Omagh Motor Club were determined to make sure their flagship Bushwhacker Rally went ahead last month. Despite having to run under current Covid-19 restrictions, the club’s efforts ultimately proved to be very successful. The event ran almost exactly to schedule with no major incidents and no stages lost.
The rally didn’t run last year due to the pandemic so it was great to see this classic fast-gravel event (widely known as “The Tyrone Grand Prix”) back on the calendar. Spectators were allowed to attend but only in special designated areas.
The rally was a stand-alone event and not part of any championship. With the cancellation of the Lakeland Stages this was the only gravel rally to be held in NI this year.
I have always thought that Bushwhacker was a brilliant rally name so who thought of it? Apparently back in 1975 Omagh Motor Club decided on the name for their new event. Bushwhacker was derived from the old saying or poem “Tyrone Among the Bushes”. Add to that the fact that some competitors may stray from the stages and “Whack” the trees and there you have it.
Three repeated stages in West Tyrone were on the menu this year. SS1/4 Lough Bradan (6.82 miles) SS2/5 Carrickaholten and the longest test SS3/6 Killeter at 9.76 miles. The weather was good and the dry conditions meant a level playing field for the 101 starters.
Omagh brothers Patrick and Stephen O’Brien won the rally in their hired Fiesta R5 by 7.8 seconds from pre-rally favourites Cathan McCourt/Liam Moynihan in a similar car. Jason Mitchell led after the first stage in his new Rally2 Fiesta, but the Strabane man crashed out on SS3. Another major retirement was Lithuanian competitor Martanas Samsonas. His Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.9 stopped after SS2 with mechanical problems.
The expected battle between Samsonas and Desi Henry never materialised. Prior to the event Henry withdrew his entry, concentrating instead on the tarmac of the NI Championship which comes to a head on the Tour of the Sperrins later this month.
The Fiesta of Vivian Hamill finished the Bushwhacker in third place ahead of Garry Jennings right-hand drive example. In fact the top six places were filled with Fiesta R5’s, further emphasising the power and the popularity of these machines. The first WRC to finish was former winner Martin Cairns down in seventh place with his Fiesta. Gone are the days when WRC Ford’s or Subaru’s dominated Irish stage rallying.
This was Patrick O’Brien’s maiden rally victory and only his second drive in an R5. His first outing ended when that Fiesta’s turbo blew whilst in fourth place on the 2019 Bushwhacker. The last O’Brien to win the Bushwhacker was Hugh, a four-time winner back in the eighties. As far as I know Hugh and Patrick are not related.
Derek McGarrity was out for the first time in a Skoda Fabia R5+. The former NI Champion finished 10th as he got used to the car prior to the Tour of the Sperrins. David Crossen’s Mk.2 Escort in twelfth place overall was the best finisher of the many 2-wheel-drive competitors. Then came Frank Kelly’s “baby blue” Mk.2 in 14th place, just two tenths of a second ahead of Shane McGirr’s Toyota Starlet. Altogether 70 cars finished the rally.
Victor and myself were the finish radio crew on Carrickaholten which we knew very well. Around seven miles south west of my old home town of Castlederg, close to the Donegal border, the 4.35 mile forest stage was closed to spectators this year due to Covid-19 regulations. First time round we had 91 finishers, that would fall to 77 on stage five. We had the usual minor accidents and retirements but nothing serious. BMMC/BRMC marshals were also covering start radio and rescue on Carrickaholten.
What would have been the fifth and final round of the 2021 Motorsport UK ANICC Northern Ireland Rally Championship has been cancelled. The Tyrone Stages Rally scheduled for Saturday 6th November would also have been a round of the 2021 Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship.
In a press release, organisers Cookstown Motor Club blamed a spike in localised COVID-19 cases as the reason for their decision to call off the event. The club stated that many households along the planned closed-road rally route are now self-isolating. Therefore the motor club had no alternative but to make the responsible decision to cancel the rally and thus avoid any risk of adding to the local infection rate.
At a meeting of NI Championship officials it was decided not to replace the Tyrone Stages Rally due to the timeframe involved. This means that the Tour of the Sperrins, which takes place this month, will now be the title decider. If there had been five rounds, competitors could have dropped their worst score but now the points tally from all four remaining rounds will count.
