Craig Breen, the 2015 winner, heads a record-breaking entry list for the Circuit of Ireland International Rally which takes place on April 7/9.
The 26-year-old Waterford driver, who is now part of the Abu Dhabi Citroen World Championship team, will return to Belfast and to the FIA European Championship to defend his title as part of a capacity line-up which boasts an extraordinary number of the new generation R5 and S2000 cars.
A total of 38 cars in the top R5/S2000 category are entered in a rally which embraces the European, British and Irish Tarmac championships. They make up just under half the total entry - believed to be the highest number to take part in any rally anywhere in the world to date.
“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.
The Citroen challenge is led by Breen and fellow Irishman Keith Cronin, a three-times British champion, who tops the standings in the Clonakilty Black Pudding 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 are well represented too with Alastair Fisher, Jonny Greer, Marty McCormack and Robert Woodside all included in the top group.
Other leading Irish drivers, including the Moffett brothers, Sam and Josh, Desi Henry, Stephen Wright and Phillip Morrow, who are not ERC registered, are seeded further back and will start initially behind competitors in the ERC2 and ERC3 categories. These include the German Opel team of Chris Ingram, Marijan Griebel and Julius Tannert as well as the production class leader Wojclech Chuchala from Poland.
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 McGrady Insurance 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.
Fans will have several opportunities to see the rally action from Thursday 7th to Saturday 9th April. The Qualifying Stage of the rally will be based at Antrim Castle Gardens on Thursday 7th April, followed by a ceremonial start outside the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum and that evening.
Friday 8th April features rural stages close to Larne and Ballymena and includes a refuel halt at the famous 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 Friday evening 8th 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 April 9th and will culminate in a special closing ceremony outside Queen's University when the 2016 winners will be presented with the famous historic Circuit of Ireland trophy.
The King's Hall complex in South Belfast will this year be the site of the Rally HQ and Service Park, where competitors and team personnel will converge over a four day period from Wednesday 6th April.