Welsh ace Evans sets the early pace

Chris Ingram prepares to be waved off by elected members of Antrim and Newtownabbey Council  Antrim Castle Gardens during the Qualifying Stage of this year's Circuit of Ireland International Rally.  Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Chris Ingram prepares to be waved off by elected members of Antrim and Newtownabbey Council Antrim Castle Gardens during the Qualifying Stage of this year's Circuit of Ireland International Rally. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Welsh driver Elfyn Evans recorded the fastest time in a very challenging qualifying stage for the Circuit of Ireland Rally which gets under way today with round two of round of the FIA European Rally Championship.

Evans, who currently tops the points table in the British Rally Championship, set a time of 2m28.900s over the 4.22km Tardree stage which was covered in mud having previously it had been used twice in free practice.

The on-form Evans was 4.575 seconds faster than the reigning European Rally champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz. The best of the locals was Alastair Fisher making it three Ford Fiesta R5s in the top three places having been fastest in free practice.

Last year’s winner Craig Breen was fourth quickest on his ERC return in front of fellow Citroen DS3 R5 driver Keith Cronin.

Marty McCormack put his Skoda Fabia S2000 sixth ahead of Fredrik Ahlin (Fiesta R5) and Jaromir Tarabus (Fabia R5).

Federico Della Casa finished the stage with a broken front-left wheel and flat tyre on his Citroen DS3 R5 but was still ninth fastest, with Tom Cave 10th in his Ford Fiesta.

The drivers reporting very low levels of grip on the muddy stage and Robert Consani was unlucky, however he managed to make it to the end of the stage but with heavy damage to the front end of his Citroen DS3 R5.

Another Citroen driver, David Botka, went off into a ditch on the final junction and failed to complete the stage.

The leader in the ERC2 class Wojciech Chuchała set the pace finishing 14th overall, but the top ERC3 seed Aleks Humar went off causing the stage to be stopped.

With a far from encouraging weather forecast over the two days of the rally, slippery and muddy stages will play a key element in who wins.