Breen in full control as he steers way to Tarmac title
Craig Breen did what he does so well. Clinically and professionally he kept all challengers at bay to win the Today's Ulster Rally and secure the Irish Tarmac Championship with a round to spare.
It was the fifth win of the series for the former Citroen World Championship man and co-driver Paul Nagle and while it wasn't easy, Breen controlled the rally and when it mattered he stepped up a gear to win by 20 seconds from British champion Matt Edwards with Callum Devine again showing his growing stature with third place.
Although he won in Ulster last year on his way to the British title, Edwards is often underrated, but he stayed within a handful of the seconds of the lead as Breen ironed out issues with the R5 Hyundai he was driving for the first time.
By the start of the last of the three loops of stages Breen had it working more to his liking and he put the hammer down, widening the gap to 12 seconds over the nine miles of the McGaffin's Corner stage.
Edwards shook his head and conceded he couldn't go any faster and Alastair Fisher, seeing his slim Tarmac title hopes finally disappear, observed: "Craig really stuck his neck out there."
But it what he has been doing all season, measuring the opposition, setting his pace accordingly and brushing them aside if they get too close.
It has brought him wins in Italy and Belgium as well as at home in Ireland as he reminds people his WRC career hasn't ended with his axing by Citroen.
Having played a strong team role for Hyundai on his temporary recall in Finland, Breen is expected to get another opportunity in Rally GB, but before that he can celebrate emulating his Irish idol Frank Meagher by becoming Tarmac champion.
He was emotional at the finish, saying how important it was to win on his first time in the Hyundai and attributing Irish rallying for "getting me back on my feet again" after the devastation of losing his Citroen seat.
"This means everything to me," he said.
"I've dreamed of this [winning the championship] since I was a kid and Irish rallying is so close to my heart. It has delivered more for me than it will ever understand. And this year it got me back on my feet again."
Edwards, too, had much to celebrate as his second place gave him maximum points and a decisive lead in the British series after his closest challenger Tom Cave crashed out on the penultimate stage.
This year's Ulster Rally may have been short and sharp in comparison to previous years but Cave was only one of several leading contenders who didn't make it through the nine stages, Josh Moffett, the outgoing Tarmac champion, Marty McCormack, Desi Henry, Jonny Greer and James Wilson among those falling by the wayside.
The impressive Devine had to overcome fuel pressure problems with his Fiesta to take yet another podium place but Fisher lost so much ground with a misfiring engine he slipped to fifth behind young Welshman Mierion Evans.
Joining Breen in the finish celebrations was Josh McErlean who clinched the British Junior title with Keaton Williams alongside him in his R2 Peugeot. It was the young Kilrea driver's third win of the season, earning him another £2,500 bonus, and securing the championship with a round to spare.
Another Ulster driver, William Creighton, had been in the fight for the title, too, but a trip into a bank damaged the radiator of his Peugeot and he was forced to retire.
Former Northern Ireland champion Stuart Biggerstaff won the national division of the rally in a McKinstry Motorsport R5 Fiesta, finishing seventh overall in just his second drive in the car, and beating off the Escorts of Damien Toner and David Condell with Camillus Bradley also making the top 10.
Stanley Orr was the winner of the historic category in his Escort, completing a good day for the home contingent.