Circuit of Ireland: Craig Breen is in driving seat to retain crown
Craig Breen headed out into the second leg of the Circuit of Ireland Rally this morning with a second successive victory within his grasp.
With two of his major rivals already on the sidelines, the 27-year-old Citroen World championship driver from Waterford split away from the rest of the field yesterday with a stunning run over the rally's signature stage, the Glens.
Combining two Circuit classics, Glendun and Tor Head, it stretched to 31km along the north Antrim coast and Breen blazed his way through, 24 seconds faster than anyone else.
By the time he had completed the first leg, despite spinning away some of his advantage in the soaking wet Ards TT stage in the centre of Newtownards last night, Breen's R5 Citroen was still 25 seconds ahead of the Ford Fiesta of European champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz with Alastair Fisher a further two seconds back in third in another Fiesta.
Breen (right) had targeted the Glens stage for a big push, claiming it was one of the best rally roads in the world, and it paid off handsomely with a time no one could get close to.
An added bonus for him was the demise of Elfyn Evans, who had led the rally for the first two stages.
The British championship leader from Wales had been fastest on each of the first two stages and led Breen by 12 seconds, but he never made it to the end of the Glens, his Fiesta retiring with an overheating engine and steering trouble after a belt broke.
He was scheduled to re-start today under Rally 2 rules but is well out of the running.
Keith Cronin didn't even make it that far, the Irish Tarmac championship leader - who had been so looking forward to locking horns with Breen - ploughing his Citroen into a bank on virtually the first corner of the first stage and damaging the radiator. It was over for him almost before it began.
It was no surprise that it was Kajto who took up the challenge. He lost out to Breen by just six seconds last year before he went on to take the European title and the Pole was right in the thick of it yesterday although he could only shake his head when he saw Breen's time at the end of the Glens.
But with Alexey Lukyanuk already back home in Russia after wrecking his car during testing earlier in the week, Kajetanowicz is poised to take over the Euro series lead from him if he can finish and is driving with that in mind.
He was a little more than 10 seconds ahead of the flying Fisher who admitted he made a wrong call on tyres for the morning loop yesterday and his 'super softs' were shot halfway through the Glens.
"It probably cost me 15 seconds," he said ruefully.
Chasing Fisher had been one of the dark horses of the rally, Sweden's Fredrik Ahlin, but he made the cardinal error of smacking a kerb in the Ards stage, knocking a rear wheel askew and losing over 30 seconds which dropped him behind Marty McCormack.
Former British junior champion McCormack was up to fourth in his older generation S2000 Skoda, holding off the newer R5 Fabia of Czech Jaromir Tarabus and along with the Moffett brothers, Josh (seventh) and Sam (ninth), and Jonny Greer (10th) made it six Irish drivers in the top 10.
Aside from Cronin and Evans, many others never saw out the first day including Robert Consani, Neil Simpson, Frederico Della Casa, Desi Henry, Hugh Hunter and two of Ulster's brightest young drivers, Callum Devine and Adam Bustard.
And Aaron Windus, who is here all the way from Australia, crashed his Vauxhall Adam on the first stage.