Ross Hunter and Josh Davison cracked the conundrum on day 1…Dean Raftery and co driver Aileen Kelly took a maiden NGK Spark Plugs BRC Challenge victory on Saturday’s second Ulster Challenge Rally…

Ulster Rally Challenge Rally – Day 1

Ross Hunter and Josh Davison cracked the conundrum of the first of this weekend’s Ulster Challenge rally events to score their second win of the 2013 NGK Spark Plugs BRC Challenge. They were pushed all the way by series returnees Dean Raftery and co driver Aileen Kelly as championship front runners Russ Thompson and Richard Sykes endured a tricky afternoon.

After getting underway from the ceremonial start in Enniskillen town centre, the first test of the day saw the crews head to the east to tackle the exciting stage around local beauty spot Topped Mountain, so called because of the prominent cairn on the summit.

Hunter, who won the ‘Challenge’s previous tarmac test, the Jim Clark Rally in May, immediately seized control of the event.  Running third on the road, the man from St Boswell delivered a time of 9min09secs to top the timesheets after all 12 runners completed the 9.25miles of the stage.

In hot pursuit in their Honda Civic were Raftery and Kelly, who had demonstrated exceptional pace on their previous ‘Challenge outing and the pair kept Hunter honest, being only five seconds behind the man from St Boswell’s.
Over the course of the remaining two stages in the first loop, the Irish crew continued to be the closest challengers to Hunter and Davison, however they were unable to do anything but watch the lead grow.

Delivering a considered and clean drive Hunter/Davison added another 11.2 seconds to their advantage on stage two and on stage three increased the lead by a further six and a half seconds, to give him a handy 23 second lead of the event.
While Raftery was performing well and comfortably sitting second, eyes turned further down the order as title rivals Russ Thompson and Richards Sykes were locked in a massive scrap for third position as the competitors headed to service.
Both crews arrived in Northern Ireland looking to record strong results for their respective championship campaigns, but endured a trying afternoon in Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Thompson and co-driver Andy Murphy completed Topped Mountain fifth fastest, as they took a cautious approach to the wet Ulster roads .Their lack of experience of those conditions on this type of surface allowed Sykes and co-driver Simon Taylor to take advantage to the tune of 3.3 seconds.
On stage two, the pendulum swung in the other direction, with Thompson overtaking his rival for third. Drying stages had allowed the Lancastrian to unlock some  extra pace, as Sykes found himself driving on worn intermediate tyres that made the car feel “like it was on blancmange”.

After the third test, where Sykes was second fastest to Thompson’s fourth, the pair were separated by a tantalising 1.3 seconds. However, an earlier moment for Thompson and Murphy would prove to be the turning point in this particular battle.
Early into stage two, the championship leaders landed their Renault Clio heavily after a large jump which, they knew had caused damage through a telltale trail of smoke entering the car through the footwell.

At service they established the landing had cracked the car’s sump. Thompson’s team then undertook a herculean effort with the loan of spares from Ross Hunter’s crew. But the damage left them unable to fend off a hard charging Sykes and forced them to surrender the final podium position to the RC5 class winner.

Back at the front of the field, drama was now striking at the up-to-now imperious Hunter. After dominating the first part of the day by winning all three stages, he was only able to record the fourth fastest times on the day’s final two stages after developing gearbox troubles that saw him forced to complete the day in third gear.
Fortunately for the Borderer, the 23-second gap he had built was enough to keep the charging Raftery at bay, with the 21 year old Galwegian only able to reduce the lead to 9.1sec and having to settle for a well-earned second place overall and a RC3 class win.
This saw the Scot take his second 30 point haul of the year and bring himself right into overall championship contention.

With the overall Challenge heating up nicely, the Fiesta SportChallenge has also started to come to the boil after the first Ulster Event.
Returning to the stages after a monster shunt on the last event in Dumfries, Aaron McClure & Tom Woodburn took a steady approach, looking to score a good result and regain the championship lead from young Devonian Chris Wheeler.
Brake problems checked McClure’s progress although the retirements of Steven Smith and Tim Daltry elevated the Next Big Step-supported youngster to sixth. However the steady approach that Wheeler/Griffiths have adopted all season sees them head into Saturday’s second ‘Challenge round with a one point lead in the Fiesta series and a five point lead in the combined RC2 RC3 class.

Ulster Rally Challenge Rally – Day 2

Dean Raftery and co driver Aileen Kelly took a maiden NGK Spark Plugs BRC Challenge victory on Saturday’s second Ulster Challenge Rally on an afternoon when an unusually high attrition rate saw only five crews reach the finish.

Steven Smith and co-driver Daniel Johnstone were rewarded for their heroic, seven hour repair efforts on Saturday night to take second while the ‘Challenge’s other registered Irish crew, John Byrnes and Paul Murphy took the final podium spot.

The second challenge event was all action from the moment the cars completed the first with three crews having to work through the night to get their cars ready for Saturday morning.

