The Donnelly Group Circuit of Ireland Rally which rolls off the starting ramp in Belfast on Friday evening will run 100 plus entries for the second round of the Irish Tarmac Rally championship (ITRC), and the third round of the Intercontental Rally Challenge (IRC) the second tier of world rallying catering mostly for S2000 and Group N machines.
Described as a "sleeping giant" by event director Bobby Willis the Circuit of Ireland is the second oldest rally in the world after Monte Carlo and this year's event will see a crop of young international drivers competing for the first time since Rally Ireland back in 2009.
Backed by Eurosport, the IRC came into being in 2007 and was won by Ireland's Kris Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle for Peugeot back in 2009.
Norwegian Andreas Mikkeslen, the defending IRC champion, starts the two day event on Friday afternoon with an 18-point advantage after the opening two rounds of the 2012 championship.
Mikkleson, who competes for Skoda UK Motorsport, makes a return to Ireland for the first time since 2007 in his Fabia S2000 as the Norwegian contested several rounds of the ITRC when he was 18-years old, which included a third place finish on the Circuit of Ireland.
Mikkleson’s biggest challenge will come from the 2010 IRC champion Juho Hänninen, who finished second on the season-opening Rally Azores and Jan Kopecký who won in Gran Canaria.
The Skoda line-up also includes Dublin’s Robert Barrable, who showed has raced in a number of IRC events last season and who clocked up a point-scoring finish on the Ypres Rally in Belgium.
Barrable, the 2010 Motorsport Ireland Young Rally Driver of the Year got a boost this week when it was announced that Skoda Ireland will support his privateer Team with additional team infrastructure including the provision of branded merchandise, marketing, PR support and a team hospitality unit as well as investment towards event costs.
Another Irish driver competing with the IRC regulars is Waterford’s Craig Breen who is ditching his Ford Fiesta S2000 and will instead race in a Peugeot’s 207.
Peugeot are developing a new 208, but with an upgraded 207 this weekend and local knowledge, Breen, who finished 4th in the Scottish IRC round last year, is expected to go well.
Ireland's Alastair Fisher is the lone M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 driver and he will compete what is his backyard having won the WRC Academy round in Portugal last weekend.
Other Irish competitors in the IRC section event include Garry Jennings, Donagh Kelly, Alan Ring and Daniel Barry (all Mitsubishi).
Irish drivers will be also be strongly represented in the IRC two-wheel-drive Cup category where Marty McCormack, reigning British F2 champion, and Mark Donnelly, current leader of the British series, are among the leading entries.
With all the focus on the IRC entrants, the second round of the ITRC has taken something of a backseat and the championship regulars will run behind the main international field.
Former Irish Tarmac champions Derek McGarrity and Eugene Donnelly head the national entry, with McGarrity in one of the new WRC Minis and Donnelly in his ageing WRC Toyota Corolla.
Donnelly took the Mini to second place in the opening round in Galway but gives way to McGarrity who will race the car this week as the five time Irish champion reverts to his old Corolla.
They will be followed over the Belfast City Hall start ramp by Darren Gass (Subaru), winner of the opening round and veteran Kenny McKinstry (Subaru).
The pity is that Tim McNulty the reigning ITRC champion will not be in Belfast this weekend and neither will the 2010 champion Gareth McHale
Following a ceremonial start in the centre of Belfast on Good Friday afternoon, the competitive action begins at 5pm with the Titanic Super Special Stage, a 1.90-kilometre blast under the iconic Harland and Wolff cranes used in the building of the Titanic.
Crews then head north of Armagh for two repeated stages, the second runs of which will take place at night.
Twelve special stages will provide the backdrop to Saturday’s running with the finish back in Armagh