DEFENDING champion Kris Meeke faced a daunting challenge as the Monte Carlo rally got under way properly yesterday morning.
The young Ulster ace suffered one of the biggest accidents of his career while challenging for the lead last year, but not only has he to put that at the back of his mind, he also has to take on world championship runner-up Mikko Hirvonen who will give the Fiesta S2000 its international competition debut.
Guy Wilks, in the Skoda UK-backed Fabia S2000, is another who will keep the Ulster ace on his toes, as are several of the regular IRC championship contenders including Jan Kopecky, Juho Hanninen in the factory-backed Skodas, and 2008 champion Nicolas Vouilloz also in a Fabia S2000.
Describing the rally as the most daunting and challenging of the year, the Dungannon driver said, "that you can win the rally not by going quickest but by reading the conditions properly and trusting in your instincts". While he will be trying for outright victory and to add a Monte Carlo win to his increasing portfolio, he would quite happily take a points finish and get his 2010 points-scoring campaign off the ground.
Daniel Barry and Eamonn Boland -- both in Mitsubishis -- will also see action in the mountains above the principality.
p While most interest will be centred on the progress of the Irish trio in the south of France, FIA Regularity Rally champion Frank Fennell will be targeting his fifth victory in the Winter Trial Classic rally which starts on Sunday.
Recognised as one of the toughest classic road rallies in the calendar, the event is based on the 1950s-style Monte Carlo rallies which covered about 1,800 miles of driving in severe wintry and snowy conditions across Europe to finish in Monaco.
Seeded number one in a 110-strong entry, the Dublin photographer is partnered by Lancashire navigator Kevin Savage in his Volvo 142 in the six-day event which covers a 3,000km-route through Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The only other Irish crew in the 110-strong entry is Joe Reynolds (Kilteel, Co Wicklow) navigated by Frank Hussey (Sandyford) in a newly-built BMW1602.
p Volunteer marshals will be repaid for their valuable contribution to the successful running of rallies all over the country at the Marshals Pay Back Day at Mondello Park on Saturday. Organised by the Irish Rally Competitors Association some of the leading national and club drivers will pilot 100 marshals at competitive speeds around the Co Kildare track. Kenny McKinstry, Niall Maguire, Kevin Barrett, James Foley, Eamonn Daly, Trevor Mulligan, and Maurice Moffett are among the drivers listed for action.
p Carrick-on-Suir MC hosts a Hewison autotest championship double header at the Industrial Park, Browne's Road, Waterford this weekend.
It will be the start of a busy week for club members who are planning an event to recognise the outstanding achievements of club member Craig Breen, who won four championships and the Billy Coleman Award in his first year of rallying.
p Irish co-drivers are popular in Middle East rallying as Killian Duffy joins Ulstermen Michael Orr, Stephen McAuley and Allan Harryman on the Qatar Rally which gets underway today. Meanwhile, Brian Sharkey travels to New York where he will join a large contingent of US-domiciled Irish crews on Rally New York in the Catskill Mountains this weekend.
p Niall Maguire will step up to collect his spoils as Top Part West Coast champion on Saturday night. He finished ahead of Mike Quinn and Thomas Fitzmaurice in the drivers section. Enda Sherry won the co-drivers section.
Patrick Divilly won the junior drivers section from Martin Casey and Patrick Kelly, while Gerard Divilly was champion junior co-driver from Derek Flynn and Caroline Divilly.
p Galway MC is expected to confirm the entry list for the Safety Direct International when they officially launch the rally tomorrow night.
The club is also expected to confirm its support for the Galway Hospital Project for Cystic Fibrosis and the CF Association of Ireland over the rally. Tim McNulty, Gareth MacHale, Keith Cronin and Craig Breen will feature.
p Cork MC holds a navigation trial from Ballyvourney on Saturday while two events postponed because of the weather are rescheduled for the weekend. They are the Garda Siochana MC sporting trial at Bohernabreena on Saturday and the Munster CC autocross will be held at Campbells Pit Grancore Clonakilty on Sunday.
p Robert Barrable, who surprised many by the easy way he adapted from racing to rallying last year, is set to continue rallying this year. He is switching from the Fiesta series to the Citroen racing Cup championship this year. The 21- year-old Swords driver will contest both the Irish and British Citroen racing Cup series with Damien Connolly co-driving. His first event will be at Galway where 17 Citroens are entered.