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N.I. Championship Goes Down To The Wire

The most exciting Northern Ireland Rally Championship for years will be settled this month on the Glens of Antrim Rally. Three drivers have a chance of lifting the crown. Reigning champion Derek McGarrity won the penultimate round last month putting the Glengormley man right back in contention. Stephen Wright and Derek McGeehan are the other two who can still challenge for the title in the forests of Co.Antrim.

The Tyrone Stages Rally took place on Saturday 19 October on the tarmac tests of Magilligan Point in Co.Derry. Run by Cookstown Motor Club the event attracted a small but competitive entry. Only 48 cars started the short but challenging 14 special stages. In a repeat of last year’s rally, just two private closed road locations were used. In the morning each stage, 2.7 and 3.5 miles long respectively, ran four times. These were reversed in the afternoon and used three times each.

BMMC/BRMC marshals covered timekeeping, rescue and radio points on the Tyrone Stages. For example, Victor and myself were on the stage end radio for seven tests. The weather was dry but cold with a biting wind. No major incidents occurred and the day finished for us on the final stage at around 6pm. I had left home at 06.30 so a long day all round.

As I said earlier the winner was Derek McGarrity co-driven by Paddy Robinson. They were in a Skoda Fabia R5 this time out. Just TWO SECONDS back in second place was the Fiesta R5 of Stephen Wright and Liam Moynihan. William Creighton and Liam Reagan finished third in Jonny Greer’s hired Fiesta R5. Top 2-wheel-drive finisher was the Darrian T20 of Barry Morris/Declan Campbell in seventh. Just 39 of the 49 starters finished the Tyrone Stages.

Next year the Tyrone Stages Rally moves back to closed-roads around Cookstown and becomes a round of the Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship as well as the NI Championship. A summer date in July will be much more appealing with regard to marshalling.

Last month I made the trip to Llandudno as a spectator on Wales Rally GB (2-5 October). The WRC event started in Liverpool this year but the first stage was later that Thursday evening at Oulton Park in Cheshire. It was very wet and dark, reminding me of 1992 when I was last there marshalling two stages of the then Lombard RAC Rally. In those days the entry list contained no less than 165 competitors while the supporting Rally Britannia had 113 entries. We signed on at 2am and were stood down at 9.30pm.

Before our visit to Oulton Park my son David and I attended the shakedown stage in Gwydir forest near our base for two nights in Betws-y-coed. David had not seen the new breed of World Rally Cars and he was impressed by their speed. In contrast to 1992 this year there were only 61 on the International entry list. Of these there were only 11 World Rally Cars. A supporting two-day National Rally had 63 entries. Friday was the first day proper on WRGB. We had a World Rally Pass costing £123 each. This gave us access to shakedown and all 20 stages over the four days of the event, so we had to make the best of it. Extraordinarily, admission to Oulton Park cost us an extra £10 each at the gate.

Two stages were the order of the day on Friday, Aberhirnant and Slate Mountain. Unfortunately due to unruly behaviour from Belgian spectators, the first run of Aberhirnant was halted after nine cars had passed our brilliant vantage point mid stage. At least we saw the fastest competitors including rally leader Kris Meeke, Neuville, Ogier and Tanak. The rain was incessant until we got to the days final test at Blaenau-Ffestiniog. The short mile-long spectator special stage was in a disused slate mine and called Slate Mountain. Busses ferried the hundreds of spectators to the quarry on the outside of town.

For the Saturday we based in Aberystwyth and elected to visit the nearby Sweet Lamb bowl. Having been here before we knew what to expect. The cars are visible for miles right from the start of the 15 mile Sweet Lamb Hafren stage. The weather had improved slightly and by the second run of the test it was completely dry. By now Ott Tanak was in control of the rally and on his way to an historic win. The Estonian is odds on to take the World crown this year. It would have been possible to see the final spectator stage at Colwyn Bay on Saturday night, but it was pissing with rain so we gave it a miss.

