Local rally fans are in for a real Easter treat with the Circuit of Ireland Rallystaging round four of the FIA European Rally Championship.
Fourteen nations will be represented when the 2014 event gets into gear on Thursday evening at Belfast City Hall.
Event Director Bobby Willis is delighted that this event has attracted a bumper entrywith 37 crews signed up for the International section and a further 84 chasing honours in the National contest.
Craig Breen heads the entry list in his new Peugeot 208T16. The 24-year-old Irish driver has two world titles to his name in the World Rally Championship’s support categories and scored a standout victory on the Acropolis Rally in Greece last month, his first in the ERC and the first for Peugeot’s all-new rally car.
The FIA European Rally Championship’s ‘Serious Competition Ahead’ strapline could not be more accurate with Breen becoming the third different winner in as many events with his first-place finish on the Acropolis Rally in Greece.
Breen, whose triumph was his first in the ERC and follows in the footsteps of Robert Kubica and Esapekka Lappi, who claimed victory on rounds one and two in their Ford Fiesta RRC and Skoda Fabia Super 2000 cars respectively.
Kubica’s Formula One career ended abruptly due to an accident not in a GP car but in a rally car, however we will not be seeing him in action over the roads of Ulster this Easter as he has switched to the FIA World Rally Championship.
There have also been numerous stage winners in this year’s ERC with 12 different drivers setting fastest times on the three rallies run so far, while the ERC Production Car Cup and ERC 2WD Championship have also thrown up multiple event winners.
Lappi, a factory driver for Skoda Motorsport and a former Finnish champion, is the second seed with Breen’s Peugeot Rally Academy team-mate Kevin Abbring next up.
Lappi spent last season competing in the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship but is focusing his efforts on the ERC this year.
Dutch driver Abbring, meanwhile, was leading in Greece before a technical problem forced him to retire. A former winner in the Junior World Rally Championship he is returning to international competition in 2014 following a two-year absence. He was once a team-mate to current world rally champion Sebastien Ogier.
Sepp Wiegand at Skoda Motorsport having made the switch from motocross three years ago. Although he has yet to register a victory in the ERC, the young German is highly rated.
Robert Barrable, from Swords will be bidding for a strong showing in his Ford Fiesta R5, while Irish brothers Sam and Josh Moffett will both be out to impress their home fans.
Sam competes in a Ford Fiesta Regional Rally Car, while his younger sibling Josh has a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX. Moffett Jr will be a favourite for ERC Production Car Cup success where his rivals will include Aaron MacHale and Robert Woodside.
Neil Simpson, a former works driver in the British championship, is next on the list of seeded drivers and is followed by promising French driver Robert Consani, who pilots a Peugeot 207 Super 2000, similar to the type of car Kris Meeke used to win the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in 2009.
Laszlo Vizin will travel from Hungary for his first start in this year’s ERC. Like Consani he, too, will drive a Peugeot 207 S2000.
Nine of Europe’s best young drivers will be eligible for ERC Junior Championship points on the Circuit of Ireland Rally. The new-for-2014 category is for under-25s only using front-wheel-drive cars conforming to the tightly regulated R2 category rules.
Jan Cerny, from the Czech Republic, won the inaugural event in Latvia in early Februarywhere he enjoyed a close battle with Norway’s Petter Kristiansen.
Italy’s Andrea Crugnola, Poland’s Aleks Zawada and young Briton Chris Ingram will also chase ERC Junior honours, as will category newcomers Gino Bux (Belgium) and Alex Parpottas (Great Britain).
Meanwhile, Dutch driver Kevin van Deijne is back in action after rolling his Ford Fiesta R2 in a dramatic crash in Latvia.
Hungary’s Zoltan Bessenyey, the reigning European two-wheel-drive champion, is a TV presenter in his homeland when he is not driving a Honda Civic in the ERC, while Finland’s Jukka Korhonen won last year’s British championship title.
Stephen Wright has become the 19th driver to register for the new-for-2014FIA ERC Junior Championship to further underline the popularity of this exciting young-driver category for R2 cars.
And he will make his ERC Junior debut on theCircuit of Ireland Rally, driving a Peugeot 208 R2 alongside his co-driving sister Susanne.
Based in Monaghan, Wright, a civil engineer by trade and is the current Motorsport Ireland Young Rally Driver of the Year following his capture of the prestigious Billy Coleman Award in 2013. He also won the Irish Group N title in a Mitsubishi Lancer last year.
Certainly a young driver with a bright future ahead of him in the sport.
The event is based in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter. Following the Qualifying Stage this evening in Ballycultra Village, Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, competitors will assemble outside Belfast City Hall for the ceremonial start from 6pm.
The real action takes place tomorrow and Easter Saturday, while there are numerous opportunities for fans to see the drivers and cars at the Downpatrick, Hillsborough Castle and Banbridge regroups, plus numerous visits to the service park in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter.
There are also two street stages in Lisburn and Newtownards.