The 2021 NI Rally Championship is turning out to be a really exciting series. Three former champions are among seven drivers in contention for the title with two rounds remaining.
2018 champion Jonny Greer leads the points race, but he is just 5 ahead of the reigning champion Stephen Wright who in turn is 6 points in front of 8-time champion Derek McGarrity. Add in Desi Henry back in seventh but on scintillating form at the moment despite a round one retirement, and the recipe is set for a thrilling end to the tarmac series. This is fantastic to see after the disappointment of last year, when COVID-19 called a complete halt to rallying in Northern Ireland.
The Maiden City Motor Club put on a great second round of the 2021 Motorsport UK Northern Ireland Rally Championship on Saturday 7 August. The single venue event was based at the old Shackleton Airfield complex in Ballykelly, County Derry and consisted of six sealed surface stages totalling 42.12 miles. From the original maximum entry of 100 cars, 92 actually started stage one. 71 of these competitors made it to the rally finish.
Jonny Greer continued his winning form from round one at Bishopscourt in June. The Carryduff man and co-driver Kirsty Riddick set the pace in their Citroen C3 R5. Dominating the first five stages Greer missed out on the win when he picked up a puncture at the start of the final test dropping him to fourth place in the end.
It was a very unexpected Desi and Mark Henry who claimed the Dogleap win. The Portglenone pair had been second all day in their Hyuandai i20 and were 10 seconds behind Greer after stage 5. Donegal driver and Shackleton expert Aaron McLaughin was second in his Fiesta R5 while Stephen Wright finished third in his Fiesta. Top 2-wheel-drive car was the Darrian T90 GT+ of Barry Morris. The Dungannon man was eighth overall.
We were covering radio and rescue at the Dogleap Rally and despite some of us “being a bit rusty” not having been out since 2019, everything went extremely well. The weather was mixed, dry in the morning but very wet after lunch. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 regulations unfortunately no spectators were permitted to attend the Dogleap.
For the first time ever the Northern Ireland Rally Championship paid a visit to this single venue location in Co.Armagh. North Armagh Motor Club have been running the Loughgall Country Park Rally as a clubman event for years. 2021 would see 96 cars (including top class WRC and R5’s) start the short but technical and very slippery six tarmac stages all within the confines of the country park.
Originally the organisers had hoped to run a closed-road test nearby to add to the stage mileage. Unfortunately, stringent COVID-19 regulations meant that that plan had to be binned, so the overall miles would be just 19.89 (two stages repeated three times). A limited amount of paying spectators were allowed to attend under revised regulations.
Desi Henry was back on form in his Hyuandai i20 R5. The Dogleap winner from was fastest on SS1 with Stephen Wright’s Fiesta R5 second and Jonny Greer’s Citroen C3 R5 third. On stage two Greer took over at the top and he continued to set the pace as Henry hit mechanical problems with his i20. Stage three was stopped when a spectator needed medical attention giving Henry time to fix his car.
In the end Greer and Kirsty Riddick won the rally and Desi and Mark Henry were second just 6.4 behind, but it could have been a different story if Desi didn’t have his problems, he probably had the fastest car of the day.
Stephen Wright was third keeping up his challenge for the championship. Another Fiesta R5 driven for only the second time by Aidan Wray finished fourth.
Damian Toner was the top 2-wheel-drive finisher in fifth with his Escort Mk.2. Toner had been the Loughgall County Park Rally winner on the previous five occasions. This year he had to give best to the four powerful R5 machines in front.
We had marshals on duty as well as providing radio cover. It had been a day of damp conditions with some heavy showers (a huge downpour delayed the last stage by 30 minutes) Although there were the usual accidents associated with Loughgall, thankfully none were serious. In the end there were 79 finishers.
As I said the race for the 2021 NI Championship is hotting up with just two closed-road events due to finish the series in October and November. There are 30 points available for a win so in reality it’s anybody's championship this year! Below are the top seven. The full Championship points table is accessible on the ANICC website. I recon that the 2021 Northern Ireland Championship is so underrated and deserves more publicity and press coverage. This year has been outstanding so far. I can’t wait for the last two rallies.
POINTS (after three rounds)
In the WRC four drivers are in contention for the 2021 title following Ypres Rally Belgium. Ogier leads with 162 points Evans and Neuville are tied on second with 124 while Rovanpera is third on 99 points.
Just four rounds remain with the Acropolis Rally in Greece next this month followed by Rally Finland. Both of course are gravel events. Spain is in October (all tarmac for the first time in years) and the final event is due to be a tarmac Rally Japan in November.
