Gareth MacHale was quickest out of the blocks on day one of the Topaz Donegal International Rally.
Son of Austin MacHale, a former winner and five-times Irish Tarmac champion, Gareth carries No.1 on the side of his Ford Focus — courtesy of an FIA ‘B’ ranking from his days in the World championship — but he hasn’t often featured in the top position on Ireland’s top rallies and never at the end of one.
But yesterday he played a starring role, outpacing the opposition on five of the six stages which made up the first leg out on the Inishowen peninsula. MacHale ended the day with an impressive 20-second lead over the Subaru Impreza of reigning Tarmac champion Eamonn Boland with Eugene Donnelly in third place.
Donnelly, last year’s winner and already successful on three of the previous four rounds of this year’s Tarmac series, was in trouble early on, reporting that his Skoda Fabia was down on power. He was fourth when he returned to service in Carndonagh after the first three stages.
The trouble was traced to a faulty water injection system in the engine and a gearbox sensor which had disrupted the launch control system. He speeded up in the afternoon, fighting his way past the Subaru of Tim McNulty and into third.
He was second fastest on all three afternoon stages but could make no impression on MacHale who edged further in front.
“The car was 100 per cent this afternoon but, fair play to Gareth, he has been going very hard,” said Donnelly. “But this rally has only just started.”
McNulty was already over 50 seconds down to MacHale who had opened up a gap of almost two minutes over his big brother Aaron in sixth.
Sean Devine held fifth place in his Subaru, just two seconds up on the elder MacHale.
Behind the top six, Garry Jennings sprinted into the lead in the Group N production category in his Mitsubishi Lancer. The Kesh driver was ahead of the WRC Subaru of PJ McDermott but more importantly had opened up a gap of nearly half-a-minute over Seamus Leonard in ninth place.
Leonard had tyre trouble with his Mitsubishi on the first loop of stages and was back in 12th place but staged a strong fightback in the afternoon, clawing his way up to ninth, second in Group N and had closed the gap to Jennings to 22 seconds.
He had also edged his way past Alastair Fisher in his four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi.
In the national section of the rally, Rodney Wilton led by 13 seconds with Gary McPhillips second and Wesley Patterson third, all in Ford Escorts.
Positions after stage six: 1 Gareth MacHale/Brian Murphy (Ford Focus) 38 mins 02.1 secs; 2 Eamonn Boland/MJ Morrissey (Subaru Impreza) + 21.8 secs; 3 Eugene Donnelly/Paddy Toner (Skoda Fabia) + 30.9 secs; 4 Tim McNulty/David Moynihan (Subaru Impreza) + 50.6 secs; 5 Sean Devine/Robert McDaid (Subaru Impreza) + 1 min 49.2 secs; 6 Aaron MacHale/Barry Goodman (Ford Focus) + 1 min 51.7 secs; 7 Garry Jennings/Rory Kennedy (Mitsubishi Lancer N) + 2 mins 38.7 secs; 8 PJ McDermott/Francis Regan (Subaru Impreza) + 2 mins 46.3 secs; 9 Seamus Leonard/John McCafferty (Mitsubishi Lancer N) + 3 mins 00.0 secs; 10 Alastair Fisher/Barry McNulty (Mitsubishi Lancer N) + 3 mins 07.6 secs.