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The McGrady Insurance Motorsport UK NI Forest Rally Challenge got underway at the start of the year as over seventy crews headed into the Samsonas backed Fivemiletown Spring Rally on the 25 Februrary.

Mark Donnelly and Stephen O’Hanlon took the slenderest of victories on the Omagh Motor Club event, but sixth overall was enough to secure Ryan Caldwell and Shane Byrne in their Skoda Fabia R5 maximum championship points.

Paul Britton and Peter Ward bagged points for second placed championship driver in their Subaru Impreza N16. Whilst third went to Alan Smyth and Arthur Kierans in their Ford Escort MkII. Shane McGirr (Lada Riva) and Cathal Mulgrew (Ford Escort MkII) finished off the top five.

Seven months passed before the second round, this time organised by Enniskillen Motor Club, when around seventy drivers entered the Trailer Parts and Spares supported Lakeland Stages Rally.

Patrick O’Brien took overall victory in the Fermanagh woods, but Ryan Caldwell extended his championship advantage with maximum points after a fourth overall finish. Darragh Cairns stepped out of his lesser Subaru Impreza used on round one and into a Skoda Fabia R5, impressing with a top ten finish and runner-up points in the championship to keep himself in contention.

Paddy McToal and Connor O’Loan took points for third place finisher in the series, whilst Sam Stewart (Ford Escort) and Damien McGauran (BMW 320) finished off the top five.

Scheduled to be a four-round challenge, with one drop score, the championship only ran for the opening three rounds with all points therefore counting to the championship.

The season finale was to be held at the Omagh Grand Prix, where the club had organised an event to stand out from the rest as it started in the dark on Friday 15 September with the McKelvey Asbestos Bushwacker Rally hosted by Omagh Motor Club.

With over 100 entries from across the Emerald Isle, two stages would run on day one, with three stages ran twice on the Saturday. Gale Force winds and torrential rain made the opening two stages difficult at best.

Championship favourite, Ryan Caldwell was plagued with issues from stage one and eventually retired in stage six with ongoing mechanical issues. This thrusted Darragh Cairns and Mark Preston aboard their Skoda Fabia R5 into a strong position within the series.

Despite finishing almost three minutes behind Bushwacker winners, Patrick and Stephen O’Brien in their Fabia R5, Cairns’ 12th place overall was enough to secure him maximum championship points. Owen Mallon and Shaun Scullion bagged points for third in the series after finishing 21st overall in their Ford Fiesta R5.

Stephen McKenna and Mark Donnelly drove their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX home to 27th overall which was enough to secure third place points in the championship.  Sam Stewart (Ford Escort) got another fourth place with Bob Riddles (Ford Escort MkII) finishing the top five.

With Ryan Caldwell’s misfortune on the final round, Darragh Cairns was crowed the McGrady Insurance Motorsport UK NI Forest Rally Challenge Champion for 2023! It was the icing on the cake after taking victory on the final round and the move to a Fabia R5 after the first event was the right decision.

Andy Magee and Ashley Trimble in their Ford Escort claimed second overall and took two-wheel-drive honours thanks to a 12th overall followed by a brace of 6th overall points. Rounding off the rostrum was early leader, Ryan Caldwell in his Skoda Fabia R5, who took the Class 10 win from Cairns.

2023 Forest Rally Challenge standings:

Drivers top 3:

1 – Darragh Cairns
2 – Andy Magee
3 – Ryan Caldwell

Co-drivers top 3:

1 – Shane Byrne
2 – Ashley Trimble
3 – Conor McGurren

Two-Wheel-Drive top 3:

1 – Andy Magee
2 – Sam Stewart
3 – Paddy McToal

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Graham is a photojournalist and motoring writer with over 20 varied years of coverage from manufacturer press launches to international motorsport and motoring events throughout the world. Graham is a full member of the Guild of Motoring Writers and Ulster Motor Writers Association.