Garry Jennings sees rally bid go up in smoke
They say the last mile home is the longest and it proved too far for Garry Jennings.
He was almost there, almost over the finishing line for a record third successive Todds Leap Ulster Rally win, but he never made it.
The engine bay of his Subaru Impreza erupted in a ball of fire, badly damaging the car and bringing a stellar drive to an end.
The front of the Subaru was gutted but no more so than Jennings who had victory in the palm of his hand only for the rally gods to play the cruellest of tricks.
Having fought back from a 63-second deficit after the first stage on Friday evening, where a turbo pipe came loose, he and co-driver Rory Kennedy had charged up the leaderboard, setting fastest times on the next 10 stages, to lead by 48 seconds with just the nine miles of the Widow Magee stage to complete.
He was, by his standards, just cruising to victory when he saw smoke leaking from under the bonnet barely a mile from the finish line.
"I knew there were marshals with fire extinguishers at the next junction and I tried to get there but then we saw the flames and the heat from the floor started to melt the soles of my driving boots and I had to stop," he explained as his team started to investigate what caused the fire.
"The engine bay is badly burned so it is hard to tell but it looks like a pipe may have blown off, spraying oil over the hot exhaust manifold and turbo.
"Gutted doesn't come close to describing how I feel.
"Even after the problem on the first stage I wasn't worried; I knew I could still win.
"But some things aren't meant to be."
Heartbreak for Jennings meant delight for Donagh Kelly who was through the final stage and waiting to congratulate Jennings.
Suddenly he and co-driver Kevin Flanagan were not just the winners but Irish Tarmac champions too.
With the championship in mind, he had taken a cautious approach and had been prepared to settle for second.
"We just drove a steady rally and took no chances," he said.
"Unfortunately Garry had the problem on the last stage and gifted us the win, but we'll take the gift," said the new champion from Donegal.
Jennings apart, there were other star performances from the likes of Desi Henry and Jon Armstrong.
A hard-charging drive from Henry saw him run in the top three from the start in his S2000 Skoda Fabia before claiming second place while 20-year-old Armstrong took sixth in his little 1600cc R2 Peugeot, fastest of the two-wheel-drive contenders and top scorer in the Road to Wales competition.
Derek McGeehan was third in his WRC Mini, best of the Northern Ireland championship contenders, with Jonny Greer a strong fourth in the DGM team's R5 Citroen and Derek McGarrity fifth after a catalogue of trouble with his Subaru.