Championship leader Russ Thompson worked into the early hours with his team and that of Ross Hunter to replace the sump he cracked on Friday’s second stage while next door to Thompson, event one winner Hunter was replacing the broken gear linkage that had threatened to cost him Friday’s victory.

Further down the service park, Smith was also burning the midnight oil replacing the broken gear box in his Peugeot 206 RC with one sourced from a local scrapyard.

The efforts of the three groups meant that as the stages got under way, 10 of the 12 registered runners headed out to the first stage Sloughan Glen. A stage that graced the Irish World Rally Championship round in 2009.

It was here, on a stage regarded as one of the most technical on this year’s ‘Challenge roster, that Richard Sykes retired his Citroen R2C2 after crashing out in a big accident that saw the car well off the road with a heavily damaged front end. 

While the driver was able to extract himself from the car, co-driver Simon Taylor complained of lumbar pains. Taking all the due care necessary after such a heavy impact, the pair summoned the stage medical teams to provided assistance with Taylor being taken to hospital in for precautionary checks.  

After the stage was cleared, the early pace was set by Ross Hunter who was looking to build on his Friday win and close the gap to the top of the championship further still.  His time of 12:55.2 being the benchmark for the 13.81 miles.

Right on his gearbox though, was Galway’s Raftery a mere 2.9 seconds adrift and looking an ominous threat to Hunter’s hopes of recording an Ulster double and taking his third win of the campaign.

The threat was made manifest on the next stage after the Irishman completed the test 14.2 seconds faster than Hunter and take an 11.3 second overall lead.

For the rest of the challenge field, the stage was less plain sailing. Thompson overshot the road at a junction on his way to the third fastest time, Smith hit a telegraph pole, damaging his radiator while Aaron McClure damaged his suspension and drive shaft after hitting a rock off road.

As the cars headed into service, Gareth White was seen stranded on the road section to see the total number of retirements over the course of the two events reach four.  It was a total that would continue to rise over the rest of the afternoon.

First to attempt to join the list of retirees was Friday’s winner Ross Hunter on stage four, Carran Bridge.  Nursing a handling problem after hitting a chicane bale on the St Angelo spectator stage, the Scotsman had a sizeable collision with a telegraph pole, causing serious damage to the front left of his car. 

While he was able to conduct a running repair by the road side and get the car to the end of the event, the organisers deemed Hunter to be OTL, removing him from the overall classification.

At the same time further back on the road, Thompson and Murphy were the next to fall victim of the fickle finger of fate.  The pair ran wide on the first junction of the stage with the car’s rear end stepping out, colliding with an unidentified roadside obstacle and damaging the break pipe. 

After undertaking so much effort to get the car onto Sunday’s event, the crew decided to try and get to the end of the stage using the handbrake and gears in place of the damaged breaking system.  A mile further down the road however, the left rear wheel sheared off, leaving the duo no option but to park up and call it a day.

Speaking to the Championship website after returning to the service park, Murphy expressed his and Thompson’s feelings of disappointment at how their rally ended.

“It’s just gutting.  Everybody involved with the car gave so much to get it ready for today to see it all fall away because of a little slip is devastating”

Murphy continued: “We owed the guys so much more than this and we’re both genuinely sorry to all of them as it could have been one of those great results we all celebrate together.  We will have to make it up to them in Yorkshire.” 

By now, Ulster Challenge2 was starting to look like an event no one wanted to win and there was a real sense of incredulity when on the last stage, Fiesta SportChallenge leader Chris Wheeler became the events final retirement.

In scenes reminiscent of Carlos Sainz’s infamous retirement from Rally GB 1998, the 19 year old’s Fiesta MS1 spluttered to a retirement with a gearbox issue within sight of the flying finish of the final spectator stage at St Angelo airport.

In the face of all this carnage and calamity however, the beaming, smiling face of Raftery was quite happy to take the win, coming home with a one minute and forty second cushion.

In second place, RC4 winner Steven Smith nursed his Peugeot to a season best result while the Challenge’s other registered Irish crew, John Byrnes and Paul Murphy, finished in the final NGK BRCC podium spot.

The pair in the Honda Civic finished forth on the road, two seconds behind local crew Jonni & Sarah McDaid after adopting a steady approach to the day’s stages to maximise their championship points haul. 

As the McDaid’s were ineligible for championship points, Byrnes and Murphy took the awards for third to bounce back from a troubled Friday where they were plagued by a fuel starvation problem. 

Their Ulster Challenge 2 score sees them take an eight point lead in the combined RC2 RC3 class.

In the Fiesta SportChallenge, North West pairing of Aaron McClure and Tom Woodburn secured top honours with a well recovered fifth place after their morning accident.  A result which sees them regain the championship lead from Wheeler.

The NGK Spark Plugs BRC Challenge now moves to Pickering in North Yorkshire for the Trackrod Challenge Rally over the weekend of September 27th and 28th