Craig Breen, the 2015 winner, heads a record-breaking entry list for the Circuit of Ireland International Rally which takes place on April 7/9.
The 26-year-old Waterford driver, who is now part of the Abu Dhabi Citroen World Championship team, will return to Belfast and to the FIA European Championship to defend his title as part of a capacity line-up which boasts an extraordinary number of the new generation R5 and S2000 cars.
A total of 38 cars in the top R5/S2000 category are entered in a rally which embraces the European, British and Irish Tarmac championships. They make up just under half the total entry – believed to be the highest number to take part in any rally anywhere in the world to date.
“It is incredible how the rally has grown over the past few years, from the dark days of less than a decade ago, to become one of the iconic events of Europe again,” said Rally Director Bobby Willis. “I’m especially thrilled with the strength and breadth of this year’s entry which will see drivers from as far afield as Australia and China taking part.
“And to have nearly 50 per cent of the cars competing in the top R5/S2000 category is amazing.”
Breen, who won in a Peugeot 208 T16 last year, switches to an R5 Citroen DS3 to challenge for a second Circuit victory against a line-up which includes reigning European champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz, Alexey Lukyanuk, leader of this year’s ERC series, as well as the leaders of the British and Irish Tarmac championships, Elfyn Evans and Keith Cronin.
“My World Championship programme takes preference this year but the Circuit of Ireland is very close to my heart and I really wanted to come back and try to win it again,” said Breen. “My friends and supporters from Waterford and beyond were also desperate for me to do the rally and it is with their help that we have been able to make it happen.
“I love the rally, I love its rich heritage and I love the magnificent trophy which goes to the winner – I want to bring it back to Waterford for another year,” added Breen.
Kajetanowicz beat Breen to the European title last season after finishing second on the Circuit and the Pole is currently second in the ERC series after finishing second to Russian Lukyanuk on the opening round in the Canary Islands earlier this month. They will both be driving R5 Ford Fiestas as will Welshman Evans who won the first round of the British championship, the Mid Wales Rally.
The Citroen challenge is led by Breen and fellow Irishman Keith Cronin, a three-times British champion, who tops the standings in the Clonakilty Black Pudding Irish Tarmac series after the first two rounds in Galway and West Cork.
The outstanding entry list also includes rising Swedish star Fredrik Ahlin, who is second to Evans in the BRC series, another young Welshman Tom Cave, multi Scottish champion David Bogie, Frenchman Robert Consani, 18-year-old Russian Nikolay Gryazin, Jaromir Tarabus and Antonin Tlustak from the Czech Republic, Estonia’s Raul Jeets, Hungary’s David Botka and Finland’s Max Vatanen.
Ulster drivers are well represented too with Alastair Fisher, Jonny Greer, Marty McCormack and Robert Woodside all included in the top group.
Other leading Irish drivers, including the Moffett brothers, Sam and Josh, Desi Henry, Stephen Wright and Phillip Morrow, who are not ERC registered, are seeded further back and will start initially behind competitors in the ERC2 and ERC3 categories. These include the German Opel team of Chris Ingram, Marijan Griebel and Julius Tannert as well as the production class leader Wojclech Chuchala from Poland.
In total, competitors from some 20 different countries will be taking part.