The Irish Tarmac event that’s a thorn in Cronin’s side

He may have dominated the ITRC season so far, but the Circuit of Ireland is one event that's always eluded Keith Cronin


And relax. Everything is as it should be again. It’s Easter weekend and the Safari and the Circuit of Ireland are running simultaneously.

Last time this happened was 1996. Tommi Mäkinen took more than 12 hours to win the African classic on his debut while Stephen Finlay took a trimmed Circuit with just over 230 competitive miles in a shade over four hours.

You’re right, times have changed and both events have evolved enormously, but the point is, they’re here and they’re happening. While Rally1 cars are rocketing across the African plains faster than any rally cars before them, Saturday’s Circuit of Ireland brings a packed and brilliantly eclectic entry.

The third round of this year’s Irish Tarmac Rally Championship runs two loops of four stages between Dungannon and Armagh. The route might be shorter than in previous years – and shorter than the first two rounds in Galway and West Cork – but the competition will be just as intense.


Keith Cronin has a 100% win record in the ITRC so far this year

Keith Cronin is looking to land an early season home hat-trick in his Ford Fiesta Rally2. Reflecting on his start to the year, the Irishman has to smile about the mixed fortunes as he crossed the Irish Sea for last week’s British opener, Lancashire’s North West Stages.

“We’ve had the dream start to the Tarmac Championship really, with the wins in Galway and West Cork,” said Cronin. “It’s unusual to say it in rallying, but nothing has gone against us, the car clicked for us from the moment it arrived on the Thursday before Galway, the Pirellis are working very well, and we haven’t had any spin or puncture or mechanical issue or anything like that.

“We had all of those happen to us on the North West Stages on Saturday. The nature of the sport is that you’ll have days when things don’t go right, sometimes it’s within your control, sometimes not, but it does happen. Hopefully all the car issues that were to arise did so in Lancashire, and we can have a clean run on the Circuit.”

Last year’s Circuit winner and defending Irish champion Callum Devine (Volkswagen Polo R5) leads the field away with Cronin following in search of a first success on one of the world’s most famous rallies.


Defending champion Devine is looking for his first win of the season

In recent years, the European Rally Championship qualifying Circuit of Ireland was won by Finns Esapekka Lappi and Juho Hänninen – but going back further into history Jimmy McRae won it seven times, weaving his Scottish magic into the history of the Emerald Isle.

Cronin hasn’t started the Circuit since 2016 – an event well remembered for an emotional Craig Breen victory. Cronin’s challenge didn’t last long that year.

“We won the Tarmac championship that year,” he continued. “The Circuit was the only round we didn’t finish, we actually crashed on the first stage.


McRae won the rally seven times in 10 years as he dominated the event in the 1980s

“It will certainly be a sprint rather than a marathon, with only eight stages there will be no room for complacency at the start or easing into it gently, everyone will have to be on it from the beginning.

“I think there will be around 67 stage miles, the Saturday route alone in West Cork was longer than that. Any mishap at all could ruin your chances of a result, there might not be the distance to make the time back. By way of example, Callum and Noel [O’Sullivan, co-driver] were ahead of us after the Friday evening stages on the West Cork, we managed to get past them on the Saturday morning, but if that was to happen on the Circuit, if they or anyone else was to pull away out front early on, then the chance to overhaul them just might not be there.”

Matt Edwards is third over the ramp in his Fiesta Rally2. After crashing in Galway, the Welshman pushed Cronin hard in West Cork. Second in the championship after two rounds, Josh Moffet will be looking to continue the process of levelling the learning curve with his new Citroën C3 Rally2.