Derek McGarrity is not happy, he has accused the the NI Championship bosses of handing the title to Jonny Greer by not finding a replacement event. On the other hand, Greer says that anyone of the top seven drivers are still capable of winning the series, depending on how the last round goes. See more on this in Rally Diary.
Congratulations to Elfyn Evans and his co-driver Scott Martin. The little Welshman has become only the second British driver to win Rally Finland “the fastest gravel rally in the World”. Of course Northern Ireland’s Kris Meeke was the first Brit to win Rally Finland when he drove his Citroen DS3 to victory in 2016.
Evans win on what was the “Rally of the Thousand Lakes” 70th anniversary, puts last year’s runner up right back in the frame for the 2021 World Rally Championship. Hyundai’s Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja were second and team mates Craig Breen and Paul Nagle third. Interestingly Paul Nagle was Kris Meek’s co-driver on that historic 2016 win.
Sebastien Ogier had a steady run on Rally Finland (he finished fifth) but still leads the championship by 24 points from Toyota team mate Evans. The championship battle is now just between these two drivers with two tarmac rounds left to run. Rally Spain is next 14-17 October and then Rally Monza 19-21 November.
The WRC calendar for 2022 has still not been finalised. It is now expected to be signed off later this month. Nine of the 13 events have already been confirmed. Apparently the WRC promoter would like to see Rally Northern Ireland on the calendar next year, but it is not know if the required funding and local Government backing can be secured in such a short timeframe. To date Rally NI organisers have remained tight-lipped on the subject.
It’s been two years since the UK last hosted a round of the WRC. That of course was Wales Rally GB 2019.
Robbie McGurk scored the first of his eight Bushwhacker Rally wins in September 1991. The Omagh MC event was based in Castlederg and sponsored by the local Castle Inn from where it started and finished. We were timekeeping on SS2/7 Short Lough Bradan. There were 10 stages in all using the forests of Lough Bradan, Carrickaholten and Killeter. Gordon Noble was Clerk of the Course and there were 88 cars on the entry list. McGurk was in an Opel Manta 400 and co-driven by Angela McAleer.
An additional event of a revamped 2001 NI Rally Championship was the gravel Haslett Preparations Stages Rally on 8th September, organised by Ballynahinch and District MC and based in Drumkeeragh Forest. Eleven marshals from our club were on duty as Denis Biggerstaff won this third round in his Metro 6R4. Trevor Moore was second in his Escort Cosworth. Due to the ongoing effects of the devastating foot-and-mouth outbreak, Enniskillen MC’s Lakeland Stages and Omagh’s Bushwhacker Rally were both forced to cancel.
On 22nd September three of us marshalled for Maiden City MC at the very short Aghadowey Airfield Stages. This was round four of the NI Championship where Biggerstaff beat Trevor Moore’s Escort Cosworth to win by POINT 3 OF A SECOND! These two drivers would battle it out for the title on the fifth and final round, November’s Toshiba Rally in the forests of Co.Antrim.
Also last month, Cookstown MC ran the non-championship Blue Circle Stages Rally in Davagh Forest. Seven of us were timekeeping and covering radios on this tarmac event. There were several incidents but thankfully no one was injured.
Kenny McKinstry became the Northern Ireland Rally Champion for the fourth time. The Banbridge car preparation expert made sure he couldn’t be beaten to the 2011 title when he won the Lakeland Stages last month. Driving his favourite Subaru Impreza S8 WRC and with Kenny Hull on the notes, McKinstry beat Donagh Kelly’s Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.9 by 11 seconds on this the first gravel round of the Hankook series. Kenny had won all six rounds so far with three still to run.
On the Enniskillen MC event, my wife Ray and I were covering timekeeping and radio on the stop line of SS1/4/7. We had trouble with our line-of-sight finish. Having moved the flying finish boards to a sensible location (where we could see them) the COC Declan Gannon was not happy. Thankfully the situation was resolved when MSA Steward Nicky Moffett appeared and agreed with my decision and the event was able to continue. Just 4 of us were on duty that day as there were other events taking place.
