After the short, seven-week winter break, the World Rally Championship now resumes in Ireland.

The Rally Ireland first counted towards the WRC in 2007 and it not only returns to the calendar this year but also has the privilege of kicking off the 2009 series, replacing the Rallye Monte Carlo.

The route extends from the mountains of Sligo to the lakes of Fermanagh, with stages in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Special notes:

Rally Ireland is one of just two all-asphalt events in the 2009 12-round series. However, the term 'asphalt' is a misnomer for this cross-border event which is based in Sligo.

The route is a mix of flowing mountain roads and tight, twisty farm lanes. The latter are bumpy and narrow - often little more than the width of a car - with many surface changes. They are used by farmers on a daily basis and will be dirty.

With rain highly likely in late January, they could quickly turn muddy and become treacherously slippery, so much so that a more gravel-based car set-up is likely to work better than a traditional asphalt specification. Ice and snow cannot be ruled out either.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

The big news since the season ending Wales Rally GB has been the demise of the Subaru and Suzuki WRT teams.

Subaru's exit left both Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson in the lurch, but while the latter has secured a drive in Ireland with the Citroen Junior Team, Petter will not compete. Ex-Suzuki men Toni Gardemeister and P-G Andersson are also absent, along with former Stobart Ford men, Gigi Galli and Francois Duval.

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Citroen Total WRT:

[Sebastien Loeb, car #1 and Daniel Sordo, car #2]

Sebastien Loeb:

"The first time we came here, the conditions were rather delicate, but everything went well for us [and we won] and the result proved decisive in our bid to win a fourth world title. This year's championship kicks off with four rounds that weren't on last year's calendar, but they are not new territory because we did them all in 2007. And our objective hasn't changed either: after notching up five consecutive world titles, we are obviously aiming for a sixth crown! It's going to be an interesting season and I expect it to be very close. Mikko Hirvonen is improving all the time, while Jari-Matti Latvala has really come on, too. There are the other C4 WRC drivers as well, of course, starting with my own team-mate, Dani, and also Chris Atkinson."

Dani Sordo:

"To begin with [this season], I will be out to score as many Manufacturers' points as possible for Citroen. I finished third in last year's Drivers' standings and I would like to do at least as well this time round. And why not one step higher? I would also like to score my first WRC win this year. As in previous years, the season begins on asphalt and that's a good thing, especially for me. I like the Irish stages, but the weather promises to make this year's event difficult. OK, we will be able to choose between two types of tyre, but the Sotto Zero will only come into its own if it really snows. I have prepared hard for this rally though, with a daily fitness training programme, plus some very fruitful testing."

BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT:

[Mikko Hirvonen, car #3 and Jari-Matti Latvala, car #4 and Khalid Al Qassimi, car #9]

Mikko Hirvonen:

"Rally Ireland was difficult in 2007, but this year I feel it's going to be even harder. I think we'll experience ice in places and the roads are so incredibly narrow and fast. Cars cut the corners and pull mud onto the road so it can be dirty and slippery. It's going to be an interesting and challenging event to start the year. We have a two-day test before the rally so that should give us confidence going into the start. I want to be on the podium, but if there's any chance at all, I want to fight for the win. Overall I'm feeling confident about the season ahead. I learned much from 2008 that I'm sure will benefit me this year. After a too cautious start, my speed increased during the second half of the season and that's how I need to start 2009. There are only 12 rallies so it's important to score on every rally. There is no room for zero points from events because there are fewer rallies to make up for it."

Jari-Matti Latvala:

"Loose surface rallies are my preference, but I've said to myself that if I can finish in the top three on asphalt this year, that would be perfect. It will be a very tricky rally because the conditions will be so unpredictable and a neat, tidy and mistake-free drive will be rewarded. Consistency is an area in which I want to improve in 2009. I want to eliminate the kind of ups and downs that I experienced at times last season. This time one year ago I was very nervous ahead of my debut in the Ford team. I went through so many things last year, gaining experience and learning about the mental side of the WRC, that I feel relaxed and confident for the new season. I have two targets - to help Ford regain the manufacturers' title and to fight for the drivers' title. It's not a target to win the drivers' title - that's different - but I want to be able to challenge for it."

Khalid Al Qassimi:

"I'm sure Ireland will be wet and the asphalt is bound to be muddy and slippery. It won't be easy for me, especially after driving in Qatar, but I'll rely on my pace notes, start steadily and aim to improve throughout the weekend. I've learned a lot in the past 18 months - now is the time to realise my potential. This season my goals are to keep improving and hopefully I'll be in a position to post top 10 finishes and get in the drivers' points."

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally team:

[Urmo Aava, car #5 and Henning Solberg, car #6 and Matthew Wilson, car #16]

Urmo Aava:

"When I did the recce in 2007 I found the most difficult part of the stage to understand was the grip. The tarmac is changing all the time and it is especially bad on the sections where there is grass in the middle of the road. For sure this will be a very difficult rally, maybe even more so than Monte Carlo, and in some places it's like Finland but only on tarmac - with very high speed sections over crests. The plan is to find a good rhythm but it's most important to get the car to the finish. This is not a rally we want to attack in. This year is an extremely good chance for me in the Stobart team. We have seen some difficult times lately with teams pulling out, so I know how lucky I am to be with a strong team and will definitely make the most of this opportunity."

