Craig Breen marked his return to the Irish Tarmac Championship with a classy win on a typically testing Galway Rally. Despite only managing three stage wins, the 2018 Citroen World Rally driver overcame an early battle with the Subaru Impreza WRC of Garry Jennings and fellow Ford Fiesta R5 driver Alastair Fisher.
Having been shortened to a one-day event, this year’s Galway Rally was described by crews as a sprint from the first stage. The 6.7-mile opener was littered in puddles and the borderline freezing conditions were made worse when the stage was delayed by 30 minutes. Jennings put pre-rally rumours of a non-start to bed by setting the fastest time on Attymon 1. Going for his third Galway win in a row, Jennings avoided an early disaster by controlling a 100 mph stall during his opening stage win. Sam Moffett wasn’t so fortunate as he was the first to fall foul of Athenry’s slippery roads. Moffett’s Fiesta spun into a deep hedge and with no chance of a recovery the 2017 ITRC champion was forced into an early retirement.
Fisher went fastest on Stage 2, Ballyfa 1, as he and Breen moved above Jennings who described his Impreza like a tank as it struggled through the stage’s tight sections. Fisher’s lead was short-lived however as a spin on the final stage of the opening loop cost the Fermanagh driver around 10 seconds and pushed him back to third behind Breen and Jennings.
Josh Moffett had settled into a comfortable fourth position after the opening loop of stages but was bemused with a misfire that had developed in his Fiesta R5. It was an issue that almost forced him into retirement as upon leaving service for the fourth stage he lost all response from the car’s throttle. Aided by his mechanics and his already retired brother, the reigning champion got the issue resolved with seconds to spare.
After struggling with ECU problems in the first three stages, Jennings went into the second loop of stages confident that he could push ahead of the R5s of Breen and Fisher. Jennings repeated his opening stage win and returned to the top of the leaderboard but the back-and-forth battle continued on SS5 as Breen took his first stage win with Jennings losing time to both Breen and Fisher. SS6, Colmanstown 2, was to prove decisive as Jennings slid his Impreza into a ditch in a difficult section towards the end of the stage. Breen continued to build his gap to Fisher and went into the final three stages with a gap of 13.8s.
As Moffett now found himself in third position, fourth position fell into the hands of Jon Armstrong who was beginning to find his feet on his Irish R5 debut. Improved confidence and a stiffer set-up helped Armstrong to a second-fastest R5 time on SS4, just over a second slower than Breen.
Behind Moffett and Armstrong a four-way battle for fifth ensued between Daniel Cronin, Desi Henry, Jonathan Greer and Declan Boyle. Only 5.5s separated the four drivers after the first three stages. A slow-puncture on SS5 cost Cronin two places and he lost further time on SS6 as his slick spare tyre was completely unsuited to the wet road surface. Henry claimed fifth position with an improvement in speed coming after adjusting his Skoda Fabia R5’s suspension set-up in the opening service. Boyle was pleased with his pace on his R5 debut and held sixth going into the final stage, only for Greer to snatch it from him with a second-fastest time on SS9.
Following Jennings’ exit, Breen extended his margin to 21.6s over Fisher going into the final stage. Fisher’s fastest time on SS9 was not enough to overcome Breen’s considerable advantage, giving Breen his first International win in Ireland since 2016’s Circuit of Ireland.
“I enjoyed everything and it was nice to get a win,” said Breen. “The conditions were tricky but I had a lot of fun.”
“The competition here is serious, it’s not to be messed around with. These are special roads and they require a special approach which these guys have well sussed, so they are definitely on top of their game.”
Andy Davies picked up a Group N win in his Subaru Impreza N12B. William Mavitty had been leading the class after winning the opening four stages but swapping a punctured tyre cost him three minutes in SS5 and ultimately the class victory. Michael Boyle made a promising start in his Group N debut with a second-fastest time on the first stage but a broken brake caliper on the following stage put him out of contention.
William Creighton topped the R2 class, over two minutes ahead of second-placed Eamonn Kelly, but admitted taking a steady approach to Galway with eyes on the Cambrian Rally.
Follow the Rally Insight website for more Galway previews, reports and stories before and after this weekend’s Irish Tarmac opener.