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Wright returns to kick off NI title defence at Kirkistown



Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright was the surprise winner of the Pacenotes Magazine Stages Rally at Kirkistown last year, a result which would eventually lead to the Monaghan driver becoming the first from the Republic of Ireland to win the Northern Ireland Championship.

Wright never really intended to contest the whole McGrady Insurance series but one rally led to another and he emerged as champion, even if it all ended unsatisfactorily when the final-round showdown with Derek McGarrity never materialised, the Glens of Antrim Rally being called off.

That cancellation has led to a revamp of the Championship, which begins again at the Kirkistown race circuit tomorrow, with the gravel rallies dropped in favour of a five-round all-tarmac format.

Wright is again in the entry list with his R5 Ford Fiesta, as is McGarrity, who can look back and reflect on the fact that he effectively lost a ninth Northern Ireland title when his WRC Ford Fiesta caught fire while he was leading the opening Kirkistown round, handing Wright his unexpected victory.

The WRC Fiesta caused him a lot of heartache last year and it is gone now to be replaced with a Skoda Fabia, one of close to a dozen R5 cars in the starting list including Alan Carmichael, Philip Allen, Gareth Sayers, Kieron Graffin, Chris McGurk, Jason Mitchell, Joe McQuillan and Emma McKinstry, who is back after becoming a mother for the first time.

Her dad Kenny, a three-time champion, is back too and is one of a handful of drivers in WRC cars, along with Derek McGeehan, whose son Mark became the youngest winner at 17 of the co-drivers' Championship last season.

Topping the list of two-wheel-drive entries are a host of Ford Escort drivers, including Wesley Patterson, Keith White, James Kennedy, Drew Stewart, William McClurkin and Birmingham visitor Oliver Benton.

New for this year is a class that's attracted a squad of little Nissan Micras running a 'control' tyre, and it has produced an interesting mix of drivers including former Junior champions Philip White and Stephen Whitford along with Laura Phillips, daughter of former NI champion Robin who will be navigating, and Barry Meeke, brother of former WRC driver Kris. No word yet of a co-driver. Could it be Kris?

The North Armagh Club-run rally features six stages all held within the confines of Kirkistown race circuit, the first of which is due to get underway at 9.30am.

Starting this weekend, too, is the Valvoline Irish Forestry Championship, which begins with the Willie Loughman Memorial Rally down at Carrick-on-Suir on Sunday.

The series includes one round north of the border, the Omagh Club's Bushwhacker Rally in September.

Among the Ulster contingent heading south this weekend is James Wilson, the Motorsport Ireland 2018 Billy Coleman award winner from Armagh who has chosen the gravel series to get to grips with his move up to an R5 Hyundai.

"The main goal this year is to learn the R5 car," said Wilson, the 2018 British Junior champion. "I want to learn as much as I can but mainly want to enjoy it."

Jordan Hone and Kyle White are two more promising young Ulster drivers included in a line-up which is provisionally headed by Andrew Purcell in a new R5 Ford Fiesta.

Meanwhile, Craig Breen, on his return to the Hyundai team, set the fourth fastest time behind a trio of Toyotas in the shakedown for Rally Sweden.

Belfast Telegraph