Sean Devine and Damien Duffin emerged victorious at last weekend’s Eurocables Stages Rally, held at Kirkistown Race Circuit, but it was by no means an easy ride for the Strabane based Subaru Impreza WRC crew! It was new kid on the block, Connor McCloskey, who held an early lead in his ex-Stephen Moore Ford Focus WRC. At just 21 years old, it was young McCloskey who surprised many with his turn of speed at the New Year Stages Rally, which was also held at Kirkistown just a few weeks earlier.
McCloskey was very much capable of springing a surprise, and fastest time over the opening Eurocables test ensured his competitors’ fears were realised. The event marked the opening round of the Pacenotes MSA Northern Ireland Stage Rally Championship, so there was plenty of opposition to contend with, but McCloskey and navigator Francis Regan were taking it in their stride. Sean Devine and Damien Duffin were one second slower than McCloskey over the rally opener, with Craig Bennett and Alan Shilliday third in their Skoda Fabia WRC. Unfortunately Bennett retired during stage two with centre differential failure, while Sean Devine set his first fastest time of the day through the second test.
Another quickest time on stage three saw Devine snatch the rally lead from McCloskey by 1.4 seconds, but the young gun returned fire on stage four to retake the number one spot. With two stages remaining, everything was to play for as these two crews dominated the time sheets. Separated by less than a second, it was time for a no holds barred attack through the closing miles! Young McCloskey was perhaps a bit too tentative through the penultimate stage though, allowing Devine to move in front once again. The Impreza pilot snatched two seconds out of McCloskey, leaving Devine leading by 1.1 seconds, with only the final stage standing between him and victory.
It was a tense situation, and although Connor McCloskey and Francis Regan were fastest through the final stage, it wasn’t quite enough. The Ford Focus crew had taken four-tenths of a second out of the rally leaders on the stage, allowing Sean Devine and Damien Duffin to secure their maiden Eurocables Stages Rally victory by just seven tenths of a second! There were smiles all around at the finish line as McCloskey jumped out of his car to congratulate Devine on his rally win. Rest assured though, we will see more of McCloskey’s magic during the 2008 season. The Eurocables Stages was only the 23-year-old’s second outing in his new mount, so it bodes well for a competitive season ahead.
Outside the battle for victory, George Robinson and Derek Murdoch had another solid drive to seal third overall in their Impreza WRC. He admitted to nudging a couple of hay bales throughout the day but survived to tell the tale, and headed home New Year Stages rally winner, Denis Biggerstaff. The Dromara man, who had event sponsor Shane Braniff calling the notes, admitted to being a bit ‘off the pace’, but still managed to take fourth ahead of reigning champions, Glenn Allen and Damien Connolly.
Cookstown’s Allen had a ‘slippery slidey day’, but couldn’t quite set the stages alight as he did in 2007 when he won the event. Circuit based rallies are not his strong point though, so if he decides to defend his title, expect to see some stronger results later in the year. Completing the top six, Sean McArdle and Jim Feenan just edged out Superdrive two-wheel-drive winners, Wesley Patterson and Terence Teggart, on the final stage. Seventh placed Patterson had another astounding drive at the County Down venue, beating a lot of more powerful four wheel drive machinery. In the two-wheel-drive battle, he finished more than half a minute ahead of James Kennedy and John Rowan, with John Waring and Mo Downey third.
The tussle for Sunoco Fuels Group N honours was every bit as intense as the overall battle. Geoffrey McMahon and Robert Graham were the surprise early leaders in their Mitsubishi Lancer. The number 39 seeds were to face stiff opposition from John Walker and Dessie Wilson though, and as the day progressed, Walker nibbled small chunks of time out of McMahon’s advantage. Going into the final stage, it was Walker who held the category lead by three-tenths of a second, and after crossing the final stage finish line, he waited with baited breath for McMahon to cross the line behind him.
Walker was set to have a long wait though, as news filtered through that McMahon’s rally had come to a premature end almost within sight of the finish. After a stunning drive, his Mitsubishi Lancer coasted to a halt with mechanical problems. That left John Walker in eighth overall and first in the production category, with Ruairi McCloskey and David Burns taking second from Enda McNulty and Declan Campbell. With the opening round of the 2008 Pacenotes series completed, competitors are now turning their attention to the McGrady Insurance Bishopscourt Stages. Based at Bishopscourt Race Circuit, situated just outside Downpatrick, the rally takes place on Saturday 8 March. More information can be found on the official championship website at <a href=”//www.nirally.com”>www.nirally.com</a>
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