Breen hails his hat-trick as Ulster trio steal show
Craig Breen did what Craig Breen does; got the nose of his Ford Fiesta in front and kept it there through two days to win the Easter Stages Rally, his third victory in a row in the Irish Tarmac Championship.
He and his fellow World Championship exile Paul Nagle again did just enough to add an Easter win to their Galway and West Cork successes this season, seeing off a sustained attack by a trio of Ulster drivers who stole the spotlight on a weekend of warm weather and even hotter stage times.
Breen may have been the winner but it was Desi Henry, Jonny Greer and Callum Devine who had the fans on their feet as they scrapped over the minor positions on the podium, all three of them holding second place at one point or another through the 15 stages.
In the end it was Portglenone building contractor Henry and co-driver Liam Moynihan who snatched the runners-up spot, bringing their Skoda Fabia to the finish 18 seconds behind Breen but just three ahead of the Fiesta of Greer and Kirsty Riddick thanks to a blistering late run through the final three stages.
But spare a thought for Devine, a former British Junior champion, and Brian Hoy, who lit up the second leg only to miss a podium place with an overshoot on, for him, unlucky stage 13, Loanends, near Templepatrick which cost him 11 seconds. He was just seven behind Greer at the finish, 10 adrift of Henry.
And while they were duelling, Breen was ticking off the miles and keeping the chasers at bay. He had done the hard work on Friday with five fastest stage times and has become adept at protecting a lead.
Asked how hard he was having to push to stay ahead, he just smiled: "Hard enough."
Sharpened by three years in the Citroen WRC team, he knows how to win with the minimum risk although he had a fright when no time was recorded for him - and Greer - on stage 11, Laverty's Bridge. For some reason, their cars hadn't broken the timing beam.
Breen insisted he'd had no dramas in the stage or at the end of it, dismissing suggestions his Fiesta may have toppled the timing tripod.
"I don't know what happened but it was all good as far as I am concerned," he said.
Eventually, he and Greer were given a 'nominal' time which was the same as Devine even though independent observers were adamant the young Derry driver had been the clear stage winner, a decision which may have contributed to him missing a place on the podium.
Alastair Fisher made it four Ulster drivers in the top five, although on this occasion he wasn't able to reproduce the pace which saw him chase Breen home in Galway and West Cork, and former Tarmac champion Sam Moffett finished back in sixth.
His brother Josh, the reigning champion, had started strongly, second after the opening stage, but then his Fiesta cut out early in stage two, costing him 90-plus seconds, and he never recovered, finishing back in eighth behind the Hyundai of young Welshman Meirion Evans.
The Hyundais of Manus Kelly and Alan Carmichael rounded out the top 10 ahead of the WRC Subaru of former NI champion Stuart Biggerstaff.
Derek McGarrity, the current champion, had been the WRC class leader and into eighth place when his Fiesta's drivetrain failed two stages from the end.
Damien Toner won the modified category in 12th place in his Ford Escort and Alan Smyth was the production winner in his Mitsubishi Evo in 13th.
Notable retirements included Irish national champion Declan Boyle, who never made it beyond the first stage on Friday after his Fiesta hit a post just yards after the start.
No such issues for Breen, who made it four wins from five rallies this season - he won in Sanremo a week earlier - as he strives to regain his place in the World Championship.
"Everybody knows that's where I want to be and I'm doing everything possible to make it happen as soon as possible," he said.
"While we're working towards that goal, Paul and I are enjoying ourselves and winning helps to ease the pain of not being in the WRC this season.
"This has been a good event, great stages, and the guys behind kept me on my toes all the way to the finish."