Henning Solberg:

"I don't have a lot of experience on asphalt but when I competed on this rally in 2007 I was running in the top six on the first day, which was very good. It's not a true tarmac rally because there is so much gravel and mud dragged across the road and I cope with these conditions better. The most difficult things about the stages are the high-speed sections and the unpredictable bumps, and it's hard to get a good feeling with the car. We found a good setting on some tarmac events last year and with a test planned for Monday I'm sure we'll start the rally with more confidence than before. I'd really like to start the year off well, and a finish inside the top six would be a good boost ahead of my home event in Norway two weeks later."

Matthew Wilson:

"This is obviously a special event for me having won it in the past and now it's my 50th WRC start so hopefully it will be kind to me. The time of year will certainly make the conditions very difficult and in 2007 there was a lot of mud dragged across the road as drivers cut corners over the grass. As the first event of the year, it would be good to start off with a decent result and our pre-event test on Monday will certainly help with that. It will be a good boost to my confidence to get some miles in the test rather than going straight into the shakedown on Thursday morning."

Citroen Junior Team:

[Chris Atkinson, car #7 and Conrad Rautenbach, car #8, and Sebastien Ogier, car #11]

Chris Atkinson:

"There's a fantastic atmosphere with a huge crowd. The event itself is really tricky. The roads are bumpy and often very dirty. At this time of year, we might even find some ice. We're going to start the event using settings that the team has already established from the past. Then, when it comes to the start of the rally, we will see how we are getting on. I've got no other aim other than just to score some points for the Citroen Junior Team and demonstrate our competitiveness compared to the other crews."

Conrad Rautenbach:

"I learnt a lot from last year. That first season with Citroen Sport Technologies allowed me to gain a lot of experience. I now understand the C4 WRC and its behaviour a lot better. This year, I'll be able to push much harder in the places that I know well. Rally Ireland is certainly one of the most difficult events of the whole championship though. My primary objective will be to get to the finish with the aim of scoring points. I was able to see once more just how difficult the roads in Ireland were when I took part in national rally there in January, driving a Citroen Xsara WRC. The conditions were particularly difficult and I'm sure that will be the case again on the Rally Ireland next week. The event also allowed me to get up to speed with my new co-driver, Daniel Barritt. So everything went really well."

Sebastien Ogier:

"The 2009 season promises to be a nice one for me, thanks to a very good programme with the Citroen Junior Team. I took part in the Ulster Rally last year with a Citroen C2-R2 MAX. It was my first experience of Irish roads, even though the profile of the World Rally Championship event there looks somewhat different. I think this is going to be a very complex rally, with some ice and frost expected at this time of year. The roads are narrow and bumpy, plus they get dirty very quickly. By starting the first day around 10th on the road, we are sure to find some particularly delicate conditions. My key objective is to finish. I don't have any real pressure in terms of results: I just need to keep making progress and learning as the event goes on."

Junior WRC:

Round 1 of 8 - Battle begins.

Aaron Burkart, who finished second in the standings last season, will start as one of the favourites to take the J-WRC win in Ireland this week, along with Martin Prokop. Burkart will switch to using a Suzuki Swift S1600 this season, while Prokop stays with a Citroen C2.

In total eight runners will be able to score J-WRC points, with Ross Forde competing in a Suzuki Swift Sport as a 'wild card'.

Seven of the regular nine J-WRC competitors, who have registered for the 2009 Junior series thus far, have nominated Ireland as one of their events, all except Suzuki's Michal Kosciuszko (#32) and the #39 TRT SRL entry.

Other significant entries:

43 crews due to start.

Around 43 crews are due to start the Rally Ireland, with 21 in WRC cars.

In addition to the drivers' with the manufacturer teams, Eamonn Boland, Tim McNulty and Gareth Jones will all compete in Subaru Impreza's, while Ireland's MacHale family - Austin and sons Gareth and Aaron - will be at the wheel of Focus RS WRCs, along with the likes of Paddy White and Ray Breen.

Other notable entries include former P-WRC champion, Niall McShea in the new Proton Satria S2000, as well as seven N4 runners, three N3 competitors and one in the N1 and A7 classes.

Route:

The rally covers similar territory to 2007 in the Sligo mountains and Fermanagh lakelands in the north-western counties of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

After Thursday evening's ceremonial start at Enniskillen Castle, Friday's opening leg covers a massive 164.53km and spans 15 hours. It includes a new stage and much of it is in the mountainous Leitrim and Cavan area of the Republic before crossing into Northern Ireland for two tests in darkness.

The second day is based around narrow farm lanes near Enniskillen, in Northern Ireland.

The short final leg in the Republic includes a new stage through the streets of Donegal town, which is broadcast live on television. Drivers tackle 19 stages covering 366.75km in a total route of 1405.99km.

Last year:

There was no Rally Ireland in 2008. However, the 2007 edition was won by Sebastien Loeb, who led home his team-mate, Dani Sordo and beat the Spaniard by almost a minute.

Jari-Matti Latvala completed the podium followed by Mikko Hirvonen, Petter Solberg and Guy Wilks. Matthew Wilson and Gareth MacHale rounded out the points' scorers in seventh and eighth.

A number of drivers' hit problems, with Henning Solberg and Chris Atkinson finishing under the SupeRally, while the likes of Marcus Gronholm, Xavier Pons, Manfred Stohl and Eugene Donnelly all crashed having been caught out by the treacherous conditions.

 

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