The complete 13 round 2022 WRC calendar should be announced this month. Rally Northern Ireland organisers will be holding their breath as the final four places still up for grabs may include the Belfast based event. At the moment things have gone quiet on the Rally NI front. I just hope funding can be found and the bid is successful to keep the WRC in the UK. We will know soon enough.
I managed to catch the semi-finals and final of the first two rounds of the 2021 World Rallycross Championship on Red Bull TV. The Hansen brothers dominated both rounds in their Peugeot 208’s. Kevin won in Barcelona followed by elder brother Timmy. The rolls were reversed in Holjes, Sweden where Timmy won and Kevin was second. No manufactures this year, all are private teams. Seven rounds are planned the next is Loheac in France (3-5 September) and then Rega, Poland (18-19 September)
Looking forward and the World Rallycross Championship is set to go all electric next season. For 2021 there is a separate RX2E class. Although the Scandinavian drivers tend to dominate, watch out for one British up-and-coming star of the future. Patrick O’Donovan is the son of Irish born Ollie, well known as a competitor and team owner. Young Patrick is just 17 and knows no fear. In round one he finished third in the six-car final and then in Sweden he started on the back row of the final, made some great overtaking manoeuvres to reach third before a wheel fell off on the final lap. He managed to salvage sixth and now lies fourth in the Championship standings. Try to catch the next round either on Red Bull TV or on YouTube.
Back to Northern Ireland and the gravel-based Lakeland Stages Rally scheduled for Saturday 4th September has been cancelled. The organisers Enniskillen Motor Club issued a statement in which they blamed the current COVID-19 regulations as the reason for the cancellation.
Omagh Motor Club are the organisers of this classic gravel event.“The Tyrone Grand Prix” as many have described the rally which utilises three stages in the West of Co.Tyrone. A maximum of 120 cars can start this the first loose-surface event to be held here this year. The 2021 Bushwacker Rally is listed as a round of the ANICC McGrady Insurance NI Forest Rally Challenge (although what other rounds will be included in this series remains to be seen).
The last time the Bushwacker ran in 2019 there was a rally long battle between the BMW of Lithuanian Martynas Samsonas and Portglenone’s Desi Henry in his Hyuandai i20. Back then Henry eventually won the rally as leader Samsonas hit overheating problems on the penultimate test.
The good news is that these two protagonists will be back this year in competitive cars to hopefully resume that battle. Henry is in his usual i20 but it is unclear what machine Samsonas will turn up with this time.
Other leading entries include Derek McGarrity and Martin Cairns in WRC Fiesta’s. Garry Jennings, Stephen Wright, Cathan McCourt, Kenny McKinstry (Fiesta’s) and James Wilson (Hyundai i20) are all in potent R5’s.
The 2-wheel-drive section of the Bushwacker is always hotly contested and this year will be no different. Frank Kelly, Adrian Heatherington, Paul Barrett and Vivian Hamill are all entered in Mk.2 Ford Escorts while Shane McGirr is out in his faithful Toyota Starlet.
There are three repeated stages; Lough Braden, Carrickaholten and Killeter giving a total of 43 stage miles. We will be providing rescue, timekeepers, marshals and radio cover on the event which is based in Omagh at the Silverbirch Hotel. The service park will at Omagh Showgrounds. The Bushwacker Rally is sponsored for the 12th time by McKelvey Asbestos.
The fourth and penultimate round of the 2021 Northern Ireland Rally Championship. Organised by Magherafelt and District Motor Club. The 6-stage event is a closed-road tarmac rally. Three stages in the Maghera area will run twice. The rally is probably based at Walsh’s Hotel with a service park nearby. A full entry of 100 cars with all the leading championship contenders is expected. We are due to provide timekeepers, rescue, radio cover and stage marshals. The Tour of the Sperrins is sponsored by GO power. I will have full details of this event next month.
With all the restrictions in place during the early months of this year it has been difficult getting our Marshal of the Year Award to this year’s recipient. However, with the help of many club members we have eventually been successful.
Congratulations and well-done Andrew.
This award is to recognize the British Rally Marshals Club's Rally Marshal of the Year. It will be presented annually to a marshal whose contribution was above and beyond the normal duties expected of a marshal.
Rallying as a discipline was given the green light earlier this month, and now Motorsport UK has created a guidance video to help everyone understand the changes we have to undertake. Here is a link to the video:- ReturnToTheStages
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