Rally NI: Keith Cronin keeping his eyes on the prize
Keith Cronin insists his focus will be entirely on the Toddsleap.com Rally NI this weekend even though he can hardly wait to get on a plane and head for the Czech Republic.
The first Irish driver to win the British championship in over 30 years, Cronin is all too aware the Ulster event, which begins from Antrim this afternoon, is a crucial round in his battle to retain the title.
But by Sunday he will be bound for the Barum Zlin Rally and an unexpected opportunity to join Ulsterman Niall McShea in the Proton team in the Intercontinental Challenge series.
“I’m excited about it — a new car, a new team and a new rally. And it just came out of the blue,” he explained.
“I wasn’t expecting the phone call from Chris Mellors of Proton at all but I didn’t take long to say yes.
“I would love to be in the IRC next season and this is a great opportunity to experience a works Super 2000 car and the kind of European rallies that are in the series.”
But Cronin is mindful of the importance of this weekend’s Rally NI in his British championship campaign with the TEG Sport Pirelli Subaru team.
A hit-and-miss season sees the 23-year-old from Ballylickey down by Bantry Bay lying third in the standings, six points behind leader Jonny Greer and two adrift of former champion Gwyndaf Evans.
“We need a good result to give ourselves a chance of retaining the BRC title on the final round,” he said.
“I’ve been on the back foot a bit this season, trying to get used to the Subaru after driving a Mitsubishi for so long and trying to get the car to work to my liking.
“But winning in the Isle of Man gave us all a big lift and put us back in with a real shot at keeping the championship with the team.
“We made adjustments to the car after the first loop of stages in the Isle of Man and they transformed it.
“I felt so much more comfortable and confident but we’ve got to keep that momentum going here in Ulster.
“Afterwards I can start to think about the Barum Rally,” added Cronin who has been drafted into the Proton team alongside former Production World champion McShea for the Czech round.
McShea has already flown out to conduct two days of tests with the S2000 Satria Neo over the weekend and Cronin will get his first opportunity to drive his car on Monday.
Meanwhile, Dessie McCartney, who won the Ulster Rally exactly 30 years ago, will mark the anniversary by taking part in the historic section of the rally.
And he will be joined by a driver who won it even earlier, 1977 winner Derek Boyd.
McCartney and Boyd in their Porsches will be part of a 40-strong field as the British Historic championship crosses the Irish Sea for the first time.
Heading the line-up is Ryan Barrett from Omagh, current leader of the series in his Ford Escort, with the opposition including the reigning champion, Castlerock GP Dessie Nutt in his Porsche.