Devine gearing up to clip high-flying Breen's wings
Craig Breen is riding high at the moment. A winner in Italy and Belgium, he is also the clear leader of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship with four victories under his belt.
More importantly, from his point of view, he has put his name back in the World Championship frame with a starring role for Hyundai in Finland on his return to the highest level after the devastating blow of being axed from the Citroen team at the end of last season.
He played his part so professionally, it is almost certain he will be back in the Hyundai team for Rally GB, with a full-time comeback to the WRC on the cards for 2020.
It all makes the Waterford driver the clear favourite to win the Today's Ulster Rally this weekend and emulate his idol, the late Frank Meagher, by becoming Irish champion.
But Breen's elevated status is all the more incentive, if it was needed, for the likes of British champion Matt Edwards, Alastair Fisher, Tom Cave and, perhaps, Callum Devine to knock him off his perch.
Devine, a former British Junior champion and Motorsport Ireland's Young Driver of the Year in 2017, has been the rising star of the Irish series this year, a consistent top-four finisher in his first full season in an R5 car and, on occasions, making life uncomfortable for Breen.
Devine was trading times with him on the Easter Stages and Rally of the Lakes, where he took the Bertie Fisher Trophy for fastest time on the signature Moll's Gap stage, and actually led outright after the first stage of the ill-fated Donegal International despite Breen opting to switch to a WRC Ford Fiesta instead of his regular R5 car.
In the end he was the top Tarmac points scorer in third behind the more powerful WRC Fords of former champion Sam Moffett and Breen.
Benefiting from a 2018 season in the World Junior Championship, Devine, from Park in Co Londonderry, has made the jump from little R2 cars to R5 seamlessly and will relish the opportunity to again go up against the high-flying Breen over the closed roads of Co Down on Saturday.
But this rally combines the Irish series with the British Championship and sees the return of Edwards, who won in Ulster last year on his way to a first BRC title.
Currently he is tied at the top of the standings with fellow Welshman Tom Cave, who took top points from the previous BRC round held in Ireland, the West Cork Rally back in March.
Throw into the mix the likes of Fisher, second in the Tarmac table, Desi Henry, a winner already this season, reigning Irish champion Josh Moffett - his brother Sam is expected to be a non-starter - Marty McCormack and Jonny Greer, who moves up a level on home ground, and the battle at the front could be intense.
Breen, of course, remains the man to beat but, in a nod to his new connections to the Korean manufacturer, he switches to an R5 Hyundai i20, a car he has never rallied before, and that might prise open the door slightly for the chasing pack.
But it is worth remembering that the two-time Circuit of Ireland winner has already chalked up victories in a Skoda Fabia and a VW Polo as well as Fiestas this season, and he also comes to Newry on the back of his debut in the Titans RX rallycross series in France, where he reached the final driving an RX6 Pantera.
He's very adaptable and, after a test day in the Melvin Evans Motorsport-run Hyundai, Breen will be good to go.
Based at the Mourne Country Hotel, there is a ceremonial start at the Newry's Albert Basin tomorrow evening (8.45pm), with all the action getting underway at 8.15am on Saturday morning.
The top 20
1 Craig Breen and Paul Nagle (Hyundai i20); 2 Matt Edwards and Patrick Walsh (Ford Fiesta); 3 Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble (Ford Fiesta); 4 Callum Devine and Brian Hoy (Ford Fiesta); 5 Tom Cave and Dale Bowen (Hyundai i20); 6 Josh Moffett and Andy Hayes (Ford Fiesta); 7 Sam Moffett and James Fulton (Ford Fiesta); 8 Desi Henry and Liam Moynihan (Skoda Fabia); 9 Jonny Greer and Kirsty Riddick (Ford Fiesta); 10 Marty McCormack and Barney Mitchell (Skoda Fabia); 11 Alex Laffey and Stuart Loudon (Ford Fiesta); 12 Daniel Cronin and JJ Cremin (Ford Fiesta); 14 Meirion Evans and Jonathan Jackson (Skoda Fabia); 15 James Wilson and Arthur Kierans (Hyundai i20); 16 Alan Carmichael and Ivor Lamont (Hyundai i20); 17 Stuart Biggerstaff and Anthony Nestor (Ford Fiesta); 18 Camillus Bradley and Crawford Henderson (Ford Escort); 19 Damien Toner and Michael Coady (Ford Escort); 20 Frank Kelly and TBA (Ford Escort).
The route they will take
Friday - Ceremonial start Albert Basin, Newry (8.45pm). Saturday - SS1 McGaffin's Corner (8.30am); Banbridge re-group (9.10am); SS2 Bronte Homeland 1 (9.30am); SS3 Shinn Bridge 1 (10am); Newry service (10.30am); SS4 McGaffin's Corner 2 (11.30am); Banbridge re-group (12 noon); SS5 Bronte Homeland 2 (12.30pm); SS6 Shinn Bridge 2 (1pm); Newry service (1.30pm); SS7 McGaffin's Corner 3 (3.20pm); Banbridge re-group (4pm); SS8 Bronte Homeland 3 (4.20pm); SS9 Shinn Bridge 3 (4.50pm). Newry finish 5.30pm).
The Ulster Rally website contains a programme with full details and maps of stage locations. It is free to download.