For the second time in as many months, Donagh Kelly and Kevin Flanagan wrapped up a tarmac rally championship. This time the Donegal driver was crowned the Clonakilty Blackpudding Irish Tarmac Rally Champion after a win at the Todd’s Leap Ulster Rally. With Kelly’s title rival Sam Moffett and his brother Josh absent from the rally due to an illness in the family, a win wasn’t necessary to seal the championship and up until the final stage it looked as if Garry Jennings was going to take a record third consecutive Ulster win, only for a cruel twist of luck to rob him of victory within miles of the rally finish.
The Enniskillen based event started on Friday afternoon with a ceremonial start on the grounds of Castle Coole before heading to the opening stage Mallabeny Hill where Donagh Kelly settled into a six second lead over second placed Desi Henry and Liam Moynihan in their Skoda Fabia S2000. Stephen Wright was third in his Fiesta R5 and Jonny Greer behind him in the R5 spec Citroen DS3.
Garry Jennings and Rory Kennedy had a troublesome start with turbo pipe trouble which left them well down the leaderboard and almost forty seconds behind the leading car. This was worsened, when after stopping to repair they issue they were late into the following stage and were handed a road penalty of forty seconds. Jennings responded by setting fastest times on the rest of the evening stages to sit fourth overall by the end of day one. There were no other changes at the front of the rally going into the overnight halt. Derek McGeehan and Arthur Kierans were fifth and led the McGrady Insurance Northern Ireland Rally Championship challengers in the Mini WRC. Jonny Greer fell to sixth and Derek McGarrity was seventh and had multiple problems to deal with in his older Impreza WRC. Jon Armstrong led the R2 contenders as well as the Carryduff forklift Road to Wales competition in his Peugeot 208 ahead of Killarney’s Rob Duggan in a similar car. Frank Kelly rounded out the top ten and was best of the rear wheel drive cars, despite having alternator and lighting issues on the night stage. Saturday morning saw most of the cars getting caught out on the wrong tyres and by the time the cars made their way back to the service after the first four stages the line-up had changed massively.
Garry Jennings had continued his charge from the previous night and now led the rally by nine seconds after showing bravery in the mixed conditions. Second placed Kelly wasn’t bothered by the change of position and said he wouldn’t be drawn into a race with Garry, that he only had the championship in mind. Stephen Wright didn’t make it as far as service, the young Monaghan driver overshot on Stage 8 and damaged the radiator. Wright was visibly gutted after a very impressive start but knew he made the right decision to retire and not risk damaging the engine. Brendan Cumiskey fared worse than most when he slid his Group N Impreza into a fence on Stage 5.
Speaking to Motorsport.ie at the St Angelo service area, the Dundalk native said he was pushing to try and use four wheel drive to his advantage on the wet stages. “We were pushing this morning to see if we could close the gap to some of the two wheel drives when it is wet, that’s about the only chance we’d have but it didn’t go to plan.”
Two big names in the National Rally were loading cars onto trailers at the service area and calling it a day early. Shane McGirr retired on the morning loop when the clutch in his Toyota Starlet gave up. Beside him, Frank Kelly was packing up “Baby Blue” after a mechanical issue forced them out while they were leading their class with an impressive run on the tricky stages. His retirement left JWRC driver Daniel McKenna and the experienced Gordon Noble leading the rear wheel drive category in the unusual Toyota GT86. As the car is still early in the development stage, it was expected to be anything but plain sailing, and McKenna pointed out that a crankshaft sensor along with other electrical gremlins were causing the car to stall at low revs, and that he developed a new style of dancing across all three pedals to try overcome the issue on tight and low speed corners.
Jon Armstrong continued to stretch his advantage over Duggan and Devine in the R2 category and at the midway point was thirty seconds up on his rivals. He even managed to pass out an ailing Derek McGarrity who admitted that between tire issues and clutch problems he was only focusing on damage limitation and making it home in one piece. “We just have to stumble through to the end of the rally but we are losing time on every stage and it’s a matter of how much time”. Raymond Johnston was off the road twice on the last stage before service but still managed to hold a twenty two second advantage over Rob Smith in the Historic class.
The final loop of stages saw very little action as the teams made a point to safely get through the standing water and slippy roads that lay waiting for them on the stages. Coming into the final stage Garry Jennings had just shy of fifty seconds of a buffer between himself and Kelly. An amazing feat when many had seen over a minute worth of time loss on the first two stages of the rally as just too much to overcome. Unfortunately, that was when it all came apart for the Kesh man. A fire sparked underneath his Subaru and in the closing miles of the finish of the final stage, he and Rory Kennedy had to pull in when the engine gave up. Neither of the crew were injured but emergency services were called to assist and the top eleven crews were given a nominal time for the stage. Garry was understandably upset about the dramatic outcome and missing out on a third Ulster Rally win.
Back at the finish ramp at St Angelo, it was Donagh Kelly who took the win and with it the Clonakilty Blackpudding Tarmac Championship. The Northgate team have had a dominant season and managed to do what few before them had done and win both the Tarmac and the National series’ in the same year. Desi Henry finished an impressive second in his S2000 Skoda after avoiding trouble all weekend. Derek McGeehan was third and claimed maximum points in the McGrady Insurance Northern Ireland Rally Championship; however Derek McGarrity had done enough with a fifth placed finish to make sure he remained in the lead of that championship. Jon Armstrong stayed on top to secure maximum points in his class and the Road to Wales competition. The battle between himself, Duggan and Devine certainly lived up to the pre-event hype that surrounded them. Brendan Cumiskey regained the Group N lead after his excursion which means all is still to play for in that class in the final round. Raymond and David Johnson won the Historic class in their RS1800 Escort after battling all weekend with Rob Smith in a similar car.
The Historic and Modified classes are out again on Rally Isle of Man on September 17th, before the Irish Tarmac Championship closes for another year on 2nd October with the Cork “20”. With bonus points available and many positions in the various classes not yet secured, it promises to be exciting.
Until the next time
Main image from Seamus Counihan. Twitter image from Jason Craig