That’s the best piece of Tarmac in the world,” claimed a wide-eyed Craig Breen at the finish of The Glens. The 19-mile test proved to be one of the highlights of the Circuit of Ireland Rally, and it was the deciding point at which Breen and British co-driver Scott Martin inherited the lead of the rally he would go on to win for a second successive year.
The deal for Breen to contest the rally was concluded only 10 minutes before the deadline for entries, with Irish Tarmac champion Eugene Donnelly key to helping to put things in place along with David Greer Motorsport. As the rally kicked off after the opening ceremony in Lisburn there was no doubt that the home spectators were grateful. Not only for Breen, but for the scintillating entry provided by the European, British and Irish Tarmac championships merging for the first time since a Colin Mcrae win in 1991.
After an eventful shakedown stage caked in mud, it was Elfyn Evans who was quickest and, therefore, he got the chance to choose his starting position at the ceremony. He chose the number one spot, with Breen down in sixth.
Evans, who had won all three of the rallies he’d entered in his Fiesta R5 this year, took the early lead. The Welshman won in Mid Wales on the British Rally Championship opener, but this event was always going to be a tough one with the level of ‘local’ competition plus some very capable asphalt additions.
However, the Dolgellau driver revelled in the tricky conditions in the first two tests. Breen was around six seconds slower on both and it looked like the writing was on the wall. Much had been made of the DMACK tyres pre-event, but they worked well early on and Evans is a master of mixed conditions: think back to Corsica, 2015.
He extended his lead through the second test, 12.4s up, and Breen was down in sixth on that stage. It seemed nothing could go wrong for Evans and his majestic start to the year.
However, not long into SS3 Evans had pulled off. A warning light signified the need to stop and on closer inspection the alternator belt had broken and the rally for him and co-driver Craig Parry was over. It was a bitter end to his victory fight.
To the fore came Kajetan Kajetanowicz. Last year’s European Rally champion took Breen down to the last stage in 2015 and it was left to him to take the challenge to the rampant Irishman, who’s time on The Glens was over a second a mile quicker than Kajetanowicz. His eyes were on stalks at stage end, clearly he’d never driven a piece of road like it. He continued to push hard through the day admirably, giving everything he had. But Breen continued to assert his advantage, the muddy asphalt made worse by cars ahead on the road proving no issue.
Breen was quickest on stages four and five to increase the lead to 36.1s. With just a short run through the Newtownards TT stage left before the day was finished, it seemed the rally was already tied up in favour of Breen and Martin. But this rally isn’t that easy.
The short 1.4-mile test proved one of the most difficult stages of the day. It caught out a whole host of drivers, including the Waterford man as the surface was almost like ice in places. A pirouette for Breen wasn’t the quickest way around and the lead to Kajetanowicz was cut to just over 20s.
With the advantage eroded slightly, Kajetanowicz had to push on Saturday morning, but half of his job was done for him. Breen went with a “conservative” choice of super-soft Michelins, but it was the wrong choice. The lack of rain meant the tyres were difficult to switch on and look after simultaneously. At the regroup after the third stage of Saturday morning the covers were bald and the lead just 8.4s. It was a wonder he got through the proceeding stage, and he did so clawing back two seconds on the Lotos R5 driver affectionately known as Katjo, if still slower than Evans overall.
Evans had restarted under Rally2 conditions. As if to prove the lead battle could well have been decided in his favour, he topped six stages out of seven he finished to assert his supremacy in what turned out to be an extended test. But losing the rear of his R5 on some mud meant the rally ended in a wall on SS12.
Breen remained confident and said as much, the second to last service a chance for him to change tyres with a repeat of the morning stages looming.
The first test after service and Breen took 1.8s out of Kajetanowicz. Were things back on track for Breen?
Not quite. In SS12 he hit a rock dragged out by a preceding car, and he had a puncture. Not only was it a loss of 7s to Kajetanowicz on the stage, he only had one spare and had to last for the final two tests with a lead of just 5.2s. It was exactly the exciting finish the event deserved.
