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Five-time Irish Tarmac Championship title holder Eugene Donnelly will head for the UAC Easter Stages this weekend (6th/7th April) with hopes of another successful outing, after finishing ninth overall at the season opener in his brand new Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing i20 R5.

Returning to the series after two years absence, Donnelly and co-driver Mark Kane enjoyed a positive debut of the new machine at the West Cork Rally last month and the duo are sighting another top-ten result across the twelve stages surrounding the Antrim rally base.

Back in early January at the Autosport International Racing Car Show, Donnelly announced his new-for-2018 deal with MRF Tyres and Hyundai Customer Racing which highlighted a three year development programme for the i20 and the Indian – made rubber on Irish soil. The West Cork Rally would mark the debut of the Philip Case Rally Sport prepared Hyundai after weeks of anticipation.

With Irish, National, Northern Ireland and even forestry rally championship titles under his belt, Donnelly’s comeback to the ITRC was met with enthusiasm from around the country and beyond. He had been working hard for almost a year on the project and would make a return in 2018.

Remarkably despite his extensive experience, Donnelly had never contested the Clonakilty based event before and the two-day event would be unknown territory for the Maghera man. With plenty of other “firsts” to contend with during the course of the weekend, Donnelly’s priority was to ensure he brought the Hyundai across the finish ramp on Sunday afternoon.

Indeed it was “mission accomplished” for Donnelly, taking a top ten result on the inaugural outing for the Hyundai and he will be looking for more of the same this weekend despite his lack of experience of the new generation R5 machines.

“It’s certainly been a steep learning curve for me to get into a modern R5 car after so many years in a WRC” said Donnelly.

“It’s a different driving style altogether but with every stage mile that passes I`m feeling much more at home with the i20 and the tyres. We are trying to find an optimum style and setting for the i20 in the Irish lanes as there isn’t any real data out there to work from so we are doing it all from scratch.”

Donnelly was happy with the result in West Cork and is looking forward to the continued development process with the car.

“I`m really pleased with how the West Cork went and it was great to get the mileage under my belt in the new car.”

“We entered round one of the Irish Tarmac Championship to develop the car and tyres and that is exactly the steps we were making over the course of the event. I have to change too of course. The braking distances are a lot different to a WRC car and it will take some time to get used to it. But we have managed to fit in some very brief tests over the past week to see where we can make some changes to the set up. There is a great team around me, from our sign writers who made a huge effort before West Cork right up to our sponsors and technicians; it’s fantastic to see all the support for my return to the series both on and off the stages. This weekend will be a tricky rally for sure but it’s truly amazing to be back behind the wheel again”.

The Easter Stages takes place on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th April and is based in Antrim. The event consists of 90 stage miles, taking in 12 stages with six on each day.

Donnelly is supported by Divers Hyundai, MRF Tyres, Sligo Pallets, PPP Group, Midland Tyre Services, McPartland Group, Philip Case Rally Sport, Protune Ireland, CBM Signs and the CFM Group.

Image credits Cian Don photography

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