Gareth MacHale will follow in his father’s wheel tracks when he heads the entry list for the UTV Drive Circuit of Ireland Rally over Easter weekend (April 3 and 4).
His dad, Austin, won it in 1993 and again in 1998 and now 29-year-old Gareth attempts to add the MacHale name to the select list of father and son Circuit of Ireland winners, joining Jimmy and Colin McRae.
In the past six months Gareth has repeated the successes of his father in the eighties and nineties by winning the Donegal, Cork and Galway Internationals and now he will start at No.1 in his 06 M-Sport Ford Focus when the UTV Drive-sponsored event begins from Dundalk on Easter Saturday (12.30pm).
Gareth, however, will be challenged by a driver even more successful on the Circuit than MacHale senior. Derek McGarrity has won three times, putting him on a par with Roger Clark and Billy Coleman and behind only Paddy Hopkirk, who won five times, and Jimmy McRae, the only seven-time winner.
McGarrity, the reigning Northern Ireland champion, has his sights set on a fourth victory and will start at No.2 in a Subaru Impreza S12C. At No.3 in another S12 Subaru is Tim McNulty who finalised his Circuit preparations by winning the West Cork Rally last weekend.
They are followed by Aaron MacHale, Gareth’s elder brother, in another Ford Focus, with Irish national championship front runner Kevin Barrett at No.5 in his S11 Subaru.
The spotlight will also be on Craig Breen and his Super 2000 Ford Fiesta at No.6. The 20-year-old from Waterford was second behind Gareth MacHale on his debut in the car in Galway and has gone on to take third place on the Mayo national rally as he gears up for Easter and round two of the Citroen Irish Tarmac Championship.
The entry list also contains one of Ulster’s brightest young rising stars, 21-year-old Alistair Fisher, who was third in the British championship last year and heads up the entry list in the Group N production category.
Another to watch out for is British junior champion Martin McCormack who, having won the Irish and UK Citroen C2R2 Cup competitions in the past two years, has now set his sights on the French version and scored valuable points with second place on the Le Touquet Rally at the weekend.
With the entry list, including the national rally, approaching the 100 mark despite the economic downturn, the new organising team led by Rally Director Bobby Willis and Clerk of the Course Gordon Noble, have described it as “encouraging”.
“Entries are up by around a third in the international section which is very heartening, especially in the current economic climate,” said Willis.
“We are aiming to re-build the Circuit of Ireland over the next three years, and re-establish it on the international map, and this is a very encouraging start.”
The national rally, which is round three of the Hankook Northern Ireland championship, sees the return of Kenny McKinstry, the 2009 winner in his Subaru. McKinstry is contesting the MSA UK national gravel championship this year but with the Circuit so close to his home base in Banbridge, the former Tarmac and NI champion couldn’t resist the temptation to take part again.
He will be joined in the line-up by his daughter Emma, also in a Subaru Impreza.
And 21-year-old Stuart Biggerstaff, who has been the sensation of this year’s NI championship with second and third places on the first two rounds despite having only competed on one rally before the series began, will be there in the S9 Subaru usually driven by his dad Denis, a two-time NI champion.
A marathon 18 mile (29km) night-time stage will be the centrepiece of this year’s rally with thousands of fans expected to descend on Dundalk for the ceremonial start on Easter Saturday before the rally moves on to 15 stages in Counties Down, Armagh, Louth and Monaghan.
A full entry list and precise maps for the locations of each of the 15 stages are available in the Circuit of Ireland programmes which can be purchased online at www.circuitofireland.net and from retailers in the area before and during the event.
A full list of retailers selling programmes is also on the website.
Other sponsors of the 2010 UTV Drive Circuit of Ireland include Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Banbridge District Council, Dundalk Chamber, Triton Showers, Hankook Tyres, the Park Hotel, Dundalk; KDM Hire; The Web Bureau and Kantar Media.
You can also follow the latest Circuit of Ireland Rally information on Facebook.