Circuit of Ireland: Craig Breen to defend title he won in 2015
World Rally Championship driver Craig Breen will return to defend his 2015 Circuit of Ireland crown after agreeing a last-minute deal to drive a Citroen.
Waterford man Breen,26, and co-driver Scott Martin headline arguably the strongest ever Circuit entry, for the 7-9 April event.
The event will form the next round of the European, British and Irish Rally Championships.
A total of 38 cars in the new generation R5 cars will participate.
Rally organiser happy with growth
"It is incredible how the rally has grown over the past few years, from the dark days of less than a decade ago, to become one of the iconic events of Europe again," said Rally Director Bobby Willis.
"I'm especially thrilled with the strength and breadth of this year's entry which will see drivers from as far afield as Australia and China taking part."
Breen, who won in a Peugeot 208 T16 last year, switches to an R5 Citroen DS3 to challenge for a second Circuit victory against a line-up which includes reigning European champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz, Alexey Lukyanuk, leader of this year's ERC series, as well as the leaders of the British and Irish Tarmac championships, Elfyn Evans and Keith Cronin.
"My World Championship programme takes preference this year but the Circuit of Ireland is very close to my heart and I really wanted to come back and try to win it again," said Breen.
"My friends and supporters from Waterford and beyond were also desperate for me to do the rally and it is with their help that we have been able to make it happen.
"I love the rally, I love its rich heritage and I love the magnificent trophy which goes to the winner - I want to bring it back to Waterford for another year," added Breen.
Impressive international entry
Kajetanowicz beat Breen to the European title last season after finishing second on the Circuit and the Pole is currently second in the ERC series after finishing second to Russian Lukyanuk on the opening round in the Canary Islands earlier this month.
They will both be driving R5 Ford Fiestas, as will Welshman Evans who won the first round of the British championship, the Mid Wales Rally.
The Citroen challenge is led by Breen and fellow Irishman Keith Cronin, a three-times British champion, who tops the standings in the Irish Tarmac series after the first two rounds in Galway and West Cork.
The outstanding entry list also includes rising Swedish star Fredrik Ahlin, who is second to Evans in the BRC series, another young Welshman Tom Cave, multi Scottish champion David Bogie, Frenchman Robert Consani, 18-year-old Russian Nikolay Gryazin, Jaromir Tarabus and Antonin Tlustak from the Czech Republic, Estonia's Raul Jeets, Hungary's David Botka and Finland's Max Vatanen.
Ulster drivers to the fore
Ulster drivers are well represented too with Alastair Fisher, Jonny Greer, Marty McCormack and Robert Woodside all included in the top group.
In total, competitors from some 20 different countries will be taking part.
The international event is followed by the National Rally which is a round of the Northern Ireland Championship. Derek McGarrity, last year's winner and a five-times winner of the Circuit of Ireland itself, heads the entry list in his WRC Ford Fiesta.
The Qualifying Stage of the rally will be based at Antrim Castle Gardens on Thursday 7 April, followed by a ceremonial start outside the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum that evening.
Rural stages on Friday
Friday 8 April features rural stages close to Larne and Ballymena and includes a refuel halt at the Ballymena Showgrounds.
Friday's route includes stages encompassing Torr Head and Glendun, as well as a passage control at the Dark Hedges and a regroup at Bushmills Distillery.
A special Ards TT Stage will take place in Newtownards town centre on the evening of Friday 8 April.
Competitive rallying on the Saturday will include stages close to Banbridge, Ballynahinch and Dromore with town centre regroups in Downpatrick and Banbridge.
The rally will finish back in Belfast on the evening of Saturday 9 April and will culminate in a special closing ceremony outside Queen's University.