Circuit of Ireland: Darren stepping on the Gass
Things rarely go smoothly for Darren Gass.
He is unquestionably one of the quickest young drivers in the country, a prodigious talent at the wheel of a rally car, but his career to date has been pockmarked with incidents and accidents.
A former British junior champion and winner of the important Pirelli Star Driver competition, which landed him the most prestigious sponsored drive in British rallying, the 23-year-old from Loughgilly has flirted with the top echelons of the sport in the UK.
But somehow it never quite worked out as it should and Gass is back home, appearing on selected events when time and money permit, one of which will be the Donnelly Group Circuit of Ireland which begins from his home city of Armagh on Saturday (12 noon).
Starting at No.2 behind top seed and four-time winner Derek McGarrity, Gass drives a WRC Subaru S11 from the McKinstry Motorsport stable, a car he has steered to three wins in four outings in the past few months.
It has the potential to be a spicy battle following Gass’ win on the Lurgan Park Rally last August.
As seems inevitable with Gass, it was a win tinged with controversy.
He took the lead after an incident on the fifth stage where he got the Subaru out of shape coming into a slippery chicane and cut across the grass to get himself out of trouble, bypassing the Windsor Avenue end hairpin in the process.
Some — including McGarrity — felt Gass should have been penalised for “shortening the course” but officials ruled it wasn’t a deliberate act and he hadn’t gained an advantage even though he set the fastest time and moved into the lead position.
The decision did not sit well with McGarrity, who had led to that point, and at the finish he was upset enough to make his excuses and depart before the podium ceremony.
There had been unease, too, when Gass won the Mourne Rally.
Somehow he was to carry on after the Subaru suffering two punctures on one stage and his explanation of having two spare wheels available raised a few eyebrows.
But whatever the question marks, the thing that stands out about Gass is his ability to step up a gear when all seems against him. He just goes to another level.
For example, during his most recent victory on the Circuit of Kerry a fortnight ago which is essentially a practice run for the Circuit of Ireland, he had comfortably negotiated the first few stages, easing into the lead just before half distance.
But then a throttle problem slowed the Subaru and a nine-second advantage turned into a 13-second deficit.
With a temporary fix in place, Gass flew through the next stage, beating an astonished Kevin Barrett by 17 seconds to regain the lead.
It is this extra gear he can call on which marks Gass down as a man to watch this weekend.
However, he sounds a cautionary note: “To go to that pace you have to take big risks and I think I’ve learned enough to know you can’t do it on every stage.
“You’ll make a mistake or break the car.
“Finding the compromise between being steady and being on the limit is the trick.
“If I can find it this weekend I think I’m in with a chance but it won’t be easy, not with Derek’s record on this rally.”
And it is some record.
McGarrity is a double Tarmac and NI champion who, if he wins again this Easter, will join the legendary Paddy Hopkirk as a five-time winner.
That’s a measure of the task facing Gass, Barrett, Kenny McKinstry, Garry Jennings, Aaron MacHale and the rest over the Circuit’s 16 stages this weekend.