SINCE it was first run over 30 years ago, the West Cork Rally has developed a charisma all of its own that attracts hundreds of cross-channel competitors and followers to the region around St Patrick's weekend every year. The event is a huge money-earner for the local tourism industry. This year is no different, with regional tourism interests ensuring the recently re-launched Swansea-Cork ferry was in service in time to carry visiting crews to west Cork this weekend.
Entry-wise, the event is no less popular than in previous years, with Cork MC attracting almost 200 entries -- including four previous winners, Liam McCarthy, Bob Fowden, Michael Barrable and Denis Cronin -- to Clonakilty. With nine world rally cars in the top dozen, the event has attracted more world rally cars then the Galway international or the two national rounds held to date.
Liam McCarthy is top seed in his Corolla WRC from tarmac championship contender Tim McNulty who is using the event as a shakedown for the Circuit at Easter. John Dalton interlopes in the No3 slot in his rapid Darrian T90 from Denis Cronin and Michael Barrable in a Subaru WRC and Focus WRC respectively.
Kevin Kelleher, who non-started in Mayo, is highest seeded Group N driver in fifth slot behind Welsh visitor Hugh Hunter who returns to West Cork after 15 years -- this time with a Focus WRC.
The modified class will be no less fiercely contested as visitors Washington James and John Dalton line up against the competitive Escort Mk2s driven by leading Irish clubmen such as Des Moore, Adrian Hetherington, Brian Lawlor, Ed O'Callaghan, John O'Donnell, Kevin O'Donoghue and Leonard Downey.
An interesting entry is that of Conor Curley and Nigel Frazer in car 22 -- an Escort Mk2. The pair are sons of Ulster rally legends Cathal Curley and Austin Frazer, who won many international rallies -- including Donegal and the Circuit of Ireland -- in the '70s.
The weekend kicks off with a ceremonial start in Clonakilty tomorrow night (7.0) and features a demonstration by the popular Slowly Sideways classic Group B cars of the '80s. Spectators will have the opportunity of seeing the classic cars on eight of the 16 stages over the weekend.
p Even though he may be on a high after his Brazilian victory, Kris Meeke will not have it all his own way when the IRC moves to Argentina this weekend.
Included in the IRC calendar for the first time, the event features enthusiastic fans along with demanding terrain -- mostly gravel -- and challenging water splashes. It also features the highest number of entries --69 -- for an IRC round this year, including two who have experience of the rally.
In addition to his regular IRC rivals -- the Skodas of Guy Wilks, Juho Hanninen and Jan Kopecky -- the Ulsterman faces Argentina's most successful rally driver, Federico Villagra, in a Fiesta S2000 and Nasser Al-Attiyah in a Skoda.
The Qatari has described Rally Argentina as his favourite rally in the world. Guy Wilks also has experienced the event when he drove for Suzuki in the junior world championship round four years ago.
Meeke is not fazed by the competition saying: "We have more opposition than we had in Brazil, including several who have competed in Argentina.
"Villagra and Al-Attiyah will be strong from their knowledge of the rally" said the Peugeot UK driver.
"I have an idea of what to expect from a recce we did five years ago. The important thing is to get points. With the Brazilian victory under our belts we don't have to win in Argentina so there is less pressure on us."
p Melvyn Evans made up for the Welsh rugby team's disappointment at Croke Park last Saturday when he claimed his second Dunlop national victory in two weeks in Mayo last Sunday.
Athough he gave himself until next month's Circuit of Kerry before deciding whether or not he will contest the Irish national series, two wins in the opening two rounds will surely sway him in favour of concentrating on the Dunlop championship.
The visitor stormed to victory beating Kevin Barrett by 20 seconds, with Craig Breen third in his Fiesta S2000 just 41 seconds behind the winner's Subaru WRC.
Breen's sensational performance gave the young Kilkenny driver his second podium finish in two weeks and sets him up nicely for the Circuit at Easter.
Geoffrey Dolan merited the driver of the day award, improving on his lowly 137th seed position to finish 18th overall -- a truly outstanding performance from the Donegal driver.
p Ulster AC is looking for volunteer marshals for the UTV Drive Circuit of Ireland at Easter.
Anybody who would like to be involved with the event should visit www.circuitofireland.net for details.