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Wright Wins NI Championship

Stephen Wright has become the first driver from the Republic to win the NI Rally Championship. Following the cancellation of the Glens of Antrim Rally last month the Monaghan man has been confirmed as 2019 Champion. Wright and Derek McGarrity finished the series level on points but on a tie-break Wright got the nod having won more rounds. Derek McGeehan finished third but his son Mark won the co-drivers championship. Desi Henry was fourth and James Kennedy in fifth was the top 2 wheel drive finisher.

The Glens event would have been the eighth and final championship round, but Mid Antrim Motor Club were forced to cancel due to a lack of entries. This was the last year of the Motorsport UK Northern Ireland Rally Championship in its current format. Next year there will be just five tarmac rounds. A separate ANICC Gravel Rally Challenge features four events. (See the full details in Rally Diary).

October also saw the cancellation of Rally Australia the final round of the WRC. The devastating bush fires of New South Wales meant the organisers of the Coffs Harbour based event had no option but to call off the rally. Ott Tanak had of course already been crowned champion in Spain but Hyundai beat Toyota to the manufacturers title as a result. Kris Meeke finished a disappointing sixth in the drivers table this year, he had perhaps a chance of fourth but we will never know if he could have managed that.

Citroen have withdrawn from next years WRC leaving just three manufacturers to fight for the 2020 title. Sebastien Ogier is heading for Toyota to lead Tommi Makinen’s team. The former champion will have Elfyn Evans as his team mate along with young Kalle Rovanpera. A fourth Yaris will appear occasionally for “the wee Japanese fella” just to keep Toyota president Akio Toyoda and his paymasters happy!

The big question is what happens to Jari-Matti Latvala and Kris Meeke? It doesn’t look good for them or indeed Citroen’s Esapekka Lappi. There is only one seat remaining as I write. That is at M-Sport/Ford, and I can’t see Meeke going there. Craig Breen is also without a drive as all Hyundai seats are filled. All this means only 9 full blown World Rally Cars on most WRC entry lists next year and possibly no Irish interest. Disappointing or what?

Looking Back....2019

Highs and lows of the year

FEBRUARY....... NI Championship first round at Kirkistown.

Stephen Wright was the unexpected winner of the Pacenotes Stages Rally after early leader Derek McGarrity retired on the final stage. We marshalled the event. The week before I was on radio cover at the gravel Fivemiletown Rally, the first event of the year for us. That event was sponsored by Martynas Samsonas from Lithuania. His spectacular 2-wheel Drive BMW was the star of the show, retiring from third place after a great early run. He would return to set fire to the Co.Tyrone forest stages later in the year!

APRIL...............New Maiden City Event and Easter Stages Rally

The Maiden City Stages was a new road closed round of the NI Championship based in Strabane. We covered radio and club members were out in force as usual. Desi Henry won setting up a title challenge. The Easter Stages was a round of the Irish Tarmac Championship and Craig Breen won in his Fiesta R5. Based at the Dundrod Ulster GP pits, the two-day event used closed roads in counties Down and Antrim.

JUNE..............Tragic Donegal

We were timekeeping on the three-day Donegal International Rally. Sadly local hero and three time winner Manus Kelly was killed on the final day when his Hyundai i20 R5 crashed on his favourite Fanad Head stage. This was the low point of the year for us.

JULY.............. Armstrong wins Down Rally

Victor and I were covering a radio point on the closed-road NI Championship Down Rally near Hillsborough. Young Jon Armstrong won his first rally. He was driving a hired Mini WRC. Stephen Wright scored maximum championship points. Also in July we were covering radios on the Loughgall Country Park Rally where Escort Mk.2 driver Damian Toner won for the fifth year in succession. Toner also won the modified section of the ITRC this year.

AUGUST..........Compact Ulster Rally

This year’s Ulster Rally was a one-day event for the first time. Just 9 closed road stages in South County Down were on the menu. Still a counting round of both the British and Irish Tarmac Championships the event was won by Craig Breen and Paul Nagle in a Hyundai i20 R5. Breen was confirmed Irish Tarmac Champion 2019. Second place for Matt Edwards made him favourite for the BRC title which he went on to win. Tom Cave crashed out his Hyundai just passed our mid-point radio location, virtually ending his challenge to Edwards there and then. At the start of August we covered rescue and radio on the Dogleap Stages Rally at the old Shackleton Airfield in Ballykelly.

