Ulster Rally: Meeke happy his gamble pays off
KRIS Meeke has been revelling in his return the PWT Ulster Rally.
Fastest in his Pirelli Subaru on four of the first six stages to build an overnight advantage of 36 seconds over two-time winner Eugene Donnelly, Meeke was firmly in command at the head of the leaderboard.
But the Dungannon driver headed out on today's second leg mindful of what happened a year ago when he again led - albeit briefly - and was still in second place in his little C2 Citroen only for the rains to come pouring down at the start of the second day, leading to an accident.
The situation was different this time, however. Meeke had a full four-wheel-drive WRC Subaru S11 at his disposal and was using it to good effect to outpace a field of all the top Irish Tarmac and British championship contenders.
After just two stages he was over 20 seconds in front although he admitted it had been a bit of gamble.
"We put on slick tyres for the first two stages even though we knew the first one was going to be very wet but the second, longer one, would be dry. It was a pretty hairy start!," he laughed.
"But at least I learned a lot about driving one of these cars on the wrong tyres."
But even on the 'wrong' tyres he was five seconds faster than Tarmac champion Donnelly in the Reid Motorsport Subaru S12 who, in turn, was 10 seconds faster than the best of the rest.
And on stage two, Ivy Hill, where his slick tyres came into their own, Meeke was 15 seconds quicker and already starting to pull away.
Two sprints over the short spectator stage on the outskirts of Armagh, took his lead to 24 seconds and then the former Citroen Junior World championship star was back in full flight on the final two stages of the leg as darkness fell.
He was fastest on one of the two remaining stages, second to Donnelly on the other by less than half a second, to return to Armagh last night with a 36.9 second lead over Maghera man Donnelly - and the rest were already fading into the distance.
Tim McNulty was third in his S11 Subaru but over a minute-and-a-half behind and Gywndaf Evans, leader of the British championship section, was fourth in his production Mitsubishi but already two minutes behind.
Eamonn Boland was a further eight seconds back in fifth in his S12 Subaru and British champion Mark Higgins sixth in his production Subaru.
Andrew Nesbitt, a former winner, had slipped to seventh after a fraught opening leg in which the windscreen of his S11 Subaru misted up on the first stage and he stalled at the start of the second. They would probably all have been trailing Meeke's former JWRC rival Guy Wilks who was a stunning third fastest overall on the first stage in his production Mitsubishi only for the throttle system to come loose, dropping a little bolt into the turbocharger, on the second.
Wilks managed to nurse the Lancer through two more stages and back to service in Armagh but he had slipped to 23rd and had dropped more than three minutes. With the car repaired he fought back over the remaining two stages to climb to 11th although still more than two minutes behind Higgins, his big rival for the British title.
Colm Murphy was the leading Irish production driver in eight place in his Subaru, but just a couple of seconds ahead of Phillip Morrow who is battling to win the UK Mitsubishi Challenge category.
The young Lisburn driver lost a little time when he caught British championship leader Wyn Humphreys on the fifth stage but returned safely to Armagh with an advantage of more than two minutes over Julian Reymonds and Sebastien Ling.
Positions after stage six: 1 Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle (Subaru Impreza) 37 mins 02.1 secs; 2 Eugene Donnelly and Paul Kiely (Subaru Impreza) + 36.9 secs; 3 Tim McNulty and Eugene O'Donnell (Subaru Impreza) + 1 min 37.7 secs; 4 Gwyndaf Evans and Huw Lewis (Mitsubishi Lancer N) + 2 mins 00.1 secs; 5 Eamonn Boland and Francis Regan (Subaru Impreza) + 2 mins 08.3 secs; 6 Mark Higgins and Rory Kennedy (Subaru Impreza N) + 2 mins 11.4 secs; 7 Andrew Nesbitt and James O'Brien (Subaru Impreza) + 2 mins 23.4 secs; 8 Colm Murphy and Ger Loughrey (Subaru Impreza N) + 3 mins 11.4 secs; 9 Phillip and Simon Morrow (Mitsubishi Lancer N) + 3 mins 14.2 secs; 10 David HIggins and Ieuan Thomas (Toyota Corolla S2000) + 3 mins 25.3 secs.