other leading Irish drivers, including the Moffett brothers, Sam and Josh, Desi Henry, Stephen Wright and Phillip Morrow, who are not championship registered, must start behind competitors in the ERC2 and ERC3 categories.
The event is followed by the National Rally which is a round of the Northern Ireland championship and Derek McGarrity, last year's king and a five-time winner of the Circuit, heads the entry list in his WRC Ford Fiesta, the type of car which is excluded from the international rally.
The national division is heavily over-subscribed, rally director Bobby Willis explaining: "It is unfortunate we have had to turn away so many entries but because of the time limits on road closing orders we are restricted to just over 60 cars in this part and have had close to double that wanting to take part.
"It is incredible how the rally has grown from the dark days of less than a decade ago to become one of the iconic events of Europe again. I'm thrilled with the strength and breadth of this year's entry which will see drivers from 20 different countries, from as far afield as Australia, America and China, taking part.
"And to have nearly 50 per cent of cars competing in the top R5/S2000 category is amazing."
Top of the International entry list: 1 Craig Breen (Citroen DS3), 2 Elfyn Evans (Ford Fiesta), 3 Kajetan Kajetanowicz (Ford Fiesta), 4 Alexey Lukyanuk (Ford Fiesta), 5 Keith Cronin (Citroen DS3), 6 Alastair Fisher (Ford Fiesta), 7 Tom Cave (Ford Fiesta), 8 Robert Consani (Citroen DS3), 9 Fredrik Ahlin (Ford Fiesta), 10 David Bogie (Skoda Fabia), 11 Jaromir Tarabus (Skoda Fabia), 12 Raul Jeets (Škoda Fabia), 14 Dávid Botka (Citroen DS3), 15 Jonny Greer (Citroen DS3), 16 Martin McCormack (Skoda Fabia), 17 Joe McGonigle (Skoda Fabia), 18 Antonin Tlustak (Skoda Fabia), 19 Federico Della Casa (Citroen DS3), 20 Neil Simpson (Skoda Fabia).
Top of National entry list: 101 Derek McGarrity (Ford Fiesta), 102 Wesley Patterson (Ford Escort), 103 Keith White (Ford Escort), 104 Robert Blomberg (Mitsubishi Mirage), 105 Frank Kelly (Ford Escort), 106 Camillus Bradley (Ford Escort), 107 Eugene Meegan (BMW 1M), 108 Declan McNaughton (Ford Escort), 109 Alastair Cochrane (Ford Escort), 110 Alan Carmichael (Skoda Fabia).