Darren Gass racked up his third win of the season and put himself in pole position to be crowned Irish Tarmac champion for the first time with his impressive victory on the Todds Leap Ulster Rally.
The former British junior champion from Markethill won by a 72-second margin, he and co-driver Enda Sherry bringing their Solo Petroleum S10 Subaru home to the Antrim finish ahead of Garry Jennings and Rory Kennedy in a sister Subaru.
It was more comfortable than 24-year-old Gass could ever have expected when he was trading seconds, even tenths of a second, with Derek McGarrity during the first leg on Friday evening.
But by stage 10, Slieve Gallion up in the Sperrins, it was all over, McGarrity pulling out when the transmission on his S12 Subaru failed. From there Gass was able to cruise to his first Ulster victory.
“I didn’t come into the event expecting to win, but I did come into it knowing I’d have to drive as hard as I could,” he said.
“Derek beat me by .2 of a second in the first stage, but we led from then and it was a good race until he retired.
“A bit of the pressure was lifted when he went out but I was a bit disappointed too because it’s harder to keep focused when there’s nobody chasing you.
“This is a hard rally to win and it means a whole lot for the Irish championship because we didn’t get on too well in Donegal, so it was nice to get the win and keep Garry behind me.”
Jennings, the Donegal International winner, was never able to make up the time lost on a frustrating first leg, where his Subaru’s handbrake was locking up all four wheels. He spun twice and then had the brakes fade away over the notorious Torr Head stage.
He was more than a minute behind at the end of the first day, but with the McKinstry Motorsport Subaru in full working order on Saturday, Jennings was able to match Gass, but could never reel in the deficit.
Daragh O’Riordan made it an all-Subaru 1-2-3, holding off the fast-finishing S2000 Skoda of Robert Barrable by less than three seconds.
Victory in the production category went to Sam Moffett in sixth place, ahead of fellow Mitsubishi driver Stephen Wright.
Meanwhile, the British championship division, Rally NI, saw a classical Keith Cronin performance. Start fast, build a lead and then control the pace. He is now within touching distance of becoming the first Irish driver to win the British title three times.
Cronin completely dominated the two-wheel-drive category in his Autosport Technology Citroen DS3, he and Ulster co-driver Marshall Clarke winning by more than a minute-and-a-half. It could almost have been any margin Cronin wanted, but he was content to establish his position, then keep the chasing pack at arm’s length.
If Cronin was impressive, so too was second placed Elfyn Evans, arguably man of the rally.
His 1600cc Ford Fiesta R2 was always going to be outpaced by a turbocharged Citroen in the hands of a driver of Cronin’s calibre but 23-year-old Elfyn, son of 1989 Ulster winner Gwyndaf Evans, left all the rest trailing in his wake, including fellow Welshmen Osian Pryce and Tom Cave in their more powerful DS3s.
Pryce finished third and Cave was initially fourth, but he was later relegated to sixth following a protest, which saw him incur a 50-second penalty for a late exit from the service park.
He was far from pleased, taking to Twitter to lambast the unnamed driver who lodged the protest.
Jonny Greer, the top Ulster finisher, moved up to fourth with Tommy Doyle fifth in two more Citroens and young Fermanagh driver Matthew Cathcart taking seventh and second in R2 to the flying Evans.
The Ulster National Rally produced another first time winner, with Frank Kelly edging out Camillus Bradley in an all-Ford Escort fight to the finish. Derek McGeehan led for the first half of the rally but then the engine of his Mini WRC began cutting out and he fell back to third.
The Historic Rally produced a grandstand finish with England’s Julian Reynolds snatching victory on the final stage from last year’s winner Tomas Davies of Wales. Ernie Graham was third, making up an all-Escort top three.