Take two reinvigorated domestic championships from the UK and Ireland, combine with the best drivers Europe has to offer, spice it up by adding a young driver determined to hang on to the trophy he won last year, and you’ve got the ingredients for rallying success. If that’s not enough, throw in a picturesque back drop made famous by the world’s biggest television show and you have a recipe for a very special Circuit of Ireland.
A capacity entry list and a record breaking collection of R5 machinery had rally fans whetting their lips with anticipation. Craig Breen had found the allure of retaining his hard-won Circuit crown difficult to resist, taking time out of his schedule with the Abu Dhabi World Rally Team to defend his title. The other top seed, Elfyn Evans, was unbeaten in all three events he had entered in 2016. The Welsh driver had stormed to wins in both WRC2, as well as claiming the first round of the British Rally Championship. The pair would be expected to set the pace; although, snapping at their heels would be a field of eager drivers keen to show that they had the ability to mix it.
On the opening test, Cairncastle, Evans swept through the County Antrim countryside in style, building an early 6.4 second lead over Breen. Changeable conditions meant that some of the European runners like Jaromir Tarabus and defending series champion Katjo Kajetanowicz struggled with set up issues, whilst the local drivers came to the fore. Desi Henry charged into 4th place and Josh Moffett was 6th fastest, despite being seeded well down the field.
With two wins from the opening two rounds, Keith Cronin was the man in hot form in the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship. However, his first Circuit of Ireland was short lived. A brush with a grass bank damaged the radiator in his DS3 R5. Cronin was forced to retire without completing a stage. ERC regular, Robert Consani, fared little better. The French driver had pulled out the stops to rebuild his car after a rather spectacular crash during qualifying, only to retire with transmission problems for the second successive year.
A blast through the short, undulating test of Knockboy saw Evans add more vital seconds to his lead, whilst just over half a minute separated the remainder of the top ten. As crews moved on to the complete the initial loop, the scene was set for the first defining moment of the rally, The Glens. A mammoth 31km stage winding through the Glendun valley and along the rugged coastline of Torr Head.
All hope Evans had of winning the rally disappeared when a belt snapped, forcing him to stop. Craig Breen, on the other hand, sprung his plan to launch an all out attack. Aided by an inspired tyre choice, he set an astounding time that was over 24 seconds quicker than his nearest challenger Kajetanowicz. At the stop line, Breen proclaimed that he could drive for another 30kms, and referred to the stage “…the best bit of tarmac in the world.”
As crews emerged from service for the afternoon stages, the weather worsened considerably. Dark clouds closed in and the rain came down, leaving the roads drenched and punctuated with pools of standing water. Breen was undeterred, collecting two more stage wins. He stretched his lead to over half a minute ahead of the evening street stage, which would bring the first day to a close.
Behind, the chasing pack was jostling for position. Henry punctured on Torr Head, hemorrhaging time and places on the leader board. He eventually succumbed completely on Knockboy – another promising performance brought to a premature end. Frederick Ahlin had never encountered the peculiarities of Irish tarmac before, but by the afternoon, he had acclimatised well and was sitting just outside the top three. Ahlin had fellow BRC competitor, Marty McCormack, in close proximity. McCormack had revelled in the tricky conditions, stringing together a series of fast times in his Skoda Fabia S2000.
The short blast through the centre of Newtownards should have been little more than an exhibition for the thousands of fans who had flocked to the town. Nevertheless, we had more drama. Breen spun his DS3 on the shiny, greasy surface and lost over ten seconds from his lead. All of a sudden, Kajetanowicz, who was occupying a secure second, got a sense that an outright win could be there for the taking.
Breen wasn’t the only driver to get caught out by the deceptive streets. Ahlin, clattered a curb breaking the rear suspension on his Fiesta R5, leaving his mechanics with plenty of work to do overnight.
Alastair Fisher emerged from the melee fastest and a very comfortable third overall going into day 2. It had been a calculated and measured drive by Fisher, who admitted that his main aim was to collect a maximum haul of Irish Tarmac points.
Day 2 brought a different challenge on the by-roads of County Down. Breen started very slowly and was only 10th fastest on initial stage of the penultimate loop. This trend continued across the morning as he shipped more time to Kajetanowicz on Hamilton’s Folly. Kajto took his first stage win if the event on Bull’s Brook, cutting Breen’s lead to a mere 8.4 seconds. A response was needed and Breen steeled himself for a resurgence. On the Banbridge test, he was second only to Elfyn Evans, who had returned under rally 2 regulations. Going into the mid-day service, the gap between Breen and Kajetanowicz had grown again to just over ten seconds.
