Elfyn Evans rules Ulster Rally but Alastair Fisher and Keith Cronin in Irish title showdown
The Irish Tarmac rally series will go down to a winner-takes-all shootout in Cork in October.
The dramatic twists and turns of the John Mulholland Motors Ulster Rally saw Alastair Fisher maintain the lead ahead of Keith Cronin at the top of the championship standings but with bonus points at stake in the final round the title should go to whichever one finishes in front.
A wheel-perfect Elfyn Evans won the two-day, Londonderry-based event, emulating his father as both an Ulster Rally winner and British champion, but Fisher and Cronin chased him hard in their own private battle for the Irish crown.
Indeed, Fisher led early on only for his Ford Fiesta to be delayed by a puncture and Cronin was within striking distance when his Citroen DS3 suffered gearbox issues which cost him dear in road penalties. They had to settle for second and fifth respectively.
Whether they could ever have sustained a serious threat to the 27-year-old Welshman, not so long ago a member of Ford's World championship team, is questionable but this was a rally in which the constantly changing weather and challenging nature of the north-west stages threw up so many imponderables.
In the end it was the potent DMACK Fiesta of Evans and co-driver Craig Parry which crossed the finish ramp at Ebrington Square with a minute to spare over the Tyrone partnership of Fisher and Gordon Noble with Carryduff's Jonny Greer producing a career-best performance to finish third with Kirsty Riddick in their Citroen.
Greer is up to third in the BRC series with a shot at the runners-up spot in the final round in the Isle of Man next month. Tom Cave, Fredrik Ahlin, Josh Moffett and Desi Henry were among the many who lost out in the toughest rally of the year. Sam Moffett, too, fell by the wayside, his Fiesta sidelined with a broken wheel and damaged suspension, having shared the Irish championship lead starting the event.
Scot David Bogie battled his way to fourth in his Skoda, holding off a charging Cronin over the final three stages and Marty McCormack came through to take sixth despite his S2000 Skoda despite being outgunned by the turbocharged R5 cars ahead of him.
Garry Jennings, a two-time winner of the event, pulled out when his debut drive in the development Mitsubishi Mirage was hit by brake and turbo trouble. Used to winning rallies in his WRC Subaru, he was not overly impressed with his first experience of the R5-specification cars on which the British and Irish championships are now based.
Derry's Callum Devine won the junior category in his Opel Adam in 17th but a canny drive by Rob Duggan saw him finish one place behind to secure the British title for the Vauxhall team. Mattias Adielsson, Duggan's Swedish team-mate and title rival, crashed out.
Alan Carmichael was the national winner in 13th in a WRC Mini despite a navigation error costing him a penalty of almost two minutes. Camillus Bradley was second in his Ford Escort and, impressively, motorbike road race star Michael Dunlop was third and a class winner in another Escort.
Final leaderboard: 1 Elfyn Evans and Craig Barry (Ford Fiesta) 2 hrs: 11 mins 15.4 secs; 2 Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble (Ford Fiesta) plus 1 min 07.6 secs; 3 Jonny Greer and Kirsty Riddick (Citroen DS3) + 1.25.4; 4 David Bogie and James O'Reilly (Skoda Fabia) + 2.00.4; 5 Keith Cronin and Mikie Galvin (Citroen DS3) + 2.07.4; 6 Marty McCormack ad David Moynihan (Skoda Fabia) + 4.31.9; 7 Josh Moffett and John Rowan (Ford Fiesta) + 5.53.7; 8 Rhys Yates and Tom Woodburn (Ford Fiesta) + 5.55.4; 9 Joe McGonigle and Ciaran Geaney (Skoda Fabia) + 6.29.2; 10 Tom Cave and James Morgan (Ford Fiesta) + 6.54.3.