Hot Craig Breen digs deep to retain his Circuit of Ireland crown
Craig Breen may have won the Circuit of Ireland for the second year in a row but this was a rally of firsts and winners all round.
The €7,000 cheque Breen picked up wasn't what he came for but it was a nice little bonus as, despite his numerous European championship wins in the past, this was his first as a privateer, Breen's entry in the rally an indication of his desire to put his name on the Circuit trophy for a second time.
And it was that desire and sheer determination which got him and co-driver Scott Martin over the line in another dramatic finish after they feared it was slipping away from them.
Stepping down from his role with the Citroen WRC team to take part, and driving an R5 version prepared locally by the DGM team, Breen seemed to have laid the foundations for his second victory when he decimated the field with a stunning run through the rally's signature stage, the monster 31km Glens on the north Antrim coast on Friday, but a lead of almost half a minute was gradually eroded via a spin in the soaking wet Ards TT stage and then a questionable tyre choice on Saturday morning, allowing European champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz to narrow the gap to less than 10 seconds.
Then, virtually blinded as the rally was hit with a blizzard of hail stones, he hit a rock which had been dragged onto the road on the Hamilton's Folly stage, the impact knocking a rear tyre off the rim and the gap was down to just five seconds.
But, like last year when he spun his Peugeot into a bank with the finish almost in sight, Breen wouldn't let go.
"I haven't put my heart and soul into this rally to lose it now," he insisted as he headed into the final two stages.
True to his word, he held off Kajetanowicz's Ford Fiesta to win by 10.6 seconds and record the first ERC victory for an R5 Citroen.
Kajto was disappointed to have come so close for a second time but the Pole had a bonus too - taking over the lead in the ERC series.
There was also a first podium for Alastair Fisher, who sat on the heels of the leading duo for almost the entire rally, only easing back in his Fiesta towards the finish to ensure he took maximum points in the Irish Tarmac championship.
Josh Moffett in fourth was another winner, first of the British championship finishers as well as leapfrogging first-day casualty Keith Cronin to take over the lead of the Irish series. Jonny Greer left behind the memories of his car catching fire on the finish line of the last stage a year ago to claim fifth in the sister DGM Citroen to Breen, an impressive double for the Carryduff team.
They all had a lot to celebrate on Saturday night, not just their successes but having survived a rally which threw everything at them from some of the most challenging roads in Ulster to rain, hail and even snow.
More than a third of the field didn't make the finish line, among them the likes of early leader Elfyn Evans, Fredrik Ahlin, Marty McCormack - who sickeningly saw his Skoda halted by fuel pump failure when he was fourth - Robert Consani, Desi Henry, Robert Woodside and the unfortunate Czech, Jaromir Tarabus, who crashed out of fourth place on the final stage.
Derek McGarrity won the separate national rally for the second time in a row, his WRC Ford Fiesta finishing just over a minute ahead of the Proton Satria of young Englishman Ollie Mellors. Wesley Patterson was third in his Ford Escort.