It was one of the new breed of Irish drivers who headed the Toddsleap.com Rally NI at the end of the first leg last night.
Craig Breen, a 20-year-old from Waterford, led the way — and in a new breed of car, too, one which had never previously topped the leaderboard in an Irish international, a Super 2000 Ford Fiesta.
Breen, had dashed back from Sweden buoyed up by winning a place in the global shoot-out of the Pirelli Star Driver series.
He returned to the overnight service park at Antrim’s Junction One shopping complex holding a 16-second lead over the Subaru Impreza of another young Irish driver, Keith Cronin, with Welsh veteran Gwyndaf Evans third in his Mitsubishi Lancer.
Cronin, the 24-year-old reigning British champion from Cork, was fastest on four of the six first leg stages through the Glens of Antrim but lost almost half-a-minute on the second of them, Glendun, when his Subaru got stuck in a tight chicane and later brushed a wall.
Evans also had trouble in the Glendun chicanes which virtual
ly all the drivers complained were “far too tight”.
Not Breen, however. His nimble little Fiesta skipped through them and he revelled in the fast, jumpy north Antrim roads to lead a major rally for the first time in his career.
The leading Ulster driver was Alastair Fisher, fourth in his Mitsubishi having reeled in Daniel McKenna on the final stage at Tor Head last night.
However, McKenna was the revelation of the opening leg, the 23-year-old from Monaghan right in the mix with the British championship contenders despite this being his first time out in a four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi instead of his usual Ford Escort.
England’s Adam Gould rounded out the top six in his Subaru but was being hounded by Frenchman Bryan Bouffier and the flying Citroen DS3 which was making its world debut on the Ulster event.
Minor indiscretions cost Bouffier, the champion of Poland, valuable seconds but he was loving the car — and the event. “Tor Head is a fantastic stage but I need to understand these roads better,” he said.
Jonny Greer, leader of the British championship, was back in
eighth and struggling to match the pace of front runners Breen and Cronin.
In the separate Ulster Rally, which is restricted to the WRC supercars of the Irish Tarmac championship, Gareth MacHale had edged his Ford Focus into the lead ahead of Derek McGarrity’s Subaru.
Circuit of Ireland winner McGarrity led initially but a run of four successive fastest times by MacHale took the Dublin driver to the front and he finished the first leg with a nine-second advantage.
Ulster Rally (after stage 6): 1 Gareth MacHale/Brian Murphy (Ford Focus) 42 mins 48.3 secs; 2 Derek McGarrity/James McKee (Subaru Impreza) + 9.5 secs; 3 Aaron MacHale/Eugene O'Donnell (Ford Focus) + 2 mins 13.2 secs; 4 Arjen de Koning/Hein Verschuuren (Mitsubishi Lancer) + 5 mins 51.8 secs.
Rally NI (after stage 6): 1 Craig Breen/Gareth Roberts (Ford Fiesta) 43 mins 26.3 secs; 2 Keith Cronin/Barry McNulty (Subaru Impreza) + 16.5 secs; 3 Gwyndaf Evans/Phil Pugh (Mitsubishi Lancer) + 26.3 secs; 4 Alastair Fisher/Rory Kennedy (Mitsubishi Lancer) + 1 min 05.2 secs; 5 Daniel McKenna/Andrew Grennan (Mitsubishi Lancer) + 1 min 09.5 secs; 6 Adam Gould/Craig Drew (Subaru Impreza) + 1 mins 21.0 secs; 7 Bryan Bouffier/Xavier Panseri (Citroen DS3) + 1 min 43.6 secs; 8 Jonny Greer/Dai Roberts (Mitsubishi Lancer) + 2 mins 05.8 secs; 9 Marty McCormack/David Moynihan (Citroen C2R2) + 2 mins 38.6 secs; 10 Jason Pritchard/Robbie Durant (Subaru Impreza) + 2 mins 59.8 secs.