Over the course of the morning, Marty McCormack’s endeavour was earning him 4th overall, making him the leading British Rally Championship contender. But mechanical maladies intervened and a faulty fuel pump resulted in retirement. Sam Moffett, older brother of Josh, retired following a scrap with a County Down hedge, whilst Frederick Ahlin suffered a similar fate and broke a steering arm after an excursion into a ditch.
Four seasons in one afternoon, including wintery showers made tyre choice a lottery for the final group of stages. Breen’s choice worked well on the re-run of Buck’s Head, allowing him to add more valuable time to his lead. On the return to Hamilton’s Folly all his good work was completely undone when his car hit a stone and punctured his tyre. In reality, Breen did well to limit the time loss in the fashion that he did. But if he was to win the rally, it was going to be the hard way.
The final two stages became a straight shoot-out between Breen and Kajetanowicz. The Citroen driver blitzed through Bull’s Brook six seconds faster than his rival. He defiantly stated that he wasn’t going to give the rally away “by any stretch of the imagination.” Kajetanowicz had it all to do, but effervescent Pole gave it his all, taking another stage win. But it wasn’t enough as Breen recorded a nigh on identical time to seal the win and take the famous trophy back to Waterford again. If Katjo needed consolation, his second place was enough to take him to the top of the European Rally Championship standings.
A fine third overall and a largely trouble free run secured maximum points for Alastair Fisher in the Clonakilty Blackpudding Irish Tarmac Championship. Josh Moffett’s fourth place gave him a British Rally Championship event win and second place in the Irish Tarmac Championship. Johnny Greer’s steady rise up the time sheets netted second place in the British Rally Championship and third place in the Irish Tarmac Championship. David Bogie rounded out the British Rally Championship podium places.
ERC Junior Championship / Junior British Rally Championship
In ERC Juniors, Marijan Griebel had let the category for well over half of the event, only for a puncture to deflate any chance of an event win. Łukasz Pieniążek capitalised on German drivers bad luck to take the win. A second place for Chris Ingram made it the podium an Opel Adam lockout.
In the Junior British Rally Championship, Rob Duggan’s commanding performance saw him lead for the entire duration of the event. Vauxhall Adam team mate, Mattias Adielsson finished second, with Fermanagh driver Adam Bustard in a Fiesta third.
National Rally / Clonakilty Blackpudding Modified Irish Tarmac Championship
Wesley Patterson took the win in the Modified Championship by an absolute canter from Ross Marshall. David Armstrong collected third for a Ford Escort 1-2-3. Marshall still leads the championship.
A win in the national rally also gained Derek McGarrity a McGrady Insurance Northern Ireland Championship win. Alastair Cochrane was second, with Fintan McGrady third.
Check out the comprehensive pictorial round up by Graham Curry Photography.
Circuit of Ireland International Rally
1. Craig Breen / Scott Martin – Citroen DS3 R5
2. Kajetan Kajetanowicz / Jaroslaw Baran – Ford Fiesta R5
3. Alastair Fisher / Gordon Noble – Ford Fiesta R5
4. Josh Moffett / John Rowan – Ford Fiesta R5
5. Jonathan Greer / Kirsty Riddick – Citroen DS3 R5
6. David Bogie / Kevin Rae – Skoda Fabia R5
7. Stephen Wright / James Fulton – Ford Fiesta R5
8. Tom Cave / James Morgan – Ford Fiesta R5
9. Joseph McGonigle / Ciaran Geaney – Skoda Fabia S2000
10. Jaroslaw Koltun / Ireneusz Pleskot – Ford Fiesta R5
Circuit of Ireland National Rally
1. Derek McGarrity / Barry McNulty – Ford Fiesta WRC
2. Ollie Mellors / Ian Windress – Proton Satria S2000
3. Wesley Patterson / Johnny Baird – Ford Escort MkII RS
4. Camillus Bradley / Crawford Henderson – Ford Escort MkII
5. Donnie Macdonald / Andrew Falconer – Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX
6. Alastair Cochrane / Ian Kidd – Ford Escort MkII
7. Declan McNaughton / Sean Hayde – Ford Escort MkII
8. Jamie Jukes / Dave Williams – Mitsubishi Mirage
9. Fintan McGrady / Ray Fitzpatrick – Ford Escort MkII
10.John Devlin / John McCarthy – Talbot Sunbeam