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Wright keeps cards close to chest after victory

 

Elfyn Evans

Stephen Wright has insisted that he won't be defending the Northern Ireland Rally Championship title he won in 2019. But he said that he wouldn't be going for the crown last year, of course, and still went on to taste glory.

Will the same scenario unfold again following his repeat victory in the opening round of the McGrady Insurance series at a wet, windy, bitterly cold Kirkistown on Saturday?

It was his victory on the Pacenotes Magazines Stages last February which set the Monaghan man on his way to becoming the first driver from the Republic to win the Championship, although he said that was never the plan.

Wright has said it again, insisting that he can't commit to the five-round Championship, but once more he finds himself top of the standings after he and co-driver Gary McKenna splashed their way to victory in their R5 Ford Fiesta, finishing five seconds ahead of the WRC Mini of Derek McGeehan and son Mark.

Derek McGarrity, the eight-time champion, and Paddy Robinson were third, a further 13 seconds behind in their R5 Skoda after a day in which few escaped unscathed in the horrible conditions.

McGeehan, the early leader, lost time when he thought he had a puncture and McGarrity had closed to within two seconds of the Mini only to drop several seconds with an overshoot after the directional arrows had been knocked askew.

But Wright kept cool, speeding up after a steady start and steering clear of trouble.

"It was hard work," he admitted. "I didn't want to make a mistake early on so I kept it tidy and safe on the first stage and took it from there.

"It's great to get the win and lead the Championship again."

But what happens next? He isn't saying.

Behind the top three, Gareth Sayers lost around 20 seconds when his engine spluttered to a halt midway through the event. It eventually fired up again, allowing him to recover and take fourth in his R5 Fiesta ahead of the similar car of Jason Mitchell on his first attempt at a round of the Championship in an R5 car.

Scottish visitor Barry Groundwater claimed sixth following a tie-break with Emma McKinstry, who was back behind the wheel in the family R5 Fiesta after a maternity break.

Elsewhere, Elfyn Evans became the first British driver to win Rally Sweden - and he did it on only his second appearance for Toyota.

Evans, winner of the 2016 Ulster Rally, is part of a revamped Toyota team after Ott Tanak defected to Hyundai having won the world title and Kris Meeke and Jari-Matti Latvala were axed.

The Welshman has settled in so well he finished third in Monte Carlo and has now taken his first victory, finishing a heavily curtailed Rally Sweden 12 seconds ahead of Tanak's Hyundai with two other Toyota newcomers, teenager Kalle Rovanpera and six-time champion Sebastien Ogier, third and fourth.

Irish Tarmac champion Craig Breen took seventh after being recalled to the Hyundai team.

Belfast Telegraph