The PROTON R3 Rally Team returns to Intercontinental Rally Challenge competition on next week's Barum Czech Rally Zlin.

Niall McShea returns to the PROTON team for the first time since his sensational debut in the car on last year's World Rally Championship-qualifying Rally Ireland. McShea is joined in the team by reigning British Rally Champion Keith Cronin, one of the sport's most promising young drivers.

McShea and Cronin will join some of the toughest Super 2000 competition in the world when they arrive in the Czech city of Zlin for PROTON's second IRC appearance of the season. And both drivers are relishing the challenge ahead. Courtesy of his Rally Ireland outing last season, McShea is already well known to the team. The former Production Car World Rally Champion has also done some test and development work with PROTON through this season, helping to further enhance the car with which he impressed on Ireland's west coast last year, when he set a time faster than multiple World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb.

Cronin's experience of Super 2000 is limited to an appearance in a privateer Fiat on last year's Rally of Scotland. But there's no doubting his speed. He took the coveted British title (previously won by some of the sport's greatest names like Colin McRae, Ari Vatanen and Hannu Mikkola) at his first attempt last season and has continued to impress with more rally wins in his title defence this year. Cronin arrives in Zlin straight from the latest round of the British series in Northern Ireland.

Barum Czech Rally Zlin is undoubtedly one of the toughest rallies on the IRC schedule. The region is one of micro climates where bright sunshine and 30-degree heat can turn to heavy downpours in no time, making tyre choices exceptionally difficult. Much of the route runs beneath the trees in forested sections, which also means inconsistent grip.

This year will be the 40th anniversary of the event, with more spectators than ever expected on what is already one of Europe's most popular rallies. And this year the quarter of a million fans expected in the south-eastern Czech city will be treated to the sight of Malaysia's finest rally cars being raced through the super-tricky stages by two of the sport's brightest lights.

The event opens with a test tailor-made for the fans. Before starting the main competition on Saturday morning, the crews will face a superspecial stage in the centre of Zlin. The drivers will tackle three laps of the city in the dark – a daunting prospect, particularly with the road being lined by concrete walls. After that, it's straight into two long days of sport, before the Sunday afternoon finish.

The PROTON R3 Rally Team will undertake a two-day test in the Czech Republic on Sunday and Monday next week.


Niall McShea said:
"I'm absolutely delighted to be back with the PROTON team. The first time I drove this car, I knew it was something special. I just love driving it. It was awesome through the lanes in Ireland last year and, knowing the way the boys have been working on the car since last year and having driven it occasionally since then, I know it's going to be a special feeling again to get in it in the Czech Republic. Obviously, the competition in the IRC is incredibly tough, the drivers and cars out there are among the best around, and most of them have been competing regularly. I've been away from top-flight competition for a little while, but it won't take long to get back to full speed again. I don't really know anything about the event itself, all I do know is that only 20 per cent of the route is the same as it was last season, with the organisers bringing new stages or turning last year's stages around. This is going to help us: if everybody is making new pace notes, it tends to level the playing field a little bit. But I've also heard about the incredible atmosphere which goes with competition in that part of the world, I think we're in for a great weekend."

Keith Cronin said:
"I'm going to have quite a steep learning curve on this rally: I've never competed there before and I don't know too much about Super 2000, so there's some learning for me to do, but this is a great opportunity for me. I'm absolutely looking at the finish of the rally, I need to get through and make the most of the experience. But, having said that, this is rallying and it's never quite that simple. Coming into the event off the back of the Ulster Rally, the British Rally Championship round I will have competed on a week earlier, is good for getting me up to speed on asphalt rallies, but the cars are quite different in terms of driving style; it's not really going to help with working out how fast the PROTON can go around corners or how much later I can brake going into bends. With the PROTON I'll have a higher-revving engine and a sequential gearbox to work with, which will be great. Another big positive for me is my team-mate on this event: Niall McShea. I know Niall, I met him earlier this year and he's a good guy and very open. He tells it like it is and I'm sure he's going to help me out with certain areas of the car set-up."

Chris Mellors (team principal) said:
"We're looking for a clean run on this rally. We've completed more engine work since the car last competed in Queensland [in the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship] and we're looking forward to see how the developments are working in competition. We have a two-day test planned in Czech Republic just before the event, which will be crucial for the drivers to acclimatise themselves with the car. This is not a straightforward asphalt rally, so the cars do need some fine-tuning on the set-up side of things, the test will be perfect for that. Obviously, Niall has been in the car before, so he knows what it's all about, but this is Keith's first time with us. The key for him is to get to the finish, learn the car and just get some experience. But, we'd like Niall to have a bit of a go and see where we can get the car. I would think we should be looking at a top-10 result without asking for too many heroics. It's going to be a very interesting event."

Event data:
Round: 9/12, Intercontinental Rally Challenge
Based: Zlin, Czech Republic
Stages: 17
Liaison distance: 360.00km
Competitive distance: 265.26km
Total distance: 625.26km
Shakedown: Komarov (Friday August 27, 0800-1300)
Pre-event press conference: Rally HQ (Friday August 27, 1530)
Post-event press conference: Rally HQ (Sunday August 29, 1700)
Time difference: Czech Republic is GMT+1hrs

Event timetable:
Friday August 27
Ceremonial start, Zlin city square: 1700
SS1 SSS Zlin (9.36km): 2115

Saturday August 28
SS2 Biskupice (9.01km): 0948
SS3 Zadverice (14.95km): 1031
SS4 Semetin (11.71km): 1124
SS5 Trojak (29.09km): 1152
Service (Otrokovice): 1242
SS6 Biskupice (9.01km): 1455
SS7 Zadverice (14.95km): 1538
SS8 Semetin (11.71km): 1631
SS9 Trojak (29.09km): 1659
Service (Otrokovice): 1804

Sunday August 29
SS10 Halenkovice (24.90km): 0828
SS11 Kudlovice (11.39km): 0911
SS12 Velky Orechov (7.14km): 0959
SS13 Pindula (19.76km): 1027
Service (Otrokovice): 1207
SS14 Halenkovice (24.90km): 1245
SS15 Kudlovice (11.39km): 1328
SS16 Velky Orechov (7.14km): 1416
SS17 Pindula (19.76km): 1444
Finish, Zlin: 1524
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