Northern Ireland’s duo of Junior WRC entrants, Jon Armstrong and William Creighton, won’t face many rallies tougher than Rally Portugal last weekend. Creighton nursed his Ford Fiesta Rally4 home with gearbox damage on Sunday while Armstrong retired on Saturday with engine failure.
Creighton secured his second fifth-placed finish of the season as Armstrong was forced to settle for his six stage-winning bonus points after his non-finish.
It leaves Armstrong and Creighton third and sixth in the Junior WRC standings with three rounds remaining. As Creighton explains, it was an up-and-down weekend with strong pace mixed with the constant fear of mechanical failure.
“It’s certainly a rally of mixed emotions,” said Creighton at the finish.
“I was very encouraged by the pace we set early in the rally and everything just seemed to come together despite my lack of knowledge of the stages and unique surface that Portugal offers.
“I know that Portugal can bite back but being forced out of the fight on Friday was frustrating.
“It was all about consolidation from then on and getting more points on the board. Yes, the gearbox issue was annoying on Sunday, but realistically we were a long way from a podium by that point.”
A broken driveshaft on Friday’s fifth stage ruined any serious hopes for Creighton and co-driver Liam Regan on Rally Portugal’s opening day. They weren’t the only ones – Finland’s Lauri Joona suffered driveshaft failure a stage earlier before succumbing to the same issue a further two times on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Armstrong and English co-driver Phil Hall suffered their own drama on Friday afternoon. The Codemasters backed crew had set a stunning sequence of four fastest stage times in a row on Friday.
It was looking so good as they went 15.6 seconds quicker than their nearest rivals on Rally Portugal’s 19.5-kilometre fifth stage. With a remarkable 36-second advantage Armstrong’s rally lead quickly unravelled on Stage 6, Arganil.
After picking up a puncture, Armstrong opted to see if it would hold out for the remainder of the 18.8 km stage. Realising it was a lost cause Armstrong and Hall pulled over to change the wheel.
They’re rally lead was gone but as their jack sunk into the sandy stage-side surface it became a more strenuous task to replace the wheel in question. Eventually the wheel was changed but not after losing over four minutes to their rivals.
Armstrong’s comfortable rally lead had turned into a mediocre fourth position, over three minutes behind Martin Koci in third.
Unfortunately for the DiRT Rally games designer, worse was to follow 24 hours later.
As Creighton returned under Superrally conditions on Saturday to set a brace of top three stage times, Armstrong inherited third in Junior WRC when Koci became the latest victim of Portugal’s rough terrain. The Slovakian stopped on Stage 12 with driveshaft failure.
Second-placed Sami Pajari was another to hit trouble on Saturday, the young Finn lost power steering on the longest stage of the rally, Amarante. It put him within reach of Armstrong who was once again punching in rapid times.
After 12 stages, Armstrong was 45-seconds from second-place and had already clinched six stage-winning bonus points. It was all to play for!
Another puncture halted Armstrong’s progress on SS13 but the Fermanagh man was ready for another Amarante assault. But it wasn’t to be, Armstrong’s attack had barely begun when his engine cried no more.
He didn’t know it at the time but it was game over, M-Sport Poland mechanics quickly confirming the failure was terminal upon the Fiesta’s arrival to service.
“I’m obviously disappointed not to finish the rally and get more points,” admitted Armstrong. “But we have to be happy with our performance pace-wise.
“It’s good to be rewarding our partners with speed and a strong start to the year.”
Creighton was one of three Junior WRC crews to finish Rally Portugal under Superrally regulations. His early challenge for the rally lead is a promising sign for the championship’s next gravel round in Estonia.
The Motorsport Ireland Academy driver’s final day was hindered as his Fiesta lost third gear. Creighton nursed his car home to another World Rally Championship finish, topping up his tally of points gathered in Croatia last month.
“I think being more relaxed helped with that pace,” said Creighton, “and to see us in second overall [on Friday morning] was great motivation.
“There are plenty of positives to take away from our weekend and that’s really the focal point for me – to take that positively into the next Junior WRC round.”
With only a few days to ponder Portugal’s gruelling conditions, Creighton and Regan kick start another championship campaign at Oulton Park’s Neil Howard Stages this Monday. The Northern Irish duo are aiming for success in the Junior British Rally Championship, a series they have been regulars in since 2017.
Rally Estonia in July is the next round of Junior WRC. It may be another gravel event but the high-speed, crest-ridden stages will prove an almighty new challenge for Ireland’s Junior WRC hopefuls.
Photos courtesy of Junior WRC