Sunday was a disappointment for David and I. We stayed overnight In Llanddulas and set out early for SS 20 the famous Great Orme stage. Having never been there before I was looking forward to seeing the cars on the tarmac coast road. We found a great vantage point near the stage finish but after the zero car had passed at full speed, word filtered through that the stage had been cancelled. Apparently an essential safety boat containing divers couldn’t launch because of rough seas. Now why it to so long for the organisers to realise that conditions were bad beats me. Needless to say there were lots of angry spectators. The car park was full. At least it was dry, after heavy overnight rain.

No time to go to another stage so it was down into nearby Llandudno and a last look at the service park before the long trip down the M6 to Bristol. David lives there and this was were our journey began on the previous Wednesday. I flew back to Belfast on the Monday. Next trip would be to Salou for Rally Spain, the penultimate round of the 2019 WRC.

Before Spain though, Victor had asked me to accompany him on a prize winning trip to Brands Hatch for the final rounds of the British Touring Car Championship. Dan Harper from Northern Ireland was already crowned Porsche Carrera Cup Champion. We both had sponsored his car during 2019 and Victor won a draw that Dan had organised. Neither of us had been to Brands Hatch before so to see the historic venue was fascinating. We were accompanied on the trip by Robert Harte who’s idea it was to place the sponsors names on the roof of Harper’s car. Over 100 people paid £50 each for the privilege.

Porsche looked after us well and we also were able to see young Jack Young from Belfast take the Renault Clio Cup. Jack is the son of former NI Rally Championship driver Phillip Young who knew both of us. Meeting him again was nice we had a bit of a catch-up.

Dan Harper was fifth on the Saturday in the first Porsche race but won the final race of the season on Sunday. To cap a fantastic weekend of course our own Colin Turkington won his FOURTH BTTC title with an unbelievable final round in which he started 22nd and finished 6th.

Turkington was brilliant in qualifying on Saturday with a pole position for race one on Sunday. In that race Colin finished fifth but got punted off by Honda driver Matt Neal in race two and was 25th by the finish. Starting the final race from row 13 by the end of the 15-lap race Turkington’s BMW 330i M Sport was up to 6th and with his main rival Dan Cammish crashing out two laps from the end Colin Turkington was Champion by just TWO POINTS.

SIX Championships then on the BTCC bill and THREE of them won by drivers from Northern Ireland! Not bad for a small part of The UK is it?

Just a week after the trip to Brands we were off to Barcelona on Wednesday 23 October. The 55th Rally Spain (RACC Catalunya-Costa Daurada) began in Salou on the Thursday.

On Tuesday night the Catalunya region had seen severe thunderstorms and the worst flooding in years causing untold damage and loss of life. In one night, three times the average monthly rainfall fell around Salou. The depth of water varied somewhere between knee and mid-thigh on the poor marshals. For 36 hours the organisers of the rally worked flat out to drain flood water and turn a swimming pool back into a shakedown stage. It was an unbelievable effort. All 17 special stages would run as per schedule.

The next day was in complete contrast to the night before. Having picked up our hire car at Barcelona Airport we travelled the 90 minutes to Salou arriving late on Wednesday afternoon. Temperatures had risen into the mid twenties, it was sunshine all the way. In fact Brenda, Darren, Victor and myself had excellent weather throughout our stay. Not a raindrop in sight!

Rally Spain was the penultimate round of the 2019 WRC. Day one on Friday had six gravel stages while Saturday and Sunday would see a further eleven tarmac tests. Rally GB cost an arm and a leg to spectate on but Rally Spain attracted thousands of spectators, more than ever before, and access to all stages was completely FREE. There were few traffic problems, everyone behaved themselves, and not a single stage was lost!

Thursday saw us take in the shakedown stage and a first visit to the nearby service park in Port Aventura. Kris Meeke was fastest on shakedown in his Toyota Yaris WRC. Was this a good omen or not? Great to meet Declan and Gerry from the Maiden City Motor Club that evening in downtown Salou. They would be travelling with us to see the stages on Friday and Sunday.

