Craig Breen is the man to catch at Circuit of Ireland
Craig Breen led an Irish charge at the top of the Circuit of Ireland leaderboard last night but he seemed far from happy. Usually cheery and talkative, Breen was stern faced and reticent as he completed the street stages through Newtownards at the end of the first leg of the European championship rally.
He insisted everything was fine but he didn't sound convincing, not after seeing his lead cut from 10 seconds to one in just the space of three kilometres through the town.
Yes, just one second separated the rally favourite's Peugeot Academy 208 T16 from the R5 Ford Fiesta of Robert Barrable as they headed back to the overnight halt at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast.
Worryingly, too, ERC championship leader Kajetan Kajetowicz was charging back into contention after a slow start and was just 16 seconds off the lead in his Lotos Fiesta.
But Poland's Kajto was the only overseas interloper in a top six which saw Breen leading from Barrable with the Moffett brothers, Josh and Sam, in fourth and fifth places in their matching Fiestas and Stephen Wright up to sixth, also in a Fiesta.
Long gone, however, was another Irish driver expected to be in the fight for victory. Alastair Fisher, nephew of three-time Circuit winner Bertie Fisher, had been in a top three position early on but was caught out by oil dumped on the road close to the end of stage three, Lough Henney, and his Fiesta spun backwards into a hedge.
Up at the front of the rally, Breen had seemingly been in control, taking the lead from Barrable on the first run over the roller coaster Hamilton's Folly stage and going on to open up a gap of nearly 11 seconds.
But it was known that a pop-off valve on the engine of the Peugeot was playing up, causing him some concern.
Even so, Breen steadily built an advantage until he came to the final two runs through the short Newtownards stages. Usually only a second or two changes hands on these made-for-spectator showpieces but Breen dropped four to Barrable on the first run, six on the second.
He also lost 13 to the fast-finishing Kajetowicz and was reluctant to explain what had gone wrong. He headed back to Belfast to have an earnest discussion with his engineers.
Barrable, of course, was happy and determined to keep on the attack during the Saturday leg of the rally which ends back in Belfast tonight
"Yes, I'm going to push for the win," he said. "Having got this close it would be rude not to!"
Kajetanowicz was also in buoyant mood. Having struggled in the wet, slippery morning conditions he came alive as the roads dried and finished with the two fastest times to close on Breen and Barrable. "Amazing stages," he said, "so many big jumps."
The Moffetts were involved in their own family battle over fourth and fifth places, younger brother Josh edging in the afternoon after Sam clipped a wall at the end of the second Hamilton's Folly stage and dented not just the car but his confidence. Climbing almost unnoticed into sixth came Wright who reeled in Czech driver Jaromir Tarabus and Breen's Peugeot team-mate Charles Martin towards the end of the day.
Jonny Greer was the leading Ulster driver in ninth in his DS3 Citroen with Scot Euan Thorburn rounding out the top 10 in another R5 Fiesta. And in one of the drives of the day, 20-year-old Jon Armstrong from Kesh led the European Junior category in 11th place overall in his 1600c Peugeot 208. ERC series leader Emil Bergkvist from Sweden was 13th and 28 seconds behind in his Opel Adam.
Meanwhile, Declan Boyle dominated the first day of the Circuit National Rally, the Irish Tarmac champion opening up a gap of more than a minute over Derek McGarrity with Kenny McKinstry in third, all three driving Subarus.
International leaderboard overnight: 1 Craig Breen and Scott Martin (Peugeot T16) 49 mins 09.6 secs; 2 Robert Barrable and Damien Connolly (Ford Fiesta R5) + 1.0 secs; 3 Kajetan Kajetanowicz and Jaroslav Baran (Ford Fiesta R5) + 16.8 secs; 4 Josh Moffett and John Rowan (Ford Fiesta RRC) + 42.1 secs; 5 Sam Moffett and Karl Atkinson (Ford Fiesta RRC) + 59.3 secs; 6 Stephen Wright and Mikie Galvin (Ford Fiesta R5) + 59.8 secs ; 7 Jaromir Tarabus and Daniel Trunkat (Skoda Fabia S2000) + 1 min 16.2 secs; 8 Charles Martin and Thierry Salva (Peugeot T16) + 1 min 16.6 secs; 9 Jonny Greer and Kirsty Riddick (Citroen DS3 R5) + 1 min 49.7 secs; 10 Euan Thorburn and Paul Beaton (Ford Fiesta R5) + 1 min 59.1 secs.
National leaderboard (after stage 6): 1 Declan and Brian Boyle (Subaru Impreza) 46 mins 11.1 secs; 2 Derek McGarrity and James McKee (Subaru Impreza) + 1 min 26.1 secs; 3 Kenny McKinstry and Noel Orr (Subaru Impreza) + 2 mins 52.4 secs; 4 Robert Duggan and Gerard Conway (Ford Fiesta R2) + 3 mins 31.9 secs; 5 Stanley Orr and Stephen McAuley (Ford Escort) + 3 mins 35.7 secs; 6 Wesley Patterson and Johnny Baird (Ford Escort) + 3 mins 49.6 secs.