Storming run sees Armstrong turn virtual rally success into the real thing with Down victory
In the virtual rally world he's a champion and now Jon Armstrong is a winner in reality too.
Armstrong beat thousands of online competitors to win the World Esports Championship in Germany last year but until Saturday he had never finished top of the leaderboard in a real life rally. But the Kesh driver did it in style, coming from behind to claim victory in the Carryduff Forklift Down Rally, a round of both the Protyre UK Asphalt Championship and the McGrady Insurance Northern Ireland series.
There was no Hyundai i20 Coupe as the prize this time but Armstrong was just as happy as he and co-driver Noel O'Sullivan brought their WRC Mini to the finish at the Eikon Centre with a winning margin of 20 seconds over the R5 Ford Fiesta of Stephen Wright and Liam Moynihan.
Some performance by a young driver making his first appearance in a WRC car and who had to overcome a fourth stage puncture which cost him close to a minute.
A driver with huge potential who has won at junior level in the World Championship, financial restrictions have seen Armstrong make only occasional appearances in recent times. But he opted to hire a McGeehan Motorsport Mini for the popular Down event, which was run jointly by the Ballynahinch and Rathfriland clubs, and showed how much he has been missed.
"We didn't expect to win at all," said Armstrong. "It's only my second rally in two years so the aim was to get a bit of seat time in a World Rally Car.
"I'm aiming for a full rally campaign next year and hope to do something a bit more structured. Certain individuals are helping me do that and it's thanks to them as well as Dirt 2.0 and Thrustmaster that I'm here."
Jonny Greer, last year's winner, dominated the early part of the rally, leading by almost half a minute until his R5 Fiesta was sidelined by transmission failure. At that point Armstrong was down in ninth place, over a minute off the lead.
But he rapidly reeled in the new front-runners, Wright and the best of the UK contenders Daniel Harper, who was also in a WRC Mini. By the ninth of the 11 stages, Armstrong was in the lead with a string of fastest times and ran out a convincing winner.
Wright held off Harper - namesake of Ulster's Porsche Carrera Cup star - for second with Welshman Melvyn Evans fourth in his R5 Skoda ahead of Derek McGarrity's WRC Fiesta. The reigning NI champion had been hampered by a broken anti-roll bar early on but fought back to take maximum points.
Steve Wood in another WRC Fiesta completed the top six ahead of the Ford Escort of Damien Toner, the two-wheel-drive category winner. Derek McGeehan, leader of the NI series, was eighth in another of his WRC Minis.
Disappointingly, British champion Matt Edwards, who planned to use the event as preparation for next month's Ulster Rally, was a non-starter but young Welshman Meirion Evans - Melvyn's son - made the trip and put in a strong performance despite smashing a wheel of his R5 Skoda.
Stuart Biggerstaff, a former NI champion, made his R5 debut in a McKinstry Motorsport Fiesta and, despite never having rallied a left-hand-drive car before, was in the mix until a power steering issue forced him out.
Meanwhile, Wayne Boyd celebrated two podium finishes with the United Autosports team in Barcelona at the weekend.
The Templepatrick driver finished third in the Le Mans Cup race with American Mike Guasch then joined Brazilian Tommy Erdos and another American Garett Grist to take third again in the European Le Mans Championship round in their LMP3 Ligier prototype.