Cronin sets the pace as Ulster Rally home challenge falters
Keith Cronin battled his way through torrential rain showers and muddy, slippery roads to lead the John Mulholland Motors Ulster Rally at the end of the first leg last night.
On a day when the leading home hopes all hit trouble, the reigning Irish Tarmac champion from Cork fought his way to the front to edge ahead of the top two drivers in the British Championship, Osian Pryce and Fredrik Ahlin.
Alastair Fisher, the pre-rally favourite in many eyes, was an early casualty, his Dom Buckley Motorsport Ford Fiesta stopping on just the second stage with suspected engine trouble.
The same stage also damaged the chances of Fisher's fellow Ulstermen Marty McCormack and Desi Henry, their Skodas both finishing with front wheel punctures.
And the sight of his major rival for the Irish Tarmac title parked at the side of the road gave Sam Moffett a dilemma.
"When I saw Alastair parked up my whole plan for the rally was thrown up in the air," he explained. "Thoughts of trying to win the rally went out of the window when I realised I could get a big lead on him in the championship."
Winner of a string of rallies this year, Moffett eased off and was in fifth place behind the British Championship contending trio, as well as the leading Ulster driver Jonny Greer, and well over a minute off the lead.
Cronin, who opted out of the Tarmac series to chase a fourth British title with the M-Sport Ford team this season, was locked in a fierce duel with Welshman Pryce, their Ford Fiestas pulling away from the Skoda of Swede Ahlin.
At the overnight halt in Londonderry last night, Cronin led by less than a second, with Ahlin a further 18 seconds back. McCormack, Henry and Joe McGonigle completed the top eight.
Meanwhile, one of the cardinal rules of rallying is that you don't screw up on a 'mickey mouse' spectator stage, because you are not going to win anything but you can lose everything.
But Kris Meeke did just that on the opening stage of Rally Deutschland through the streets of Saarbrucken and, coming on the back of a string of crashes in the past few months, has plunged his whole Citroen career into jeopardy.
The Dungannon driver described his Thursday night accident as "stupid" when he misjudged a slow corner and his C3 Citroen clipped the end of a concrete barrier which broke the steering. He then had to suffer the embarrassment of having to watch a tow truck ferrying his car off the stage in front of thousands of spectators and a TV audience.
He was able to re-join yesterday under Rally2 rules but back in last place and with a 10-minute time penalty and all hopes of repeating his Rally Mexico victory long gone. Last night Meeke was up to 31st place but, with his confidence shattered, the gap to the front had grown to more than 11 minutes.
Adding to his woes, Andreas Mikkelsen, the driver brought in to try to rescue Citroen's disastrous season, was showing what the C3 can do on tarmac as he battled with Ford's Ott Tanak for the lead.
The Estonian was just five seconds ahead, with World Championship contenders Thierry Neuville (Hyundai) and Sebastien Ogier (Ford) in third and fourth places. Last year's Ulster Rally winner Elfyn Evans (Ford) was fifth and Craig Breen in the second Citroen in seventh.
Jon Armstrong had started promisingly in his prize drive DMACK Ford Fiesta R5 but was reported stopped on the sixth stage.
Ulster Rally overnight leaderboard: 1 Keith Cronin and Mike Galvin (Ford Fiesta) 49 mins 19.0 secs; 2 Osian Pryce and Dale Furniss (Ford Fiesta) + 0.9 secs; 3 Fredrik Ahlin and Torstein Eriksen (Skoda Fabia) + 18.1; 4 Jonathan Greer and Kirsty Riddick (Citroen DS3) + 1-27.0; 5 Sam Moffett and Karl Atkinson (Ford Fiesta) + 1-34.0; 6 Martin McCormack and David Moynihan (Skoda Fabia) + 1-41.0; 7 Desi Henry and Liam Moynihan (Skoda Fabia) + 2-26.2; 8 Joe McGonigle and Ciaran Geaney (Skoda Fabia) + 2-49.6; 9 Alex Laffey and Patrick Walsh (Ford Fiesta) + 3-24.0; 10 Stephen Wright and Arthur Kierans (Ford Fiesta) + 3-28.3.