Northern Ireland’s Josh McErlean, Jon Armstrong, and William Creighton can travel home from Ypres Rally Belgium proud of their most recent World Rally Championship achievements.
The three young rally drivers were a wonderful support act for Waterford’s Craig Breen who claimed his second runner-up WRC finish on the trot.
Ypres Rally made its WRC debut last weekend and the notoriously tricky asphalt roads certainly lived up to pre-event expectations. Several leading drivers paid a punishing price for pushing the limits a bit too far in Belgium.
As for McErlean, Armstrong, and Creighton; all three put in performances that sit near the top of their career best drives. Although, each one did test the unforgiving nature of Ypres’ infamous stages.
Hyundai junior driver McErlean was making his second WRC appearance of the year. It was also his first event with Cavan’s James Fulton calling the all-important pacenotes.
It didn’t take long for the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy crew to realise just how easy Ypres’ ditches could suck you in. McErlean’s Hyundai i20 R5 fell off the road early on shakedown. The Irish crew made it out with the help of Belgium’s eager fans – once bitten, twice shy.
Lesson learned, McErlean started the real stages the following day. A top result in WRC 3 looked like an impossible task with over a dozen local drivers fighting in his category. The 21-year-old’s controlled approach was rewarded, though, with a top five finish in WRC 3 and a remarkable 12th placed finish overall.
“It’s still sinking in,” said McErlean. “It genuinely is a really tricky rally to master, and you need to be inch perfect with every turn or else you’re heading into fields and never coming out.
“James and I bonded in the car straight away and I just had the confidence to find a good pace and stick to it.
“To come away with twelfth overall, ahead of so many WRC regulars and European drivers is really encouraging for me.”
England-based Fermanagh man Armstrong went into Ypres Rally Belgium knowing a good points haul was required to boost his Junior WRC title hopes. The DiRT Rally video game designer arrived in Belgium third in the hotly contested support series.
“We didn’t know what to expect coming into this weekend,” said Armstrong. “It is a new rally for the majority of the Juniors so we didn’t know who was going to be fast.
“I certainly didn’t know if I would have the speed to win.”
Well, Armstrong and Phil Hall certainly did have the speed to win. They showed it straightaway, going fastest on Thursday evening’s shakedown before winning the first four stages on Friday afternoon.
A slide coming out of a cut on Stage 5 bent their Ford Fiesta Rally4’s rear axle but it wasn’t enough to interrupt their commanding day one performance.
Armstrong finished the opening day with a 50-second advantage in Junior WRC and gave him a cushion to control the rally from.
“On Friday I was able to build up a lead and by the end of Friday,” he said. “It was a matter of trying to keep that over the course of Saturday and Sunday.
“Ypres is a very demanding event with very fast stages and a lot of pollution where we were running down the field.
“It is amazing to win. It is great for the championship and a big thanks to the sponsors for getting me here. Without them it is not possible.
“It has been tricky to get back into rallying and it is good to be performing and winning at this time.”
The 26-year-old now sits three points behind championship leader Sami Pajari with only Rally Spain’s double-points finale remaining. Junior WRC crews must drop their lowest scoring finish which at the moment propels the DiRT Rally team into the top of the standings.
It’s all to play for with one round to go which crucially is another sealed surface event.
The only driver to truly match Armstrong was fellow countryman Will Creighton. Motorsport Ireland’s Junior WRC representative matched the rally winner’s stage win tally of seven by Sunday afternoon’s Spa-Francorchamps finish.
In fact, it is hard to know whether Armstrong could have kept his rival behind had Creighton not suffered a technical glitch on Ypres Rally’s third stage.
Creighton and Liam Regan were up on the splits during the third stage until a faulty oil pressure sensor forced him to temporarily stop in the stage. It cost the crew over two minutes and dropped them to the back of the Junior WRC field.
“It was certainly a case of so near yet so far for us this weekend,” said Creighton, “but to see seven fastest stage times on the board is better than I could have hoped for to be honest.
“Of course, it’s unfortunate that our issues on Friday mean our pace is not reflected in our finishing position, but it’s important to not let that distract you and Sunday’s stage wins was a prime example of that.
“You have to reflect on the positives at a time like this and to be winning stages at a world level against the competition around us and in our first year is very encouraging indeed.”
Photos courtesy of Hyundai Motorsport and Junior WRC