McShea storms back in glory run
Niall McShea looked crest-fallen.
He had battled his way to within two seconds of the lead in the Production World championship category of Rally Ireland, having started the final day 26 seconds behind Portuguese champion Armindo Araujo.
But on the last of his 'home' stages, Fardross in the Clogher Valley, he felt a vibration from the back of his Subaru. He thought he'd bent a wheel - or worse.
The 2004 PWRC champion from Fermanagh had hoped to take the lead there but instead Araujo was faster by five seconds.
Just two stages remained, one of them the televised sprint at Mullaghmore. He feared his chance might have gone.
However, Araujo didn't know about McShea's problems and he pressed on through the penultimate stage, Donegal Bay - pressed too hard in fact and crashed his Mitsubishi.
McShea, who had only started the rally thanks to the intervention of local sponsors, including GT Exhausts, after the Turkish TaCk team lost their Russian backers, sailed past the stranded Lancer and on to take the victory.
He had been delayed by punctures early on in the rally but was third highest PWRC car on Saturday afternoon, behind the Mitsubishis of Mark Higgins and Araujo.
But just when it seemed the win Higgins needed to keep his championship campaign alive was in the bag, he crashed on the last stage of the day at Tempo ? just outside McShea's home town of Enniskillen. Then yesterday, Araujo bowed to the pressure too and Ulster had its first Rally Ireland winner.
"When Mark went out I knew I had a chance and was able to close down Araujo pretty quickly," said McShea. "Then I felt the vibration in the car and I thought he was going to get away from me again. But it just shows you should never give up. It's never over 'til it's over ?"
Argentine Gabriel Pozzo took second place, and still has a chance of the PWRC title on Rally GB, but it was Richard Cathcart who was the sensation of the production category - perhaps the whole rally.
Another Enniskillen man, he was 13th overall and third highest finishing production driver in his Subaru despite having to run low down the field because of his 'non priority' status.
It meant he got the worse of the mud-strewn roads and yet he would have been only seconds behind McShea, maybe even in front of him and in the top 10, if he hadn't incurred a two-minute road penalty when an attempt by his service crew to fix a transmission problem went wrong.
Take away the two minutes and Cathcart who won his first NI championship rally only a few weeks ago, would have been only 26 seconds behind McShea even though he'd run out of tyres by the final day and had to complete the rally on a higher-profile type which upset the handling of his Subaru.
Behind Cathcart, Garry Jennings was 19th in his Mitsubishi with Irish production champion Colm Murphy (Subaru) 22nd and Phillip Morrow 23rd despite a catalogue of trouble. He lost time when he went off the road, drove three stages with his Mitsubishi limping along with a broken driveshaft and then had the hammer blow of a double puncture which cost him four minutes.
And Emma McKinstry made it to the finish, too, the Banbridge girl bringing her Subaru home in 35th place.
Best of the Irish, of course, was Gareth MacHale in eighth place on his return to the World championship after a huge accident in Sardinia earlier this year.
MacHale was cautious to begin with, driving steadily through the slippery Friday leg, but picking up the pace on Saturday to climb to eighth.
But on the first stage of yesterday's final leg, MacHale almost came to grief and ended his pursuit of Wilson and had to settle for eighth, his Focus crossing the finish line with bodywork flapping.