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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 November 2007, 16:25 GMT
Irish welcome World Rally stars
By Lyle Jackson
BBC Sport

When the next round of the World Rally Championship gets underway on Thursday it will be the biggest sporting event ever staged in Ireland.

Sebastien Loeb of France
Sebastien Loeb is chasing his fourth successive drivers' title

The logistical requirements of the event will even eclipse the 2006 Ryder Cup when Darren Clarke and his European team-mates enjoyed that emotional victory over the USA at the K Club.

It is estimated that Rally Ireland will be watched by more than 800 million television viewers in 180 countries.

The event will offer huge spin-offs for tourism and the economy on both sides of the border.

Research by the University of Ulster suggests the economic benefit will be in the region of 31m and that 150,000 spectators can be expected.

Rally Ireland will be a huge exercise in cross-border collaboration.

It starts on Thursday night with a super special stage at Stormont, home of the recently reconvened Northern Ireland Assembly.

Then the route takes in eight counties with the rally finishing on Sunday with a special stage at Mullaghmore in County Sligo.

The roads will be fast but unforgiving and difficult to read, so ensuring that the pace notes are 100% accurate will be vital

Marcus Gronholm

The majority of the teams and drivers will arrive at the event's Sligo base on Monday and two days of intense preparations will follow before the WRC roadshow heads to Belfast for Thursday's stage at Stormont.

An Aer Arann flight has been chartered to take the drivers to Belfast on Thursday with the cars and crews travelling overland across the border.

The massive logistics of the event also includes the chartering of 60 helicopters which have been registered to fly between 50 separate cross-border landings sites.

Marcus Gronholm hopes he will be the victor spraying the bubbly at the end.

The Finn, who currently leads the WRC standing by four points from Sebastien Loeb, is aiming to capture his third World Championship before retiring at the end of the season.

But Loeb is his big danger, the Frenchman having won the world crown every year since 2004.

The Irish round is the penultimate one in the 2007 WRC, with the championship ending with Rally GB in Wales in December.

606: DEBATE

So the spectators in Ireland should be in for a treat as the two rivals battle it out for crucial points.

Both Gronholm and Loeb have prepared diligently for Rally Ireland by competing on the country's rural roads earlier this season.

Gronholm won the Galway Rally in February while Loeb triumphed at the Donegal Rally in June but both have pointed out that conditions could be considerably different this weekend.

"Until I make the recce, I won't know how similar these stages are," said Gronholm last week.

"I've been told the roads will be fast but unforgiving and difficult to read, so ensuring that the pace notes are 100% accurate will be vital."

As for local competitors, much attention will focus on four-times Irish Tarmac champion Eugene Donnelly and Gareth McHale, the son of local rallying great Austin.

Ulster Rally winner Kris Meeke, a former British Junior title winner, is also on the list of entrants.

SEE ALSO
Loeb crash damages title chances
27 Oct 07 |  Rallying
Irish aces in Rally Ireland entry
17 Oct 07 |  Rallying


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