Circuit of Ireland Rally, official preview

The Donnelly Group Circuit of Ireland Rally will be a thrilling addition to the Intercontinental Rally Challenge when it hosts the all-action, Eurosport-backed series for the first time next week (6/7 April). With an entry list packed full of some of the best drivers in the IRC, not to mention several leading contenders from Ireland and Northern Ireland, the event features two showcase tests that will create added excitement.

The Titanic Super Special Stage in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, where the famous ocean liner was designed and constructed more than 100 years ago, plus a stage through the streets of Lisburn, will combine with stages through the demanding country lanes based around host town Armagh to form one of the most spectacular events on the 2012 IRC calendar.

Following a ceremonial start in the centre of Northern Ireland’s capital Belfast on Good Friday afternoon, the competitive action begins at 17:00hrs local time with the Titanic Super Special Stage, a 1.90- kilometre blast under the iconic Harland and Wolff cranes used in the building of the Titanic. Crews then head north of Armagh for two repeated stages, the second runs of which will take place at night. Twelve special stages provide the backdrop to Saturday’s competitive running with the demanding 25.12-kilometre Redrock stage, which will be run three times in total, bringing 221.47 kilometres of highspeed action to a close on Saturday evening (7 April).

Highlights of the rally will be shown on Eurosport and will also be available at www.ircseries.com and via Eurosport Player.

KEY FEATURES

Although the Circuit of Ireland Rally uses Tarmac-only stages, the asphalt in Northern Ireland is unique with a bumpy and low-grip surface set to provide the IRC regulars with a tough test, which is increased by the narrow and undulating nature of the roads.

Car set-up is a compromise between precision road holding and an allowance for the flat-out jumps and bumps that will litter the stages, with a high degree of suspension travel vital. The inclusion of the tight and twisty Titanic and Lisburn town centre stages merely adds to the task facing the crews when finalising set-up. The weather can also be unpredictable with periods of sunshine mixed with rainy spells, making tyre choice crucial.

Rallying is hugely popular in Ireland and Northern Ireland and tens of thousands of fans are expected to line the route during the Easter holiday weekend.

FIVE FACTS

  • With the first edition taking place in 1931 as the Ulster Motor Rally, the Circuit of Ireland Rally is the second oldest rally in the world after Rallye Monte-Carlo.
  • The event became known as the Circuit of Ireland due to its 1000-kilometre, gruelling five-day route around the island of Ireland.
  • Colin McRae is a former Circuit winner, taking a Subaru Legacy to victory in 1991.
  • The prospects of a ‘home’ victory are good. Only one overseas driver – Pentti Airikkala in 1979 – has won the event.
  • Centenary celebrations of the Titanic’s ultimately doomed maiden voyage will be in full swing when the Circuit of Ireland gets underway in Belfast on Good Friday afternoon.

THE BATTLE FOR VICTORY

Andreas Mikkeslen starts the Donnelly Group Circuit of Ireland Rally with an 18-point advantage in the race for Intercontinental Rally Challenge title glory. And the defending IRC champion can also count on some ‘local’ knowledge having rallied extensively in Ireland during his early career.

However, the ŠKODA UK Motorsport driver has yet to win a round of the IRC on asphalt and the last non-British or Irish win on the Circuit of Ireland was back in 1979 when the late Finn Pentti Airikkala triumphed.

The Finnish challenge this year is represented by 2010 IRC champion Juho Hänninen, who finished second to Mikkelsen on the season-opening SATA Rallye Açores but missed the next round in Gran Canaria after his ŠKODA Motorsport team nominated Jan Kopecký for the asphalt event instead.

Kopecký took victory and will be looking to build on that maximum score and his recent successes in the Czech championship when he heads to the Circuit of Ireland for the first time.

The ŠKODA line-up is completed by Sepp Wiegand, who drives for the make’s German importer and has impressed on his last two IRC appearances this year, plus County Dublin’s Robert Barrable, who showed his worth against the IRC regulars with a point-scoring finish on the IRC-counting Ypres Rally in Belgium last season.

Mathieu Arzeno and Craig Breen will count on the exciting upgrades made to Peugeot’s 207 Super 2000 to bring them success next weekend. The car has been widened by 20mm to provide improved cornering stability, while minor bodywork changes will aid brake cooling and air flow around the wheel arches. While rising star Arzeno is new to the Circuit of Ireland stages, talented Irishman Breen has extensive knowledge of the terrain and will be expected to fly.

Alastair Fisher is the lone M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 driver on the entry. Like Breen, the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland has a wealth of local knowledge to count on, not to mention an abundance of pace and the expert guidance of his co-driver Rory Kennedy, who partnered Fisher’s late uncle Bertie Fisher to three Circuit of Ireland victories in the past.

IRC Production Cup In the absence of category regulars Robert Consani and Marco Tempestini, the battle for IRC Production Cup honours will be fought out between several local stars including Garry Jennings, Donagh Kelly, Alan Ring and Daniel Barry, who has previous IRC event experience having taken part on selected asphalt rounds in the past. IRC Production Cup drivers traditionally have the pace to challenge for outright IRC points and that will be no different on the Circuit of Ireland.

IRC 2WD Cup The IRC 2WD Cup fight is set to be close with Mark Donnelly, Tommy Doyle, Jonny Greer and Martin McCormack all capable of winning the category. All four have tackled IRC events previously with Renault Clio R3 drivers Donnelly and Doyle both impressing. McCormack is also highly rated having tasted success on national events in France and the United Kingdom. Hungary’s Menya Krózser will make his second start of the season in a Honda Civic Type R.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: CRAIG BREEN

Irish talent to start IRC campaign on home ground in uprated Peugeot Your first IRC appearance of the season and your first in a Peugeot 207 S2000, how did your test go last week?

“It was exceptionally good, the car is very much a Tarmac racer. Straight out of the box it was very, very good, stable and powerful. Having spent time developing my Fiesta S2000 I’m going to have to drop everything and start from the ground up but I’m sure Peugeot can give me a car capable of winning.”

What can drivers competing on the Circuit of Ireland for the first time expect?

“Ireland is different to anywhere else in the world with big jumps, compressions, dips and narrow roads. In a Super 2000 car it’s horrific to try and keep the car in the middle of the road.”

So finding an optimal set-up isn’t easy then?

“It’s a compromise between gravel and Tarmac settings. The biggest thing is you need to have as much travel in your suspension and you will find the left wheel is never doing what the right wheel is doing. The roads are also uneven and you can do six kilometres on narrow lanes and then get onto a wide and smooth road before it goes narrow again. It’s a big compromise but a fantastic challenge.”

How much will your local knowledge help you?

“I’ve never driven in the region where the stages are but I’ve done the Circuit twice. The first time was in a completely different area, the second time was quite close to where this year’s rally will be but we crashed on the second stage. Okay it’s home advantage in that I know what the stages can be like but I won’t get to see them until I do the recce next week. I just hope it stays dry because if there is rain then it will be very slippery.”

What can you achieve on this rally?

“I want to win and showcase what I can do in my own country. I want to find a good pace on Friday evening and then push like hell on Saturday and try to get a win. It will be difficult first time in the car but if we put the homework in early in the week and have a good recce it’s very possible.”

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