Stephen Wright came out on top of the Kirkistown Stages Rally as Storm Dennis rolled across the Ards Peninsula during the opening round of this year’s Northern Ireland Rally Championship.
“It was hard work in there today,” said Wright after the finish. “I didn’t want to make a mistake this morning so I kept it tidy and safe on the first stage. It’s great to get the win and lead the championship again.”
The high winds and heavy rain created a treacherously wet track that was ready to catch out the unwary. Wright’s Ford Fiesta R5 led over 70 crews as he sought to defend not only his 2019 NI Rally crown but also repeat his Kirkistown victory of 12 months ago.
Derek McGarrity is keen to regain the NI Rally title he felt was taken from him unfairly last year and as a nine-time champion, he knows who to win. This year he has swapped from his usual WRC power in favour of a Skoda Fabia R5. Derek McGeehan wheeled out his Mini WRC at number three while Kenny McKinstry and Alan Carmichael were both in R5s, seeded at four and five.
McGeehan was fastest out of the blocks on Stage 1 as he stopped the clocks 1.2 seconds quicker than defending champion, Wright. McGarrity was a further 3.6 seconds back in third. Over the next four stages, Wright set scratch times and took a 7.6s lead into the final stage. Wright backed off for the last stage, going third fastest to take the overall win.
McGeehan had a consistent day with his son Mark on the notes taking a creditable second. McGarrity and his Donegal co-driver Paddy Robinson took the final step on the podium in third. McGarrity had threatened to take McGeehan’s second-position after reducing a 7.4s gap to just 2.1s with two stages remaining. Unfortunately for McGarrity, a misinterpretation of directional arrows on Stage 5 cost him a chance at second.
“Someone must have hit the arrows on part of the circuit as they’re pointing different directions,” McGarrity told NI Rally’s social media team. “I got a bit confused and ended up adding an extra 100 yards to our stage because we took a longer route!”
Gareth Sayers and Jason Mitchell took fourth and fifth respectively in their R5 Fiestas.
Keith White and James Kennedy had a day-long battle in their Mk1 and Mk2 variant Ford Escorts for two-wheel-drive honours. White finally took the spoils as he managed to eke out a 7.2s advantage and a fine ninth overall with Kennedy in tenth. Drew Stewart was a further 27s back in third.
Round two of the now asphalt-only Northern Ireland Rally Championship takes place at Bishopscourt on 7 March.