Easpekka Lappi to light up Circuit of Ireland
His name may not trip off the tongue and he may be still comparatively unknown beyond rallying's 'anoraks' but Easpekka Lappi is already being talked up as a strong candidate to win this year's Circuit of Ireland.
For the moment the 23-year-old Finn is not officially among the starters for the April 17-19 European championship event which will be based at Belfast's Titanic Quarter – but he will be come Sunday night when Skoda, the reigning ERC champions, rubber stamp their participation.
At the official launch of the Easter rally, which took place in the old Harland and Wolff drawing office in the shadow of the Titanic building, Circuit organisers could say only that Skoda Motorsport were "finalising plans to enter two factory-prepared Super 2000 Fabias". They won't announce their drivers until after this week's Acropolis Rally.
But Lappi – and German team-mate Sepp Wiegand – are their nominated drivers in the European championship and, indeed, the Finn, who won the previous round in Latvia, was the leader of the series ahead of this evening's start in Greece.
He won three times in the Asia-Pacific championship last year and then took top place in the final round of the ERC series on his return to Europe.
Barring a major upheaval Lappi, the newest Flying Finn, will be spearheading the Czech manufacturer's assault on a rally they dominated with a 1-2-3 finish in 2012.
But Peugeot have had no hesitation in naming their drivers even though Ireland's former World S2000 champion Craig Breen and Dutchman Kevin Abbring are also lining up in Greece tonight where they will debut Peugeot's new R5 category car, the 208T16, which has been extensively developed by Breen and Irish World championship star Kris Meeke over the past 12 months.
"It's been exciting being involved in the development of the new car and I know that fans from all corners of Ireland are eagerly anticipating seeing it," said Breen. "There is always a buzz around the Circuit of Ireland but it feels particularly special because it is the only round of the European championship in the UK and Ireland."
Speaking at the rally launch, Event Director Bobby Willis revealed that the competitors taking part will come from all over Europe, plus the UK, as well as Finland and the USA, but will also include many local drivers such as the youngest Donegal International winner Sam Moffett in an RRC (Regional Rally Car) Ford Fiesta, his brother Josh in a Mitsubishi Evo and Ireland's recent Billy Coleman Young Driver Award winner Stephen Wright in an R2 Peugeot 208.
Willis said: "Entries are flooding in – drivers like new British champion Jukka Korhonen, from Finland, and Laszlo Vizin from Hungary in addition to Monaghan's Daniel McKenna, this year's Pirelli Star Driver who will be breaking into his British championship schedule to take part.
"The rally also counts as round two of the new-for-2014 ERC Junior Championship and we will see young drivers like Alex Parpottas, Petter Kristiansen and Gino Bux, who was chosen from more than 200 young drivers to benefit from scholarship support from the Belgium Motorsport Federation, taking part.
"Jan Cerny, the winner of the first round in Latvia last month, is also coming from the Czech Republic."
The national rally which runs alongside the international event, and is part of the premier Irish Tarmac Championship, will see drivers ranging from five times Circuit winner Derek McGarrity and current Irish national champion Declan Boyle in their powerful WRC cars to 70-year-old Dessie McCartney from Bangor, the 1980 Ulster Rally winner, who is expected to be the oldest driver taking part. He will drive a lightweight Darrian sports car.
The Belfast Telegraph is a media partner in the rally which will begin with a qualifying stage based at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum on April 17 followed by a ceremonial start at Belfast City Hall that evening.
Spectator stages will take place in Newtownards on Good Friday and Lisburn on Easter Saturday with the bulk of the rally route running through counties Down and Antrim.