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Rallying drives forward with arrival of the new season

STILL the most popular branch of the sport, rallying, has overcome the winter of discontent and looks forward to a promising and exciting new season. Admittedly the current straitened economic situation has affected the sport, resulting in reduced entry numbers for championship rounds and some of the smaller events being cancelled because of insufficient numbers.

Meanwhile the three principal championships -- International, National and Forestry -- have secured excellent support from leading companies, with Citroen coming on board as title sponsors of the International Tarmac series for the first time.

The two National Championships have retained the support of Dunlop for the national series, while Petro Systems will stay with the Forestry Championship for a second year. The manu- facturer-backed one-make series -- by Citroen, Ford and Mitsubishi -- is set to continue for a third year, with generous awards in both cash and kind on offer. Citroen and Ford are combining with the Tarmac series, while the Mitsubishi Evo Challenge will stick with its tried-and-tested one-day format to keep costs low for the contenders.

Citroen is the most generous, offering €20,000 prize money on each round, resulting in a 17-strong entry for the season opener in Galway and promising an ultra-competitive season for the Racing Cup title.

The Galway Safety Direct International heralds the start of the new season and, true to form, the western club has come up trumps with more than 130 entries, including several world rally cars in the line-up. The entry includes a good sprinkling of champions, including Keith Cronin (British) Patrick Elliott (Irish) and Craig Breen (national junior and multiple Fiesta titles). One notable absentee from the Galway entry list is five-time champ Eugene Donnelly, who was hoping to attract sufficient support to challenge for a sixth title.

New Tarmac championship title sponsor Citroen is using the series will spearhead its marketing drive into the Irish market. "This initiative will allow us to develop the brand while playing on our significant rallying heritage and the success of the Citroen C2 rally cars," said Citroen UK and Ireland chief, Gary Savage. Rally championship manager Don Wilmont is delighted with the partnership, saying: "Having a partnership with Citroen will not only enhance the profile of the championship but also the profile of each individual event."

p The Fiesta S2000 got off to a perfect start claiming two international victories last weekend. The successes bode well for Craig Breen, who will give the model its Irish international debut in Galway. The young Kilkenny star, seeded No9, could well spring a surprise if any of the world rally cars ahead hit a spot of bother.

Mikko Hirvonen overcame treacherous weather conditions and snow and ice-littered roads in the Alpes-Maritimes to claim a perfect debut win in his Fiesta S2000 on the Monte Carlo Rally, while Nasser Al Attiyah took the honours on the rough Qatar rally in a similar car. Kris Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle were unlucky to hit a hidden patch of black ice on SS6 while leading, missing out on their maiden Monte win. The pair careered off the road, down an embankment, and retired.

p The Ulster-Munster pairing will head to the next IRC round in Brazil in March. Will they repeat the start of last season when they retired from the Monte while in a leading position and went on to score their first IRC win in Brazil and ultimately take the IRC championship crown? Guy Wilks, who will drive the Skoda UK-backed Fabia S2000, will also feature in the Brazilian line-up.