Over 130 cars for Circuit of Kerry Rally
This weekend's Fels Point Circuit of Kerry has attracted a top class entry. Over 130 cars are set to contest the nine-stage Tralee based event, boasting one of the strongest entries seen on a round of the Dunlop National Rally Championship since the halcyon days of the Celtic Tiger.
Close on 15 World Rally Cars, or equivalent, will set out from the Fels Point Hotel in the Kerry capital on Sunday morning ahead of nearly 150km of competitive action in the Brosna, Castleisland and Lyrecrompane areas of the county. There is also a very strong modified car entry with some of Ireland's top Ford Escort Mk2 exponents on the entry list.
The Fel's Point Hotel Circuit of Kerry is the second round of both the Dunlop Irish National and Top Part West Coast championships and the top seeds are, in fact, the overall winners of the opening rounds of each series.
Defending national champion, Donegal man Declan Boyle, leads the field in the same Subaru Impreza World Rally Car that he drove to victory on last month's Mayo Stages Rally, the opening round of the Dunlop series.
Welsh visitor, Hugh Hunter, a former British Trials and Rally Drivers Association champion across the Irish Sea, starts at two. The Impreza WRC driver is contesting the full Irish series for the first time but has already won several Irish events, including the Abbeyleix Stages, the opening round of the Top Part series in February.
Add in former Irish national champion Niall Maguire, Irish Tarmac champion Kenny McKinstry and Group N champion Roy White and the destination of top points in either series at the end of Sunday's rally is anyone's guess.
The rally has benefited from its close proximity to the Circuit of Ireland Rally at Easter too.
The Belfast-based rally is a counting round of the FIA European Rally Championship this year and two drivers have elected to use Kerry as high-speed shakedown ahead of the international rally later in the month.
Waterford's Craig Breen, a factory driver with the Peugeot Academy squad in France leads the European charge in the brand new Peugeot 208 T16. Breen got his hands on the car for the first time last weekend on the Acropolis Rally in Greece where he gave the car its first-ever victory.
The Peugeot Academy team come straight from Greece to Kerry to mark the car's third ever appearance on a rally anywhere in the world.
A second French Team, Delta Rally, will field former European Production Champion Robert Consani, in a Peugeot 207 Super 2000 and like Peugeot come direct from last weekend's Acropolis Rally in Greece to Tralee.
Irish emigrants to the UK make up a portion of the entry list too with Birmingham-based Listowel man Joachim Buckley making his first appearance in his home rally since 2008.
The modified section of the rally is always one of the mostly keenly fought and a firm favourite with the fans who will line the route.
Leading this section is Wexford man James Stafford in his ultra-quick Darrian T90.
His chief opposition will come from the aforementioned Kelly and a brace of local drivers including former West Coast Champions Mick Quinn ( the winner of last November's Kerry Winter Rally) and Shanagolden's Ed Syan.
Add in other Kerry crews like Fergus O'Meara, Charlie Hickey and Ed Murphy and Limerick drivers Paul Purtil and Edward O'Callaghan all in Ford Escort Mk2s, makes it impossible to predict the outcome of the this section of the rally.
Local ace, and of course, former Top Part West Coast Champion Alan Ring leads the Production car category in his Subaru Impreza. His principle competition should come from French visitor Robert Consani but it will depend on how quickly he adjusts to the undulating Kerry roads. Shane Maguire, another former West Coast champ, in his Impreza will also be in the mix.
Kerry-based crews to look out for include Kilflyn's Tom Relihan and Lisselton's Pat Barry in their Ford Escorts. Current Dunlop National Junior champion Rob Duggan has stepped up to the main field this year and is the top seed in the 1600cc front-wheel-drive class. The Killarney driver will compete against Tralee's Darren Young who is the National Championship's category leader after last month's Mayo Stages. Ballybunion's Jason Costelloe makes a return after a hefty shunt on last November's Banna Beach Resort Kerry Winter Rally.
Current West Coast Historic Rally champion PJ Dowd is another to step up the national league this season and he starts his home event as national and West Coast leader in his replica Colin McRae Talbot Sunbeam.
Events of this magnitude could not take place without the support of local business.
The Fels Point Hotel return for a seventh years as title sponsor and played a key role in bringing the Peugeot Factory team to Kerry.
The nine-stage rally is run over a loop three stages, run three times, with each of the individual stages afforded naming rights this year. Stage one is sponsored by Ahern's Opel dealership in Castleisland, which will also host the annual Vauxhall/Opel owners club Kerry gathering on the eve of the rally. Ahern's BMW division supports stage three while local automotive tuning and aftermarket supplier West Coast Tuning are the sponsors of stage two.
Tralee Chamber Alliance has supported the event too as sponsor of the service park at the Fels Point Hotel.
Visiting international crews have received additional help from the Banna Beach Hotel and TLI in Abbeydorney.
The rally gets underway with a ceremonial start at the Fels Point Hotel at 9.05 on Sunday. Ahead of the 130-plus crews lie nine of the most demanding stages Kerry has to offer.
The first stage Ahern's Opel, near Brosna, gets underway at 9.57, followed by SS2, West Coast Performance Stage, at 10.35 and SS3, Ahern's BMW, at 11.13.
The first car is due back at the Tralee Chamber Alliance Service Park at the Fel's Point Hotel at 11.43. This loop is repeated twice more ahead of the finish ramp celebrations at the Fel's Point Hotel at around 5pm. Full route details, including map and time table will be published in the event's official programme which will be on sale throughout the town and county in the run up to the rally.