Over the last decade the Northern Ireland Rally Championship has become a shadow of its former self, for the spectator’s that is, as with no use of forestry gravel roads the championship focuses on sealed surface events only.
I am old enough to remember five or six of the nine or ten round championship being hosted in the woods, but I am young enough to understand that a vast percentage of today’s machinery is built specifically for tarmac, or gravel, and that it is hard to make them work on both.
The costs involved with top level rallying today are nothing short of astronomical and with less drivers favouring loose surface events, combined with an increasing number of road closing orders having become available over the last number of years this natural progression to tarmac only suits the demands of today’s rallying.
A four round gravel challenge championship exists for those who enjoy the woods, making use of some amazing forest tracks around Fivemiletown, Enniskillen, Magherafelt and Omagh. Although only three events ran this season, the championship was won by Desi Henry (Fiesta Rally 2), with Cathan McCourt (Fiesta R5) and Conor McCourt (Fabia R5) making up the rostrum.
Back to the Northern Ireland Rally Championship supported once again by McGrady Insurance, it was a familiar start to the season with a visit to the fastest racing circuit in Ireland as Kirkistown hosted the single venue stage rally event.
A quick look down the entry list suggested something in the region of six potential winners and all eyes were on reigning champion, Jonny Greer, to see if he could hold off this stiff opposition to retain his title and become a three-time Northern Ireland champion.
Here’s how the season unfolded…
Round 1, North Armagh Motor Club, Kirkistown Stages.
Carryduff’s Jonny Greer and Sligo’s Darragh Mullen secured victory at the Orchard Motorsport Kirkistown Stages Rally. Greer snatched the lead from early leader Stephen Wright after stage two and stayed in front until the finish.
Once the reigning champion was out in front, he never let go as he rallied his Citroen C3 home to secure the spoils at what was a tricky day at County Down’s Kirkistown Race Circuit.
Rain in the morning left the track extremely slippery for the North Armagh Motor Club organised event. Even when the clouds dispersed to reveal blue skies during the afternoon, competitors still had to contend with a very slippery surface. Then a splash of rain before the final test dampened the track some more but Greer took it all in his stride to secure the win, getting his title defence off to the best possible start.
The fight for second position went right down to the wire between Phillip Allen and Derek McGarrity. Former champion McGarrity and navigator Graham Henderson really piled on the pressure in their Skoda Fabia R5 during the closing stages with a string of fastest times. Allen and navigator Emily Turkington were being hunted down and they tried to do everything they could to fend off the challenge over the closing miles.
Going into the final stage, it was Allen who held the upper hand by 1.1s from his rival. However, a delighted McGarrity turned the deficit on its head with another fastest time to seal the runner-up spot by just seven-tenths of a second, leaving Allen to settle for third in his Fiesta R5.
In the hotly contested two-wheel-drive category, James and Heather Kennedy came out ahead of Andrew White and Paul Hughes, with Jamie grant and Johnny Chambers finishing third.
Round 2, Ballynahinch and District Motor Club, Bishopscourt Stages.
Carryduff’s Jonny Greer and co-driver Darragh Mullen secured another victory at the Race & Rally Stages held at County Down’s Bishopscourt Race Circuit.
Greer dominated the six-stage event from start to finish. He was inch-perfect through the morning’s slippery conditions, quickly building up a sizeable advantage and catching his rivals on the hop.
In the space of two stages, he had amassed a lead of more than 20 seconds – a huge margin on the single venue event. From there, he managed his lead and with the sun shining, Greer powered home in his Citroen C3 to eventually win by 31.1 seconds and claim another maximum points haul in his bid for 2022 Championship spoils.
In the battle for second overall, Derek McGarrity and Graham Henderson held an early second in their Skoda until a stage two overshoot cost them around 10 seconds.
Aaron McLaughlin and Darren Curran also hit trouble with a puncture and a broken rim, while Darren Gass and Sam Hutchinson were already out of contention after they spun and stalled on stage one.
That left McGarrity and McLaughlin battling for the runner-up spot. McLaughlin quickly recovered from his puncture and moved into second after stage three. McGarrity tried hard to fight back but in the drying conditions, McLaughlin had the edge in his Fiesta WRC.
He was really enjoying himself and an attempt to secure the fastest time on the final stage saw him come to within one-tenth of a second of rally winner Greer.
Derek McGarrity and Graham Henderson had to be content with third overall in their Skoda. Their stage two overshoot potentially cost them a position but they still secured an armful of points for their McGrady Insurance NI Championship campaign.
In the two-wheel-drive category, a titanic battle developed between a number of crews. Possibly the drive of the event came from Robert Erwin and Andrew Wilson in their Toyota MR2 to by finishing 10th overall and taking two-wheel-drive honours. James and Heather Kennedy finished second whilst Matthew McGaffin and Ryan Lowry came third.
Round 3, Maiden City Motor Club, Maiden City Stages.
Desi Henry and Paddy Robinson sealed a last-gasp victory at the Claudy-based Eakin Bros Brian James Trailers Stages Rally but Derek McGarrity burst into the lead of the Championship.
McGarrity finished seventh overall at the event while a number of his main championship rivals, including pre-event series leader Jonny Greer, fell by the wayside.
However, it was Kilrea’s Desi Henry who led the Maiden City Motor Club organised rally at the start. He stayed in front until a hard-charging Cathan McCourt took control with a stunning drive through the fourth stage.
Henry clawed back some time over the fifth test but it looked as though McCourt was going to hang on to the top spot until a final stage overshoot dropped him back to second, handing Henry the victory.