SEPTEMBER..........Henry Wins On Gravel

The Lakeland Stages in Co. Fermanagh in early September was a round of the NI Championship and the final round of the Irish Forest Rally Championship. We were covering rescue, timekeeping and radio on SS 1/4 Belmore. Then later in the month I was timekeeping in Killeter Forest near Castlederg on the NI Championship Bushwacker Rally. Other club members covered rescue and radio points. Martynas Samsonas was back, and surprised everyone on the Bushwacker. Leading from the start in his now converted to 4-wheel-Drive big red BMW until he lost time on the penultimate stage with overheating problems, the Lithuanian still finished an amazing second overall. Desi Henry won both the Lakeland and the Bushwacker in his Fiesta WRC, bringing the Co.Antrim driver right back into contention for the championship.

OCTOBER............. Final NI Championship Round and WRC Trips

In total I managed just 16 days marshalling this year. My last job was covering stage end radio points on the final round of the NI Rally Championship. The Tyrone Stages Rally was held on closed private military roads at Magilligan Point in Co. Derry. Derek McGarrity won the event but of course lost the championship to second placed Stephen Wright on a tie-break. Desi Henry’s challenge came to an end as he could only finish fourth. Although the Tyrone Stages was my last marshalling event of the year, I managed to spectate on what turned out to be the final two rounds of the WRC. Wales Rally GB was wet, very wet but I managed to see four days of gravel action. Ott Tanak won GB and then headed to Spain where of course he finished second and became World Champion. Spain was dry and again Victor and I managed four days of spectating. Interestingly Rally Spain was almost disrupted by pre-event floods and then Rally Australia was cancelled because of bush fires.

NOVEMBER...........McCormack Wins His Third R.A.C.

Congratulations must go to Draperstown’s Marty McCormack and his co-driver Barney Mitchell. The Ulster paring have just won the extremely difficult Roger Albert Clark Rally for the second time. McCormack is the first driver to win the event three times. The historic event started on Thursday 21st November with two days in Wales, then moved up to Carlisle with stages in Kielder and Scotland before finishing back in Carlisle on the Monday. There were 32 demanding gravel stages over 5 days. McCormack led from SS3 all the way to the finish his Mk.2 Ford Escort. He was 52 seconds ahead of the similar car of Jason Pritchard. The conditions throughout were challenging with heavy rain most of the time. 126 cars started and remarkably 91 finished. Another crew from Northern Ireland, Davy Greer and Brian Crawford, finished 33rd in their Opel Manta 400. In a tribute to the late Russell Brooks the Manta was decked out in the iconic “Andrews Heat for Hire” colours.

Rally Diary

Fri. 27th December 
It’s Not The Boxing Day Rally

The annual UAC Targa Rally. Based at the Edenmore Golf Club, Magheralin, Craigavon the entry list is full at 90 competitors (46 of which are Mazda MX5’s). Marshals are always welcome. Sign-on from 7am. Sponsored by Jordan Concrete.

Sat. 28th December 
Turkey Run Rally

Maiden City Motor Club are running this annual tarmac single venue stage rally at the Shackleton Airfield in Ballykelly. We are covering rescue and stage marshalling. Sign-on 7am. The entry list stands at just 15 as I write so the event may not run. Check with the organisers if you intend going.

2020 Motorsport UK Northern Ireland Tarmac Rally Championship

  • Sat.15th February Kirkistown Stages ......North Armagh MC (single venue)
  • Sat. 7th March Bishopscourt Stages...Ballynahinch MC (single venue)
  • Sat. 25th April Dogleap Rally .............Maiden City MC (single venue)
  • Sat. 6th June Tour of the Sperrins.....Magherafelt MC (closed road)
  • Sat. 18th July Tyrone Stages Rally......Cookstown MC (closed road)

2020 ANICC Gravel Rally Challenge

  • Sat. 22nd February Fivemiletown Rally.........Omagh MC
  • Sat. 5th September Lakeland Stages............Enniskillen MC
  • Sat. 26th September Bushwacker Rally..........Omagh MC
  • Sat. 14th November Glens of Antrim Rally.....Mid Antrim MC

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