A damp and slippery Whinney Hill Stage greeted the top runners in the FIA European Rally Championship qualifying stage on Thursday afternoon with Irish driver Robert Barrable fastest in his Ford Fiesta over the 2.56 mile long test, the opening chapter of the 2014 Circuit of Ireland Rally.
Next up Robert Consani in the first of the Peugeots with pre event favourite and championship leader Craig Breen third in his Peugeot.
Kevin Abbring at the wheel of a Peugeot 208 T16, same as the Breen car, slotted into fourth sport while the fastest Skoda was driven by Sepp Wiegand and Esapekka rounded off the top dozen in his Skoda S2000.
This stage certainly gave the visiting drivers their first taste of what an Irish rally special stage looks like and no great surprise to see a local driver topping the time sheets.
The rally begins for real on Friday a further eight stages, including the 29.02-kilometre Bronte Homeland special stage, which runs through the area where Patrick Bronte, the father of celebrated novelists Emily, Charlotte and Anne, grew up.
Another highlight will be the purpose-built spectator special stage through the streets of Lisburn, which is used twice in quick succession.
It proved decisive in the outcome of the 2012 Circuit of Ireland when Andreas Mikkelsen momentarily knocked himself out when he crashed while battling Juho Hanninen for the lead.
Fans can see the cars and crews at close quarter at the service halts at the Titanic Quarter plus the regroups in Banbridge and Downpatrick and the podium finish will start at 5.28pm tomorrow at the Titanic Quarter.
One driver who is keeping a very close eye on the Circuit of Ireland Rally is Kris Meeke. The Dungannon driver has described the event as “something pretty special” ahead of its inclusion in the FIA European Rally Championship.
Meeke, now a works driver for Citroen in the FIA World Rally Championship, was a regular visitor to the Circuit of Ireland as a child and also took part in his own right back in 2007.
“I have only once competed in the Circuit and I was leading with a few stages to go when, unfortunately, my engine expired in the Subaru WRC I was driving”.
“I grew up with the Circuit of Ireland through my father’s involvement running the late, great Bertie Fisher.
“I travelled, watched and worked on the Circuit with my father for many years.
It has got the tradition and it is fantastic to see it back in the European Rally Championship after the work put in by the organising team.
“It is a pity I will not be able to do the rally this year but obviously my priorities lie elsewhere. But I will be out there supporting the rally.”