Daniel McKenna can take a leap towards British crown
The British Rally Championship may be in decline, its future uncertain, but for Daniel McKenna it remains his goal. He has his heart set on becoming the third Irish driver after Billy Coleman and Keith Cronin to win the title.
And he aims to take a giant stride towards his target by winning the BRC division of the Todds Leap Ulster Rally, which begins from Enniskillen at lunch time today.
A mechanical engineering graduate from Scotshouse just across the border in Monaghan, McKenna has a 20-point advantage over Welshman Osian Pryce going into what he considers his home round of the series.
Long regarded as one of the most accomplished exponents of the 'tail-out' style of driving Ford Escorts, he has moved on to master front-wheel-drive cars to such an extent he won the British R2 category last year in a Ford Fiesta.
That success saw him picked out as the Pirelli Star Driver of 2013, a lucrative award which presented him with the chance to contest this year's championship in a fully-funded, Pirelli-liveried Citroen DS3.
He has used the opportunity to good effect, scoring back-to-back wins on the Jim Clark and Scottish rallies to move ahead of closest rival Pryce. Now they go head-to-head again on the back roads of Fermanagh and Tyrone for points which will either confirm McKenna as title favourite or throw the race wide open again.
And although McKenna, naturally, says the 'Ulster' is his favourite round of the series he will be all too aware that it was Pryce who conquered treacherous conditions to win the rally in a similar DS3 Citroen last year.
Hoping to have a say in the battle will be 17-year-old Bury student Gus Greensmith, third in the standings, and two Fermanagh drivers, Timothy Cathcart and Jon Armstrong, who will be aiming to make home advantage count.
Watch out, too, for Dean Raftery from Galway, who finished third overall on the Scottish Rally in his R2 Fiesta, and another Monaghan driver, Stephen Wright, who is interrupting his Belgian championship campaign to take part.
For the first time in a number of years, McKenna and co. have been fitted into the main international field rather than contest a separate Rally NI. Pryce starts at No. 6 with McKenna at seven behind the big WRC Subarus of the likes of Garry Jennings, Declan Boyle and Eugene Donnelly.
Traditionally No.13 is left vacant but it will be filled by Stephen McCann, leader of the Irish Tarmac production championship and a late entry. Asked if he minded being slotted in at 'unlucky 13' he said no, pointing out that he was born on Friday the 13th!
Disappointingly, the exciting new Porsche 911 997 RGT, due to be driven by Richard Tuthill, has been withdrawn and will head to next week's Rally Deutschland.
Meanwhile, Derek McGarrity, a former overall winner of the rally, heads the line-up for the national division which will follow behind the main field.
He has opted out of the international event to continue his pursuit of a record fifth Northern Ireland championship and his WRC Mini will start ahead of the Subaru of Paddy McVeigh and the Mini Countryman of Alan Carmichael.
Frank Kelly leads the big two-wheel-drive brigade at No.4 in his Ford Escort.