Friday was gravel day and after an early start we all headed for the third stage. At 24.14 miles La Fatarella-Vilalba was the longest of the rally. We drove out to the village of Vilalba dels Arcs, well know to us from previous visits. This year the stage finished here and we had an excellent view from a vantage point last visited in 2017. Then after the 60 odd cars passed it was of to find stage four and another great vantage point. At the end of the day Sebastien Loeb was leading from Thierry Neuville and local Dani Sordo, all in Hyundai i20’s. Kris Meeke was the leading Toyota driver in fourth. As in Wales, 11 World Rally Cars started.

Saturday we spent the morning in service before attending SS13 the Salou superspecial on the sea front that evening. Historic cars preceded the main event of which the highlight was young Kalle Rovanpera whacking his Fabia R5 off a kerb and breaking his rear suspension in the process. He wasn’t alone, two other Skoda drivers did the same thing!Meeke crashed out on the second Saturday stage while trying to chase down the Hyundai’s. Overnight Neuville was leading from Sordo and Tanak had nipped past Loeb into third place.

The final day on Sunday and we all started out at 05.30 for the famous roundabout on the Riudecanyes stage. A massive crowd, bigger than 2017 we thought, assembled on the cliff side to watch the two stages SS14 at 07.41 and SS16 at 10.54. The atmosphere was electric in the natural arena with banners for and against Catalunya independence. Apparently there is a 50/50 split on this issue. After the second run there was only SS17, the final power stage, to go.

Thierry Neuville won the rally but as expected Ott Tanak was crowned World Rally Champion 2019. Tanak won the power stage and overhauled Sordo in the process to finish Rally Spain in second place with his Yaris WRC. Outgoing six time World Champion Sebastien Ogier had mechanical problems on stage two from which he never recovered. The Citroen C3 driver finished back in eighth place. Apart from Neuville, Ogier was the only other driver who could have challenged Tanak for the title. The 15 year French domination of the WRC was over!

The huge contingent of Ott Tanak supporters were ecstatic at the final podium. It was estimated 15,000 Estonians were in Salou for the event! The last person to leave Tallinn put out the lights! Now Tanak leaves Toyota for Hyundai in 2020. Can the little “Estonian robot” defend the title with his new team? Who would bet against it? Will he even crack a smile?

On Monday we left Salou at 04.10 and arrived back at Barcelona Airport for 05.30. Our flight to Luton was on time as was the connecting one to Belfast.

Despite civil unrest and street riots on the streets of Barcelona over the weekend we had managed to survive the trip completely unscathed. Mind you it was the same in 2017, the natives were restless then as well. Coming from Northern Ireland we are well used to restlessness!

P.S. Wales Rally GB 2020 returns to the principality and takes place from 30th October-1st November. In 2021 the event could move to a base in Belfast under a WRC Rally Northern Ireland banner. Rally Spain will not run in 2020 but should return to the calendar in 2021 on a rotational basis.

Rally Diary

Sat. 9th November
The Glens of Antrim Rally

Organised by Mid Antrim Motor Club this is the much-anticipated final round of the Motorsport UK ANICC McGrady Insurance Northern Ireland Rally Championship. The Glens of Antrim is sponsored by BlueSky Resource Recovery and based in Loughguille. Containing just a total of 30 stage miles, the rally is using two repeated gravel tests, the classic Slieveanorra (3 times) and Parkmore (twice). We will be providing rescue and timekeepers for this event. The Championship has been one of the most exciting in recent years.

Going into the Glens of Antrim Rally three drivers can still clinch the 2019 title. With dropped scores taken into account, Stephen Wright on 144 leads by just one point from Derek McGarrity with Derek McGeehan third on 136 points. A further compilation apparently involves bonus points available on this final round! Whatever happens we will know the winner at the end of this event in Loughguille. What a great year it has been for this popular series.

Sat. 23rd November
Friends of the Cancer Centre Power Targa Rally

Organised by North Ulster Car Club in association with the ANICC, this special event will be run in memory of John Mulholland who sadly passed away earlier this year. The Targa Rally is supported by and starts from John Mulholland Motors Ltd. in Randalstown, Co.Antrim. Our own John Hughes is Chief Timekeeper so any help would be appreciated. The first car starts at 10am.