Former champion Connor McCloskey returned to the MSA Northern Ireland Championship in September 2011 and proceeded to lead the Bushwhacker Rally from start to finish. The Kilrea driver with the experienced Francis Regan on the pacenotes, was driving the most powerful car on the event, a Subaru Impreza S11 WRC, well suited to the ultra-fast Co.Tyrone gravel stages. The pair had previously won the rally in their championship winning year of 2008 when they were in a Ford Focus WRC.
Omagh Motor Club had attracted a fantastic entry of 105 (of which there were 95 starters) for this the most popular round of the NI series. The weather was excellent on the day, dry and sunny which made our job as timekeepers that much easier. We would also be covering radio on five of the eleven special stages, while Rory and the BMMC rescue unit were on duty at Glenderg.
The stages were the usual Lough Bradan, Carrickaholten, Slievedoo and Glenderg with a central service park near Castlederg. Rally HQ was in Omagh at the Silverbirch Hotel. Road mileage was 121.89 while the stages totalled just 37.80 miles.
Donagh Kelly and Kevin Flanagan were second in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.9 while Kenny McKinstry/Kenny Hull finished third in their Subaru Impreza S8 WRC. 69 cars finished the rally.
Earlier in September we were timekeeping and providing radio cover on the Tyrone Stages Rally based in the Davagh Forest complex. The tarmac event was the third round of the Pacenotes 2011 ANICC 2WD Rally Challenge. Organisers Cookstown MC decided to go ahead with the rally despite an entry of only 34 cars.
Winners were Charlie Beattie and Camillus Bradley in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.6. Declan McNaughton’s Ford Escort Mk.2 was second while James and Heather Kennedy finished third in a similar Escort Mk.2, but as McNaughton wasn’t registered, the husband and wife paring took maximum points in the Challenge and lead with one round left to run.
Charlie Beattie last won a rally in the 80’s and was quick to praise his new “novice” co-driver. Camillus Bradley is the acknowledged “Davagh Master” (he won here for the last four years) but his usual Escort Mk.2 was unavailable this time. Rather than miss the rally altogether, Camillus decided to sit with his friend Charlie and share with him his expert knowledge of the tight and twisty Davagh stages. The plan worked extremely well as the pair finished almost one minute ahead of second placed McNaughton. 24 crews made it to the finish after eight challenging stages. Despite heavy overnight rain which made the conditions slippery the day itself was dry throughout and there were no major problems.
Magherafelt and District Motor Club are the organisers of this the fourth and now final round of the 2021 Motorsport UK Northern Ireland Rally Championship. We are due to cover radio and rescue on this 39 mile six-stage (3 repeated twice) closed-road event.
Sponsorship has been secured from Go Power. The rally will be based in Swatragh/Draperstown. A maximum entry of 100 cars including all seven main Championship contenders have been received. Derek McGarrity who previously drove a WRC Focus and Fiesta has switched to a Skoda Fabia R5+ otherwise the rest of the leading drivers will be in their usual R5 mounts.
Jonny Greer in the Citroen C3 leads the points table 5 ahead of Stephen Wright. Derek McGarrity is third, 11 down on Greer. Currently on form Desi Henry in his Hyundai i20 realistically needs to win the rally if he has any hope of his first NI Championship. Henry retired on round one (scoring only one point for starting) so the Portglenone man must finish well here, and hope the other contenders have problems.
There are a maximum of 30 points available for a win, so in theory any one of seven drivers could win the championship! The Go-Power Tour of the Sperrins should be a cracking event. May the best man win!!! As we all know, anything can happen in rallying!!!
Based in Newry (as it was when last held in August 2019) the Modern Tyres Ulster Rally will use 9 closed-road stages (3 repeated 3 times) in counties Down and Armagh. Organised by the Northern Ireland Motor Club this is the seventh and final round of the 2021 British Rally Championship. The rally should attract a capacity entry. Current leaders of the BRC after round four are Oisan Price and Noel O’Sullivan who lead Matt Edwards/Darren Garrod by just four points. Both crews are in Volkswagen Polo GT1 R5’s. BMMC/BRMC marshals will be out in force as usual on the Ulster covering timing, rescue and radio points. Rally HQ will be at the Mourne Country Hotel with the service park in Carnbane Industrial Estate and a regroup in Banbridge. Modern Tyres (who previously backed Newry and District Motor Club’s Mourne Rally for many years) are the new title sponsors of the event. I will have more details 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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