Donnelly homes in on rally victory
Eugene Donnelly was given the fight, and the fright, of his rally life before he emerged as the last stage winner of the Toddsleap.com Ulster International.
The results show that Donnelly, teamed with co-driver Paddy Toner in his Skoda Fabia WRC, won the event for a third time by 14 seconds from Gareth MacHale and is now within a handful of points of becoming only the second driver to win the Irish Tarmac championship for a fifth time.
But that is not even half the story of a rally in which they had traded seconds — even fractions of a second — over two days and were separated by just half a second going into the final stage on Saturday afternoon.
And at that point it was 27-year-old Dubliner MacHale who was leading in his M-Sport Ford Focus.
It wasn't supposed to be that way, not with four of the final day stages running through the Donnelly heartland near Maghera. This was where he was going to win the rally; why he had bided his time over the earlier Co Antrim stages. But MacHale shocked him by setting a time 12 seconds faster on Slieve Gallion which was run over roads where Donnelly and his McGeehan Motorsport team regularly test their cars.
Donnelly was at a loss to explain it. Complacency? Pressure? He didn't know. “Maybe I was a bit too careful — I didn't want to make a fool of myself by crashing in front of my neighbours,” was all he could think of.
But he vowed it wouldn't happen when they returned there later in the afternoon.
When they did he was still trailing MacHale by a fraction under three seconds but set the fastest time to cut the gap to half-a-second with just the final eight miles of the Lisnamuck stage remaining.
“I grew up there and used to ride my bike on those roads so I was never going to let him beat me on that stage,” said Donnelly. “But, fair play to Gareth, he made me give it everything I had — there was nothing left.”
What Donnelly didn't know, of course, was that MacHale, following behind, had finally strayed over his limit. In what was virtually his only mistake of the weekend, he was too hot into a junction and overshot into a farm lane, stalling the Focus in the process. That was it; game over.
It was Donnelly's fourth win of the Tarmac season and his 18th in total, the second highest of all time, but the “most adrenalin-pumping of them all,” he said.
“It was some battle and Gareth pushed me to the limit. I suppose at that pace someone was bound to make a mistake. He got caught out eventually but it could as easily have been me,” he said.
Derek McGarrity had made it a three-way fight through Friday's first leg, even leading on two occasions before falling away on the long Slieve Gallion stage. With victory out of reach, he eased back to bring his Subaru home in third place.
Behind the front three, Mark Higgins was fourth in his production Subaru to take maximum points in the British championship category of the rally.
He now leads the BRC series going into the final round after his arch-rival Keith Cronin retired, the 22-year-old Cork driver crashing his Mitsubishi on the Torr Head on Friday night while leading Higgins by 12 seconds.
Former British champion Gwyndaf Evans was fifth with 20-year-old Fermanagh driver Alastair Fisher consolidating his third position in the British championship with a strong sixth place finish.
There were other outstanding Irish performances with Marty McCormack clinching the British junior championship as well as taking maximum points in the UK Citroen C2R2 Cup in 12th overall, a performance which earned him the Pirelli Star Driver award.
Craig Breen wrapped up the UK and Irish Ford Fiesta Trophy competitions with yet another win in 17th place.
But young Armagh driver Darren Gass who had been in fourth, crashed his Subaru into a field on stage 10. Four spectators were injured and taken to hospital but their injuries are not thought to be serious.