Channelling the thoughts of his prestigious countrymen and heroes who have won the event before, he dug deep. The result? He was 6.1s faster on the penultimate test. Over the last stage he dropped 0.7s to Kajetanowicz but the result was foregone. His helmet ripped off, no driver has ever ascended to the roof of a car quicker, as a rally that almost slipped away from the Irishman for a second year in a row was vanquished. He doesn’t do anything the easy way, but it’s hard not to appreciate the work and commitment from a driver who’s suffered from so much bad luck. Not unlike his PH Sport team-mate Kris Meeke, who also hit a rock in a DS 3 recently in Monte Carlo. But this time the driver won, not the rock.
Kajetanowicz was outstanding all weekend on only his second trip to the tight lanes and sealed the runnerup spot. It was no surprise he was jumped on at the finish by almost as many fans as Breen and it’s clear the hometown fans have accepted him as their own.
Behind the dicing duo it was a good weekend for Alastair Fisher. The nephew of Bertie Fisher returns the family name to a podium graced seven times by his great uncle. Even a puncture in the most inhospitable stage in the event, The Glens, couldn’t end his charge and a sensible and well-judged rally really earned the intended result. It was no surprise that such a well-paced rally was overseen by co-driver Gordon Noble. Fisher also made up for an off in West Cork in the Irish Tarmac Championship last time
11 Wojciech Chuchla/ Daniel Dymurski (Subaru Impreza STI); 12 David Botka/ Peter Szeles (Citroen DS 3 R5); 13 Antonin Tlustak/ Ladislav Kucera (Skoda Fabia R5); 14 Jamie Anderson/ Ross Whittock (Ford Fiesta R5); 15 Rhys Yates/tom Woodburn (Ford Fiesta R5); 16 Tomas Davies/ Eurig Davies (Ford Fiesta R5); 17 Lukasz Pieniazek/ Przemyslaw Mazur (Opel Adam R2); 18 Chris Ingram/ Katrin Becker (Opel Adam R2); 19 Marijan Griebel/ Pirmin Winklhofer (Opel Adam R2); 20 Nikolay Gryazin/yaroslav Fedorov (Peugeot 208 R2).
out, while the winner of that event, Keith Cronin, took his turn to have an accident. An off on the first section of the first stage ruled out one of the pre-event favourites, who had scored maximum points ahead of Fisher in the first round, and also took full points in West Cork. It was a double blow for the Citroen man with the event counting for the Irish Tarmac and British championship. After a poor Mid-wales, he has no scores from the opening two BRC rounds.
Perhaps one of the happiest drivers in the field was Josh Moffett. The Irishman stole the lead of the Irish Tarmac Championship points after finishing all three rounds, while also arriving back to Belfast as the first British Rally Championship runner, his first BRC win. Perhaps the only real trouble for the Monaghan lad was an admission to stage end reporter and WRC co-driver Seb Marshall that he’d “gone through a junction backwards”.
The weekend was a poor one for many BRC 1 runners with so many retiring. Erstwhile leader and likeable Northern Irishman Marty Mccormack was leading the BRC before a fuel pump issue ruled him out of an incredible win. Mccormack pilots an S2000 Skoda Fabia that is underpowered compared to other R5 cars, but a hard push in mixed conditions had given him an advantage.
Also missing from the final results; Fredrik Ahlin. The rapid Swede was adamant before the event that he would take a while to get up to speed on asphalt after four years of gravel and snow events. But team boss Martin Wilkinson showed no surprise that the 24-year-old was immediately on the pace. Second fastest on stage five and fourth overall, he was on course to put a dent in Elfyn Evans’ joker-boosted championship lead. But he was one of the drivers caught out on the Newtownards TT stage and only his excellent mechanical nous got the car back in a workable state with only a 15-minute service the next morning. But Saturday proved to be a nightmare. A puncture, oil leak and finally a lengthy slide into a bank put the nail in the coffin. Some valuable points had gone begging.
Two European drivers were also lost. Robert Consani went off on the shakedown stage and, after his crew worked hard to rebuild his Citreon DS 3 R5, it was down to two-wheel drive on SS1.
Perhaps just as painfully, Jaromir Tarabus drove a conservative but impressive rally to sit fifth, but slid off into a hedge on the final stage of the rally.
Instead, fifth overall went to Breen and Cronin’s team-mate Jonny Greer. Reigned were rapid managed British
Directly British was another shakedown dramas, backwards. to prepare score on visit could
Tom set-up on Saturday meant did well impressive S2000 Skoda contender Ford Fiesta
Fastest Elfyn Evans/craig Parry (Ford Fiesta R5) 2m28.9s