Mark Donnelly and Stephen O’Hanlon claimed victory at the Samsonas Rally Fivemiletown, round one of the McGrady Insurance NI Forest Rally Challenge!
It was a start-to-finish success for the Fiesta R5 crew but the Greencastle driver was never able to relax as the chasing pack hunted him down throughout the eight-stage Omagh Motor Club event.
Going into the final stage, Donnelly’s advantage had been whittled down to just one-tenth of a second but he pulled out all the stops over the closing miles to secure the win by 1.7s.
“We had a big push on the final stage and had a couple of moments,” Donnelly said. “It was a bit messy but I hoped our stage time was going to be fast.”
As it transpired, he had done enough to seal the win from Gareth Mimnagh and Barry McCarney, who were in another Fiesta R5. In fact, it was Mimnagh who was fastest on the final test, moving him in front of Vivian Hamill and Andrew Grennan at the last gasp.
Hamill, who trailed the rally leaders by one-tenth of a second with one stage to go, had a slow start to the day in his VW Polo R5. While Donnelly raced ahead, Hamill was sixth overall after stage one. Then rally leader Donnelly spun and stalled on stage three, and overshot on stage four, handing the rest of the pack a window of opportunity.
At this point, Jonny Leonard and Niall Burns were also in the mix and held second after the third stage. However, a stage four puncture caused them to skate off the road and into a ditch, putting an abrupt end to their event.
With Leonard out of the rally, Hamill led the challenge to Donnelly. When crews reached the Ecclesville Centre service area in Fintona, Hamill trailed the leader by three-tenths of a second with Gareth Mimnagh just half a second further adrift.
In fact, there were only seven seconds separating the top five overall with Niall McCullagh and Ryan McCloskey fourth ahead of Conor McCourt and Caolan McKenna fifth!
With cars refuelled and refettled in service, crews returned to action after lunch to continue the battle. Mark Donnelly was quickest out of the blocks to extend his lead to two seconds over Mimnagh and Hamill. Then Hamill returned fire over the following two tests, leaving one-tenth between him and the leader with one stage to go.
However, it was Donnelly who held on tight to seal the win while Mimagh moved up to second overall with a stunning fastest time over the final stage.
“I didn’t really know what way the positions were going into the last stage,” a delighted Mimnagh admitted. “I didn’t look at the times. We just did our own thing. I can’t believe it!”
Meanwhile, third-placed Hamill was a little bit despondent after coming so close to rally victory.
“We clipped a chicane and did a bit of damage to the car but we didn’t lose much time,” Hamill said at the finish. “I just wasn’t quick enough!”
Also swapping positions near the finish were Conor McCourt and Niall McCullagh. McCourt had been concerned with a possible gearbox issue but he put that behind him to move in front of McCullagh with a fastest time through the penultimate stage. McCourt claimed fourth overall ahead of McCullagh in fifth, while Ryan Caldwell and Shane Byrne were disappointed to lose time with a puncture but they still completed the top six.
In the two-wheel-drive battle, Adrian Hetherington and Ronan O’Neill held the early advantage in their Ford Escort MkII. They had a cushion of nearly 10 seconds over Martin McCormack and Barney Mitchell at the halfway point, with both drivers sporting some bodywork damage after clipping chicanes. But the second half of the rally was to be less fruitful for Hetherington after a problem during stage seven forced his retirement.
Instead, Martin McCormack and Barney Mitchell raced home as the two-wheel-drive category victors in their Escort. They finished just 4.7s ahead of Alan Smyth and Arthur Kierans, while Shane McGirr and Denver Rafferty were left rueing a stage three puncture in their Lada as they secured third in class, just 2.4s further back.
The event hosted the opening round of this year’s McGrady Insurance NI Forest Rally Challenge. For more information, visit nirallychampionship.com/forest-challenge.
Results (Top 15)
(Full results available from rallyscore.net.)
1 Mark Donnelly/Stephen O’Hanlon (Fiesta R5) 26m34.5s
2 Gareth Mimnagh/Barry McCarney (Fiesta R5) +1.7s
3 Vivian Hamill/Andrew Grennan (Polo R5) +2.6s
4 Conor McCourt/Caolan McKenna (Fiesta Rally2) +7.4s
5 Niall McCullagh/Ryan McCloskey (Fiesta Rally2) +13.4s
6 Ryan Caldwell/Shane Byrne (Fabia R5) +1m03.4s
7 David Condell/Michael Coady (Fiesta R5) +1m09.5s
8 Derek Mackarel/Emmet Sherry (Lancer Evo 9) +1m22.7s
9 Stephen Dickson/Dermot McCafferty (Fiesta R5) +1m50.1s
10 Paul Britton/Peter Ward (Fiesta R5) +2m00.1s
11 Ashley Dickson/Martin Brady (Fiesta R5) +2m20.4s
12 Martin McCormack/Barney Mitchell (Escort MkII) +2m20.9s
13 Alan Smyth/Arthur Kierans (Escort MkII) +2m25.6s
14 Shane McGirr/Denver Rafferty (Lada Riva) +2m28.0s
15 Peter McCullagh/Killian McCardle (Lancer Evo) +2m43.1s
Words: JONATHAN MACDONALD / NI RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP Photos: GRAHAM BAALHAM-CURRY