Garry Jennings and Rory Kennedy completed the podium positions in their Fiesta R5. They suffered with some braking issues but they were right on the pace by the end of the day.
An excellent drive by Damien Tourish and Domhnall McAlaney handed them sixth overall in their potent Escort MkII. They dominated the two-wheel-drive category and claimed an emphatic win in the class from Camillus Bradley and Crawford Henderson, with Jonny Cargo and David McElroy third in class.
Round 4, Cookstown Motor Club, Tyrone Stages.
Carryduff’s Jonny Greer and Welshman Dai Roberts secured victory at the MJE Wheel Repair Specialists Tyrone Stages Rally. Driving their Citroen C3, Greer and Roberts moved into the lead after the second stage and never looked back.
They went on to set fastest times on six of the nine competitive stages to claim victory by 17.1s at the Cookstown Motor Club event!
Initially, it was Desi Henry and Paddy Robinson who were fastest out of the blocks in their Ford Fiesta and despite winning previous event, mechanical trouble with force them out of the rally this time.
Both Declan Boyle and Philip Allen were expected to be among the front-runners but they crashed out of the rally on the opening stage. The leading lights were falling like flies but there was no such trouble for Jonny Greer. After his retirement from round three when he broke a rear hub after clipping a bridge, the reigning champion knew he had to finish strongly in Tyrone to keep his championship hopes alive.
After he moved into the lead, Greer set about building an advantage over his rivals. He kept a strong but steady pace to edge out a lead of almost eight seconds after the first loop of stages. That advantage was almost doubled after the second loop, leaving him with a challenge-free run to the finish line to claim the spoils.
Arriving home in second position for the second championship event in succession were Cathan McCourt and Liam Moynihan. They spent the day testing different settings in their Citroen and sealed two fastest times. In the end, they trailed the rally winners by 17 seconds but were pleased with the day’s work.
Peadar Hurson and Damien Connolly just managed to hold on to third overall after they stalled their Fiesta WRC briefly at the start of the final stage. The crew struggled to get their car around some of the tight chicanes but survived to tell the tale.
In the two-wheel-drive category, Ryan Loughran and Gareth Doherty set a scintillating pace throughout the day in their Escort MkII. The father and daughter crew of Frank and Lauren Kelly finished second with Alan Smyth and Gary McCrudden completing the event in third.
Round 5, Rathfriland Motor Club, Down Rally.
Jonny Greer secured his third McGrady Insurance NI Rally Championship title with victory at the Carryduff Forklift Down Rally!
Navigated by Dai Roberts, Greer claimed a start-to-finish victory aboard his Citroen C3. The crew powered to the top of the leader-board after the opening stage and eventually sailed into the distance, leaving the destination of this year’s NI title beyond doubt.
“It has been quite a good year,” Greer said at the finish. “We had a bit of a rough start but it all came together at the end. Thanks to everybody who has helped.”
The event was jointly organised by Rathfriland Motor Club and Ballynahinch and District Motor Club, with the support of Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council.
Eight closed road stages were on the agenda, including the popular Hamilton’s Folly, and Greer entered the final event of the season as one of four drivers capable of lifting the crown.
Derek McGarrity, Joe McGonigle and Aaron McLaughlin were also in the mix, with McGarrity in prime position as he topped the championship standings.
Unfortunately for McLaughlin, his hopes were dashed when he suffered with turbo failure on stage two. A couple of stages later, McGonigle was also out of the running after he slipped off the road on a particularly muddy section of stage four.
That left McGarrity as Greer’s main title contender but the Glengormley driver was fourth overall and almost 43 seconds behind the rally leaders when crews reached the mid-event service.
“We messed up a bit on the first stage,” McGarrity admitted. “I haven’t driven in the wet for a long time.”
Meanwhile, the battle for second overall raged until the finish. Cathan McCourt and Liam Moynihan held the position after the opening stages until a spin on stage four dropped them behind Peadar Hurson and Damian Connolly.
Hurson, in his Fiesta WRC, upped his pace and set a couple of second fastest times to stay in front. It was a close run affair and going into the final stage, 3.9s separated the two crews.
Unfortunately for McCourt, his challenge faded when he got a puncture near the start but Hurson was completely unaware. He stalled his Fiesta, losing vital seconds, and then pushed hard until the finish…almost too hard! Thankfully for Hurson he held it together to come second overall with McCourt rounding off the podium.
The top two-wheel-drive crew of Damian Toner and Denver Rafferty headed home Alan Smyth and Gary McCrudden in the two-wheel-drive category but it was Smyth who sealed the NI 2WD Championship spoils after an impressive season.
2021 McGrady Insurance Motorsport UK NI Rally Championship standings:
Drivers top 10:
1 – Jonny Greer
2 – Derek McGarrity
3 – Joseph McGonigle
4 – Aaron McLaughlin
5 – Alan Smyth
6 – Gareth Deazley
7 – Camillus Bradley
8 – Sam Adams
9 – Michael McGarrity
10 – Ian Dickson
Co-drivers top 10:
1 – Graham Henderson
2 – Ciaran Geaney
3 – Darren Curran
4 – Gary McCrudden
5 – Michael Johnston
6 – Crawford Henderson
7 – Damian Garvey
8 – Jordan Murphy
9 – Kenny Hull
10 – Ashley Boulton
1 – Alan Smyth
2 – Gareth Deazley
3 – Sam Adams
1 – Seamus Goodfellow
2 – Kevin Wilson
1 – Sam Adams
2 – Seamus Goodfellow
3 – Philip White
1 – Jimmy Mills
2 – Stanley Orr
1 – Olivia Chambers
(Results provisional at time of writing)