Home again Breen proves to be Galway master
It has been three years and more since Craig Breen last faced wet, mucky Irish rally roads but he demonstrated he hasn't forgotten how to master them with victory in the Galway International.
He and co-driver Paul Nagle would obviously have preferred to be in the snow of Karlstad preparing for Rally Sweden later this week, but having been jettisoned by the Citroen World rally team at the end of last season, they turned back time to head the line up for yesterday's opening round of the Irish Tarmac Championship.
And they duly brought their R5 Ford Fiesta back to the Galway finish last night the winners by 14 seconds ahead of the Ulster combination of Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble, with reigning Tarmac champions Josh Moffett and Keith Moriarty third.
But it wasn't easy for the WRC exiles. Far from it. Indeed the slippery west of Ireland roads saw the lead change hands five times over the first five stages before Breen took control and eased his way to a first Irish win since the 2015 Circuit of Ireland.
It was former Tarmac champion Garry Jennings who led initially in his WRC Subaru before Fisher, back after a year-long break, moved to the front on stage two and then Breen went ahead of the first time heading into the first service break, with all three covered by seven seconds.
Jennings, chasing a third Galway win in a row, surged back to the front on stage four only for Breen to charge into the lead again on the fifth stage.
But it was 10-mile stage six at Colmanstown that proved decisive. Battling to close the two-second gap on leader Breen, Jennings spun his Subaru and ended up lodged in a ditch. Game over.
With a 16-second lead over Fisher, a driver of Breen's calibre was never going to let it slip and he dutifully steered the Fiesta through the final three stages to take the win, his first in Galway.
With Breen unlikely to contest a full championship programme, Fisher was more than content to settle for second place ahead of champion Moffett whose brother Sam, the 2019 champion, was the first major casualty of the rally when he crashed his Fiesta on the first stage.
One of the performances of the rally saw World eRally champion Jon Armstrong swap his simulator for a real-life R5 Fiesta and finish in fourth place ahead of the Skoda Fabia of Desi Henry, with Jonny Greer making it four Ulster drivers in the top six.
Reigning Irish National champion Declan Boyle was seventh on his R5 debut in a Fiesta.
Fellow Donegal man and another former champion Donagh Kelly was also scheduled to return to the Tarmac series in an R5 Skoda but was a late withdrawal as was Joe McGonigle because of an insurance issue with his WRC Mini.
Damien Tourish won the national division of the rally over a minute ahead of Damien Toner, both of them in Ford Escorts.
Galway leaderboard: 1 Craig Breen and Paul Nagle (Ford Fiesta) 1 hr 01 min 43.1 secs; 2 Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble (Ford Fiesta) + 14.4 secs; 3 Josh Moffett and Keith Moriarty (Ford Fiesta) + 48.1 secs; 4 Jon Armstrong and Noel O'Sullivan (Ford Fiesta) + 1 min 07.6 secs; 5 Desi Henry and Liam Moynihan (Skoda Fabia) + 1 min 24.6 secs; 6 Jonny Greer and Kirsty Riddick (Ford Fiesta) + 1 min 38.3 secs; 7 Declan Boyle and Brian Boyle (Ford Fiesta) + 1 min 44.5 secs; 8 Daniel Cronin and JJ Cremin (Ford Fiesta) + 2 mins 13.1 secs; 9 Stephen Wright and Arthur Kierins (Ford Fiesta) + 2 mins 45.2 secs; 10 Stephen McCann and Denver Rafferty (Ford Fiesta) + 2 mins 46.3 secs.