As the rally cars reached the finish in Newry this evening of the UTV Drive Circuit of Irelands, Craig was already at home after a very short excursion in his Kick Energy, Fiesta S2000. Lying in fourth place on special stage three his car aquaplaned out of control and crashed out of the event. Craig and Gareth did not sustain any injuries but there was some frontal damage to the S2000. Craig was devastated to be caught out by the conditions and for the second time in a week not to finish a rally. “We were pushing hard. The first two stages were dry but a little muddy in places and I was pleased with my times on both, but this stage (Kinghill1) was covered with water running across the road where we had the accident. As we left service I got reports there could be a shower out on the stage but we didn’t expect anything like this. There was a downpour just as the first cars entered the stage and the pace was very high, I was about 4 Km in, when on a fast section the car aquaplaned under breaking and from that point we were passengers.”
Saturday 3rd April, The famous rally got under way at midday with a ceremonial start at the Dundalk Courthouse with singer Jim Corr and other dignitaries waving away the leading cars. The action began in earnest at approximately 1.45pm, with the Triton Showers sponsored Doughary stage located north of Newry. The opening day was made up of two loops of four stages and the day was completed with a marathon 29 Km night-time stage.
Gareth MacHale seeded number one and championship leader was the first to take on the challenge of the Doughary 1, and his Ford Focus WRC suffered mechanical problems from the start, “The car cut out on a number of occasions”, MacHale reported as he entered first service in Newry. Tim McNulty partnered by Paul Kiely in the Subaru Impreza S12 B opened their event with fastest time (7:30.9). The pair were full of confidence after their West Cork Rally victory two weeks ago and looked to have carried this to Co. Down for the Circuit. Derek McGarrity who is a three times winner of the rally slotted in at second, nine seconds away from McNulty. Third over the opener was Co. Cork driver Daragh O’Riordan who was only on his second outing in his WRC Impreza. Craig held the Group N lead setting 7.46.9 and was in fourth, sixteen down on McNulty. The top five was completed by Alastair Fisher in the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO 9. On to stage two (McGaffins Corner 1) McNulty again topped the time sheets with McGarrity making it an Impreza one-two. Gareth MacHale was third but did lose another ten seconds to leader McNulty. Craig set 7:52.0 and was now in sixth as the cars made their way to the first service halt. In service Craig reported “The car feels to be sliding about but both stages were very muddy in places as there is a lot of cuts and mud has been dragged out after the recce.”
As stage three got underway there was a torrential downpour with hail stones and heavy rain making the stage treacherous. Craig only got 4 Kms into the stage when he crashed out. Both he and Gareth exited the car right away but there was too much damage sustained for them to continue, surprisingly it was Garry Jennings in the Lancer EVO 9 that was fastest with Alastair Fisher in second place on the stage. Rally leader McNulty was in third with Richard Cathcart in a Group N Subaru in fourth. Fisher’s time on the stage elevated him to second overall and he then climbed to the top of the leader board at the end of stage five as McNulty’s Subaru sustained a front puncture. For rally fans to see the Fisher name at the top of the leader board it rolled back the years as Alastair’s uncle Birtie is a three time winner of the event. Alastair went on to maintain his lead over the remainder of the Saturday stages and even held a thirty one second lead going into the final night stage. On the centre piece of the event the grunt of the World Rally Cars came to the fore as Derek McGarrity cut Fishers lead to 13.1 seconds.
Six stages faced the crews on day two and Fisher fought bravely but was hampered by a puncture on stage twelve. As the crews reached the finish ramp in Newry it was Derek McGarrity who took his fourth win on the event with championship leader Gareth MacHale fighting back from those early mechanical problems to secure second overall and a gallant Fisher taking the third place on the podium.
Craig’s next championship outing will be the second round of the British Rally Championship on the Pirelli International Rally on the 23rd and 24th of April. Before that however Craig will take the Wheel of a Ford Fiesta ST for WRC Rally Turkey (16th – 18th April). There will be more news on this event over the coming weeks.