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Henry Stars On Gravel

Desi Henry from Portglenone in Co.Antrim has become a real title challenger for the 2019 McGrady Insurance Northern Ireland Rally Championship. Since switching to a Ford Fiesta WRC Henry has won the last two gravel rounds of the popular Motorsport UK series. He has only contested three Championship rounds so far this year, but won them all. Back in April he finished first on the new closed road Maiden City Stages driving a Skoda Fabia R5.

The LAKELAND STAGES RALLY took place on Saturday 7 September. Organised by Enniskillen MC the event used six gravel tests, SS 1/4 Belmore 3.65 miles SS 2/5 Ballintempo 11.24 miles and SS3/6 Big Dog 3.35 miles. A total of 89 competitors started the rally which as well as being round five of the NI Championship was also the final round of the Valvoline Irish Forest Rally Championship.

We represented BMMC/BRMC on Belmore, covering rescue, start timekeeping and radio. Then club members covered finish timekeeping and radio on Big Dog. All told there were at least nine members on duty including radio controller Duncan. A huge thanks from all of us on Belmore must go to our own Rory O’Neill for breakfast and “super huge” burgers at lunch time.

The day passed without any major incidents and as a bonus the weather was good. Desi Henry co-driven by Damien Connelly won in the Fiesta WRC with Sam Moffett/James Fulton second in a Fiesta R5. Newly crowned Valvoline Irish Forest Champion Cathan McCourt and Barry McNulty were third in a similar car. With regard to the Northern Ireland Championship, Stephen Wright was eighth in his Fiesta R5 and Derek McGeehan finished 12th in the MINI WRC. Derek McGarrity retired his Fiesta WRC with mechanical woes. Altogether 55 cars made it to the finish.

Two weeks later we were out once again on the BUSHWACKER RALLY. This gravel event is known locally as “The Tyrone Grand Prix” due to the fast nature of the West Tyrone Stages. Omagh Motor Club had laid on 10 fairly short but challenging stages in Lough Bradan and Killeter forests. Apart from rescue we would be covering timekeeping and radio points. Around eight club members were involved.

I was acting as finish timekeeper on SS5/9 Glenderg with new BMMC/BRMC member John Gains. This would be John’s first experience of line of sight timing and he took to it like a pro. John Comiskey was on radio and the craic was mighty all day! We had no major problems despite a warm, windy and dusty first stage and then a wet second test.

The surprising star of the Bushwacker was Lithuanian driver Martynas Samsonas. The sponsor of the Fivemiletown Rally back in February was back rallying in Co.Tyrone. Unfortunately he retired on that gravel non-championship event. Since then he has converted his unique self-built BMW E46 from rear-wheel to four-wheel-drive and the fierce machine was putting out 450 bhp. Samsonas and co-driver Mindaugas Varza led the 68 starters from stage one.

It wasn’t until stage nine that Desi Henry/Conor Mohan in the WRC Fiesta finally passed the flying BMW for the lead. Henry consolidated his position on the final test and won the rally by 8 seconds from Martynas. Niall McCullagh and Ryan McCloskey from Omagh were third in a Fiesta R5. Stephen Wright collected second place championship points as he finished sixth. Derek McGarrity had problems again with his Fiesta WRC but managed to finish seventh. Derek McGeehan had a tough event in his Mini WRC, he was 11th in the end. Adrian Heatherington in his Mk.2 Escort was top 2-wheel-drive finisher. He and Gary Nolan had a rally long battle with Shane McGirr/ Denver Rafferty’s Toyota Starlet. The crews were separated by just 3 seconds in the end. By the end of the final stage 10 there were 48 finishers.

Following the Bushwacker there are now just two rounds of the McGrady Insurance Northern Ireland Rally Championship left. This month sees the Tyrone Stages on the smooth tarmac of the Magilligan military roads near Benone beach in Co. Derry. Then the final round is the Glens of Antrim Rally on Saturday 9th November. This gravel event will use the forests around Slieveanorra.

The NI Championship is turning out to be one of the most exciting in years. Four drivers are in contention for the 2019 title:

  • At the moment DEREK McGEEHAN is officially on top with 162
  • STEPHEN WRIGHT has 141
  • DESI HENRY has only 90 
    but on dropped scores he could win the title as he could score maximum points on both remaining rounds.
    The other 3 must disregard their worst event points. I know it’s complicated, but I think that’s the position!

