Craig Breen may not have won Rally Liepaja in Latvia but it provided him with a perfect warm-up for his return to the Hyundai World Championship in neighbouring Estonia in nine days time.
It also saw the Andorra-based Irish driver record his highest placed European Championship finish in his development programme or Indian tyre company MRF, taking second behind Nikolay Gryazin, now a three-time winner of the event.
The Russian, who lives in Latvia, led from start to finish in his R5 VW Polo but Breen and co-driver Paul Nagle were just 17 seconds behind in their R5 Hyundai on one of the fastest gravel rallies in the series.
And they resisted the challenge of reigning European champion Alexey Lukyanuk who won the opening round of this year’s championship in his Rally2 Citroen.
Former World Championship rally winner Andreas Mikkelsen in his Skoda would have been vying with Breen for second but a one minute road penalty dropped him back to fourth.
Now Breen joins Ott Tanak and Thierry Neuville in Hyundai’s WRC line-up for another fast gravel rally in Estonia starting on July 15.
There was disappointment for two of Breen’s fellow Irish drivers in Latvia, Callum Devine falling all the way back to 45th from a place in the top 10 after he damaged the suspension of his Ford Fiesta when he hit a rock on day one.
He re-joined for the second leg to add to his experience but was unable to gain significant ground.
“We just clipped a rock on the outside of a corner and broke a rear arm but we were able to enjoy some good test mileage in the second leg,” said the former Billy Coleman Award winner from Co Derry.
Cathan McCourt was forced to retire his Fiesta with a mechanical issue after damaging the front of his Fiesta but Jason Mitchell, who has less than a dozen rallies in total under his belt, made it to the finish in 21st in his Fiesta.
Meanwhile former Irish Tarmac champion Josh Moffett won the all-Ford M-Sport Stages Rally in Cumbria.
Driving the Monaghan family’s WRC Ford Fiesta, Moffett trailed the R5 Fiesta of Rhys Yates throughout the first leg of the two-day event stages with the M-Sport company’s testing area in Greystoke forest but took over the lead midway through day two and went on to win by 13 seconds.
Four-time British champion Keith Cronin, who was returning after a three-year break, finished a further minute behind in his new Rally2 Fiesta.
Three other Ulster drivers made it onto the leaderboard, Joe McGonigle taking seventh with Gareth Sayers in ninth and Connor McCloskey 10the, all in Fiestas.
Moffett, Cronin and McGonigle now head for Wales and this weekend’s second round of the Briitsh championship, the Nicky Grist Stages. They will be joined by the other Moffett, Sam, winner of the opening round of the series at Oulton Park.