It was high fives for Derek McGarrity at the end of the Donnelly Group Circuit of Ireland rally.
McGarrity joined the legendary Paddy Hopkirk as a five-time winner of Ireland’s premier rally, he and co-driver James McKee bringing their S11 Subaru WRC to the finish in Armagh yesterday afternoon with a 42-second margin over Kenny McKinstry and Kenny Hull in their S9 Impreza.
The record books will portray it as one of McGarrity’s more comfortable victories but that doesn’t tell the real story — the story of Banbridge veteran McKinstry defying his 50-plus years to mount a sustained challenge that only faded with a rare error yesterday morning.
McKinstry had led overnight, surprising McGarrity by setting a trio of fastest times over the final three stages of the first leg to turn a 13-second deficit into a 1.6 second lead.
They both knew the opening stage yesterday near Emyvale in Co Monaghan would be crucial, an opportunity to lay down a psychological marker in the push for victory.
But in damp, drizzly conditions McKinstry, first on the road, was caught out on a downhill section into a square right corner, his Subaru spinning sideways and becoming jammed across the narrow road. It took all of half-a-minute to get it pointing in the right direction again.
Incredibly, moments later, McGarrity also spun in the same place but his Subaru barely broke stride and he was able to continue at unabated speed, finishing
the stage 29 seconds faster than McKinstry who could only shake his head and admit: “I blew it. It was a tricky place and the road was like ice after the drop of rain. I just got caught out but I think we were both pushing to the limit.”
McGarrity agreed. “It was a crazy run,” he said, holding up his hands to show they were still shaking from the tension.
“I saw the marks on the road where Kenny had spun but I couldn’t do anything to stop my car going round too. I was lucky to get away with it.”
The duel was effectively over at that point and although they battled hard on the remaining five stages, McGarrity had his tail up and edged further away to secure his historic fifth win.
Kevin Barrett was almost three minutes adrift in third place but it was still a commendable effort after a weekend spent wrestling a Subaru that defied all attempts to correct its ill-handling.
A late charge by John Dalton in his low-slung Darrian kit-car saw him climb to fourth, edging out fellow Welshman Phil Collins by less than two seconds.
Donagh Kelly won the production category in sixth despite dropping two places when his Mitsubishi suffered mechanical problems on the last loop of stages.
There were many who didn’t make in through the two days, among them Garry Jennings, who had led the production class in fourth place going into the final leg only to crash his Mitsubishi on stage 13.
Other notable retirements included one of the big favourites, Darren Gass, who only made it six miles into the first stage before the gearbox of his Subaru exploded and Steve Perez, whose exotic Lancia Stratos jammed in gear.
It was also a jammed gearbox which sidelined Northern Ireland champion Stuart Biggerstaff’s Subaru, but the most dramatic retirement saw Rory Byrne’s Mitsubishi engulfed in a fierce fire which destroyed the car.
On a happier note, the youngest driver, 17-year-old Omagh schoolgirl Amy Cox made it to the finish, bringing her Escort home in 23rd place.