As a footnote;
the 2020 Motorsport UK Northern Ireland Rally Championship takes on a new look. Apparently there will be just five tarmac rounds. A separate ANICC Gravel Rally Challenge will contain four events. Disappointing? Well perhaps. In my humble opinion the unique mix of sealed and loose surface events was what made this series such a success and a proper challenge! Times change I can appreciate, let’s just hope it all works out well.

Looking Back

30 Years Ago.......October 1989

Stephen Mawhinney won the Bushwacker Rally in his Lotus Sunbeam from Kenny McKinstry’s Ford Escort Mk.2 and then Mervyn Hill was third also in a Sunbeam. In the fourth year of the Circuit of Ireland Retro winners were Ronnie McCartney and Gordon Noble in a VW Beetle. No less than 100 cars started from Balloo House in Killinchy (there was a reserve list of 50) The event ran from Friday to Sunday and finished in Galway.

Meanwhile at Nutts Corner in Co.Antrim, Tony Brady won the latest round of the Belfast Car Ferries Rallycross Championship in his 16-valve Vauxhall Astra GTE. Denis Biggerstaff had been leading in his Metro 6R4 but a puncture dropped him to fourth behind Derek Boyd’s Mazda RX7 and Pete Rucroft’s Nova.

20 Years Ago....... October 1999

Robbie McGurk dominated the Bushwacker Rally with Derek McGarrity second, both in Subaru Impreza Gp. A cars. Denis Biggerstaff was third in his Metro 6R4. Biggerstaff and Robin Phillips in his Toyota Celica would go into the final round of the Northern Ireland Rally Championship the Toshiba Rally in the Co.Antrim forests separated by ONE point. Phillips had been leading by 30 points earlier in the season but Denis had pegged him back and was now just behind.

10 Years Ago......October 2009

Drew Stewart and David White won the Enniskillen Motor Club organised System Signs Clubman Rally. The victory was enough for the Escort Mk.2 pair to clinch the inaugural Pacenotes Magazine ANICC 2WD Rally Challenge with one round remaining. We were timekeeping on the 12-stage tarmac event. There were two venues, the five-mile Lough Navar Forest Drive and a short mile-long Bothwell test.

The three-day 2009 Circuit of Ireland Retrospective Trial had only 30 entries and started and finished in Lisburn. Most of the tests were in Northern Ireland. I was timing a test in Newtownards on the Saturday. Frank Lenehan and Anthony Preston won in their Datsun Cherry.

Derek McGarrity won the 2009 Northern Ireland Rally Championship. He finished second to Kenny McKinstry on the loose surface Down Rally. McKinstry and Noel Orr were in a Subaru S9 WRC while McGarrity and James McKee crewed a 2002 Ford Focus WRC. The Down was the penultimate rally in the 10-round series and used the forests of Tollymore, Rostrevor, Castlewellan and Drumkeeragh. I was Chief Timekeeper and had lots of support from BMMC/BRMC club members who covered all eight stage finishes. Unfortunately the entry was low, only 46 competitors started the event. The rally was observed by officials from Motorsport Ireland and they were impressed. An announcement was subsequently made to the effect that the Down Rally would be included in the 2010 Irish Forest Rally Championship as well as the NI series, so it should attract a larger field.

Rally Diary

Saturday 12 October
Orchard Country Targa Rally

North Armagh MC are running this Targa based at Loughgall Football Club. Sponsored by Ballylisk Car Sales. The tests are within Loughgall Country Park and the surrounding areas. Timekeepers are welcome contact the organisers for more details. Starts 10am.

Saturday 19 October
Tyrone Stages Rally - In Benone!

Cookstown MC are the organisers of this the penultimate round of the exciting 2019 McGrady Insurance Northern Ireland Rally Championship. Based at Benone Tourist Complex Co.Derry. The 14 tarmac stages will take place nearby on closed private M.O.D. roads at Magilligan Point. We are assisting with rescue and timekeepers.

Saturday 2 November
Autumn Lanes Rally

This Targa Rally is organised by Ballynahinch and District MC. Timekeepers are again welcome. Contact the organisers for information.

Saturday 9 November
Glens of Antrim Rally

The final round of the 2019 Motorsport UK ANICC McGrady Insurance Northern Ireland Rally Championship. The organisers are Mid Antrim Motor Club. We are providing rescue and possibly timekeepers. Who will win the Championship? Will it be Stephen Wright, Derek McGeehan, Derek McGarrity for the umpteenth time or could it be late charger and local hero Desi Henry? All will be revealed after this event! The gravel stages will include the famous and challenging Slieveanorra test.


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