Another nail-biting season of closely fought championship rallying is eagerly anticipated as the Dunlop national championship kicks off at Nenagh on Sunday. The organising club, Birr & DAC, has attracted a capacity entry of almost 150 crews, headed by four world rally cars, confirming the healthy state of tarmac rallying despite the straitened times we are in.
The news that former tarmac champion Derek McGarrity has decided to contest the national series adds to the status of the championship, and on his present performance he should put the cat among the pigeons in his battle to win the crown.
Defending champion Patrick Elliott should have led the field in Nenagh but business commitments have prevented him from starting on Sunday. That honour falls to Niall Maguire who could become the first driver to win four national titles.
The Monaghan ace says he has no plans for the season and is taking the championship event by event. "I have to see what happens with Enda (Sherry, his co-driver) in terms of work commitments. I will wait and see what happens."
Defending Northern Irish champion McGarrity faces a busy weekend as he is top seed in the opening Northern championship round at Kirkistown on Saturday and travels overnight to Nenagh for an early start on Sunday morning. It will be interesting to see how he fares with the one-day format of rallying.
Well used to Irish rallying, Welsh visitor Melvyn Evans -- finishing second overall on the Skibbereen Fastnet last October -- could prove a thorn in the side of the main championship contenders. Pleased with his performance on the Galway international, Kevin Barrett is quite clear on his intentions, saying: "My plan for 2010 is to win the championship." Seconds should separate the top four but an error by any of them and they will be severely punished.
p A change in the regulations allowing Group N cars run with the 33mm restrictor has transformed the cars and should see them run much closer to their WRC rivals.
"It is much more responsive and acceleration in higher gears is much more pronounced," said defending Group N champion Kevin Kelleher.
He faces a tough challenge from Gary Jennings and Thomas Fitzmaurice for Group N honours.
Mike Quinn faces stiff opposition from Ed Synan, Gordon Rogers, Trevor Mulligan, Manus Kelly, John O'Donnell, Frank Sweeney and Daniel McKenna, who made a big impression on the Galway international, as he defends his rally.ie 2WD title. Todd Falvey heads the historic class in his Porsche 911.
After two seasons as a stand-alone championship, the junior series has been incorporated into the main national championship this year and has attracted 14 entries to Nenagh, among them Kevin O'Connor, Darren McKenna, Michael Kennedy, Damien Whoriskey and Patrick Slattery.
p Reigning NI champion Derek McGarrity tops a 115-strong entry for the opening round of the Northern Ireland championship which kicks off with a six-stage event at Kirkistown circuit on Saturday. His biggest threat will be Dromara youngster Stuart Biggerstaff -- son of rally and rallycross ace Denis -- who produced a sensational performance in his father's Subaru WRC at the same venue last month, finishing second on his first rally.
Former champion Connor McCloskey will start the season in an Evo IX but may use a world rally car for one or two events during the year. He is looking at contesting the British and Irish Evo challenges this year.
p Kenny McKinstry travels to Bournemouth for the Sunseeker -- one of his favourite rallies -- in a Subaru S11 on Saturday. Harvey Bell, who co-drove with Jim Harrison in a McKinstry-prepared Subaru in national championships rounds here a few years ago, will replace regular co-driver Noel Orr on this occasion.
The County Down veteran relishes the challenge he faces from leading British national drivers Steve Perez, Marcus Dodd, Paul Bird, Roger Duckworth and former British champion Jonny Milner, who bought back his Corolla WRC from past Northern Ireland champion Glen Allen. Other Irish interest centres on John McGaffin, also in a Subaru WRC, and Jonathan Greer in an Evo IX.
p The world rally championship promoters have not included Rally Ireland in their 2011 calendar proposal to the FIA. However, Rally Ireland will continue to participate in the world rally championship group with a view to capitalising on any opportunities that may arise.
p Autotest specialists will travel to Longford where Midland MC hosts a Hewison championship round at Mastertech Business Park Athlone Road on Sunday. Eddie Peterson has a two-point lead over Steven Ferguson in the series, while Damian Doran is top novice from Rory Power.
p Ulster entries predominate at the two-day interprovincial rallysprint at Mondello Park this weekend. Despite attracting a near capacity entry each day, the event has not affected the entry for the opening Dunlop national championship round at Nenagh on Sunday.