The Irish Forest Rally Championship heads to Northern Ireland this weekend for its penultimate round, the Lakelands Stages Rally.
A stunning entry list represents the growing popularity of Ireland’s forestry stages which have played host to a nip-and-tuck battle between some of the island’s best young drivers this year.
The Class 16 Juniors go into the final two rounds with joint leaders and a top four separated by only eight points.
British Rally Championship rivals, James Wilson and Marty Gallagher, are tied for the championship lead on 40 points. With a victory each in the forests this year, they’ll be hoping to bounce back from early exits on the Ulster Rally.
The man in fourth, Jordan Hone, is the only driver with more than one class win this year after topping the times on both days of the double-header round last time out at the Jim Walsh Cork Forest Rally.
Mixing it up with the R2s has been the Vauxhall Nova of Derek Mackarel. The giant-killing Nova has hit the social media airwaves thanks to Mackarel’s gutsy driving. Class honours in the Moonraker Forestry Rally has helped Mackarel to third in the standings, only three points behind the Peugeot 208s of Wilson and Gallagher. There’s more to this man than exuberant driving and is well in the title mix.
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“It’s been a close battle throughout the year,” explained Gallagher. “We all had a bad start, for me the engine blew in the car and the rest of the lads had problems as well.
“As for now, the competition is tight and there is only a second or two to be gained on each stage while at the limit.
“It’s the same plan as always! We’ll go as hard as possible but do our best to keep on the road because after all, points win championships.”
The joint-leaders will both be driving with memories of their recent off-road, rally-ending moments knowing a repeat this weekend could flip the top four on its head.
“For me the plan for the Lakelands is just go and have a good day’s fun,” said Wilson. “I put myself under far too much pressure for the Ulster to try and deliver a good result.
“Being third in the JBRC before it I think I was trying to run before I could walk. For the Lakelands, I will be looking for a strong finish to try and extend a lead in the championship.”
Despite not being a regular BRC runner, Hone was able to finish the Ulster Rally as top R2 beating a strong contingent of BRC Juniors. That off the back of his Jim Walsh brace makes him the on-form man but his Opel Adam is still catching up after two retirements in the first half of the season.
“With the pace in the Juniors as tight as it is, it will be important to try and get up to speed as quick as possible,” said Hone.
“At the end of the day there will only be a handful of seconds between everyone.
“In terms of the championship, we really can’t afford to drop anymore points, so I hope to fight for as many as I can to put us into a fighting position for the championship come the final round.”
It’s too close to call and perfectly set up for two mighty battles at the Lakelands and Bushwhacker rallies. Gallagher and Wilson are benefitting from being consistent in the championship so far. That consistency was brought into question at the Ulster Rally so the Lakelands will be the perfect chance for them to prove it was just a one-off lapse.
The two hard-chargers behind will be ready to climb the standings if the top two do run into any problems. Hone is in the form of picking up wins and having experience of the remaining rounds will also help his fightback. Mackarel knows the remaining rounds too and clearly has the talent to challenge. John O’Sullivan sits in fifth only 12 points off the lead showing the depth that this class battle has.
An added interest at the Lakelands Rally will be Junior World Rally Championship representative, Callum Devine. The reigning JBRC champion will use the event as an opportunity to gain some more gravel mileage in his Ford Fiesta R2 before setting off for Rally Turkey. The next batch of Junior stars are revelling in the opportunity to prove themselves against Devine but they can’t afford to get too distracted by the Billy Coleman Award winner with their own championship on the line. Devine isn’t registered to take championship points so won’t play a part in the class standings.
If the remaining rounds go anything like the last, then, the rallies’ fans are in for a treat and the crews’ families are in for a tribulation. I started off by describing the championship as a nip-and-tuck battle and it’s how I’ll end by letting Hone describe his battle in Cork with the 208 of Wilson.
“After a 16km stage, the longest of the rally, James [Wilson] and I were only separated by 0.9 seconds,” said Hone. “That’s just one example of many throughout the year!
“The tight racing really makes it exciting and it’s great to be part of such a big battle. It’s certainly the reason why I love to go rallying.”
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