Ulster Rally: Derek McGarrity on top form as Craig Breen sparkles
Derek McGarrity was the overall winner of the combined Toddsleap.com Ulster Rally/Rally NI but the undoubted star was Craig Breen.
The 20-year-old from Waterford became the youngest winner of a round of the British championship and the first to claim victory in one of the new breed of Super 2000 cars, an M-Sport Ford Fiesta.
New rules this year meant that the cars from the Irish Tarmac and British championships could not compete together, leaving the WRC supercars of the likes of McGarrity and Gareth MacHale to engage in a ferocious battle for the ‘Ulster’ category.
They were never separated by more than 12 seconds, four-time Circuit of Ireland winner McGarrity leading initially in his S12 Subaru only to be overtaken by MacHale’s Ford Focus on Friday night before forging back in front again on Saturday.
With just stages remaining on Saturday afternoon, it seemed Mossley man McGarrity, having stretched the gap to 11.9 seconds, had finally got a first home win within his grasp. But he so nearly let it slip.
“I lost my concentration slightly on the Tardree stage and left my braking late at a crossroads into a hairpin left. The car ended up climbing a bank,” he explained. “I nearly blew it there and then.”
It made for a tense final stage but McGarrity wasn’t going to be denied and held on by just 1.1 seconds, the narrowest margin in the event’s history, to make it a Circuit of Ireland and Ulster Rally double in the same year.
Breen, meanwhile, was savouring the biggest success of his burgeoning career. Having just dashed back from Sweden where he won a place in the global final of the Pirelli Star Driver series, he led virtually all the way to win the Rally NI by more than a minute from the Subaru of reigning British champion Keith Cronin.
For most of the two days Breen had been chased by Cronin and former champion Gwyndaf Evans but it all changed when the Welsh veteran crashed his Mitsubishi at Langford Lodge, five stages from the end, and then Cronin suffered a one-minute road penalty.
But with Evans sidelined and Breen not a serious contender for his BRC title, Cronin was unfazed by the error. “I wasn’t going to risk everything by chasing Craig over the last few stages,” he explained. “I doubt if I could have caught him anyway but second is a good result in terms of the championship.”
Indeed, it means the 24-year-old from Cork needs only a top four finish on the final round in Yorkshire to remain champion.
Alastair Fisher made it an all Irish 1-2-3, the Trillick driver finishing third in his Mitsubishi. But it wasn’t enough to see him retain his Tarmac championship lead, MacHale edging ahead by four points with just the last round in Cork remaining.
But the highs and lows of rallying were never more evident that in the case of Daniel McKenna. It was his first time in a British championship event, his first in a four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi and at one point he was as high as fourth. But he crashed out on the penultimate stage — only for the 23-year-old from Monaghan to be nominated afterwards as the Pirelli Star Driver, earning the possibility a place in the end-of-season shoot-out.