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Friday 17 November 2017

Wexford followers travel far and wide for motorsport fix

THE YEAR may have started quietly, but Wexford motorsport folk have really sprung into action in recent weeks. After the club's successful hillclimb, competitors had to travel further afield to get their motorsport fix recently.

Monaghan was the first stop off in the middle of April, the stages rally being the second round of the 2011 Dunlop National rally championship. All the top contenders were lined up, with the Subarus of Niall Maguire, Tim McNulty, Kevin Barrett and Darragh O'Riordan being joined by the Skoda Fabia S2000 of Dunlop young driver of the year Robert Barrable.

The 2wd race promised to be hot and heavy with Gary McPhillips, Daniel McKenna, Declan Boyle, Wesley Patterson, Manus Kelly and many more lining up at the start. Wexford competitors included Gary Nolan who navigated for Adrian Hetherington. Enda Kennedy was on the notes for David Condell with both crews aboard class 14 Escorts, while Stephen Cullen and Seamus O'Grady were aboard their Seafield Hotel-backed group N Subaru Impreza.

It was championship leader McNulty who took the win by 43 seconds from 2010 winner Niall Maguire, with Robert Barrable another 25 seconds further back in third. Daniel McKenna took a fine fifth overall and 2wd honours, embarrassing many world rally cars along the way.

The Wexford brigade didn't have much joy. Hetherington and Nolan were well back following a long delay on stage four. Stephen Cullen and Seamus O'Grady finished 27th overall and seventh in class after a steady run, while David Condell and Enda Kennedy lost nearly three minutes with power steering problems on their way to 31st overall and fifth in class.

The following weekend saw the crews head for the revamped Circuit of Ireland which was based in Armagh but stretched across the border counties from Antrim to Monaghan. The rally was split into three events, the main two-day event, the Northern Ireland championship round which took in the Saturday stages, and a two-wheel drive challenge which encompassed the Sunday stages.

The battle for overall victory ended up being between the Subarus of Derek McGarrity and Kenny McKinstry. McKinstry held the advantage at the overnight halt, the Banbridge man pressing home his local advantage to hold a slender six-second lead. However, the first stage on Sunday morning was to prove crucial. McGarrity half-spun on a square right and lost a few seconds. Unknown to him, McKinstry had already spun and stalled at the same junction and dropped over 30 seconds, and with it any hopes of his first overall circuit win.

McGarrity proceeded to take his fifth Circuit of Ireland victory, 41 seconds ahead of McKinstry, with Kevin Barrett almost two minutes further back the road in third. The two-wheel drive battle was equally as exciting, with the Darrian of Welsh visitors John Dalton and Gwynfor Jones taking a slender 1.8 seconds victory from Phil Collins and with it a fine fourth overall.

Wexford interest was once again kept to the passenger's side of the cars, with Gary Nolan again navigating for Adrian Hetherington while Andy Hayes was also aboard an Escort, sitting with northern man J.T. Warnock. Hetherington was still rebuilding after an early season off, but he took ninth overall and third two-wheel drive car on the event despite a last-stage trip into a ditch, while Andy Hayes and J.T. Warnock took a sideways 31st and fourth in class.

The May Bank holiday weekend means only one thing in the Irish motorsport calendar, the Killarney Rally of the Lakes. 2010 winner Denis Cronin was number one seed but the red-hot favourite was Monaghan winner Tim McNulty aboard his state of the art S12B Impreza. Kevin Barrett, who actually led the championship, was third on the road and was also hopeful for a good result. But Killarney is not renowned for being an easy rally and by the first service halt, both McNulty and Barrett had retired with engine failures!

But even before this, Cork's Darragh O'Riordan made everyone sit up with his pace and a fabulous 16 fastest times over 17 stages gave the Cork man, with Tony McDaid on the notes, a well-deserved first international victory. Denis Cronin took second overall, albeit nearly four minutes back from O'Riordan, with Eoin Doyle rounding out the top three aboard another Subaru.

As usual, there was plenty of Wexford interest in Killarney, with the half of Campile seemingly making the trip down! John Somers and John McGrath were aboard their ex-works Celica but clutch failure sidelined the pair early on in the event.

Liam Howlett and Leo Tector were debuting the latest machine to evolve in the Howlett Auto Developments garage and as usual they were as spectacular as ever. The Escort thrilled the crowds at Moll's Gap but unfortunately they also wouldn't make it to the overnight halt due to mechanical failure.

Neil Hickey and Enda Kennedy were also forced into an early exit, a piston and a valve not seeing eye to eye and ending their event. Tom White and Richard Cleary were in early trouble, the pair rolling on the first stage at Fisher's bridge, the bridge named after the legendary Bertie Fisher. They got going again but were also on the retirement's list by Sunday evening.

Simon Cummins and Ger Foley were also early retirements, the Nova retiring on the opening loop of stages. Eoin Neville and Andy Hayes were another crew out of luck, their Citroen Saxo also not making it to the end.

However, Kenny O'Brien and Johnny Rooney kicked the retirement trend in Killarney to be the only local crew to make it to the end, the pair taking second in class nine and 13th overall in the national section of the event. Tommy Kelly and Ray Nash were the sole Wexford representatives in the Junior section of the event. Despite a quite ridiculous seeding at the tail of the field, the Wexford men were up to second and challenging for victory until an off on stage five ended their rally.

The following weekend was a bit of a doubleheader, with the Walsh's Hotel-backed Tour of the Sperrins rally based in Maghera in Derry on the Saturday while the Carlow stages rally followed on the Sunday.

On the Sperrins, it was navigators all the way once again, with the usual Hetherington/Nolan and Warnock/Hayes partnerships back on the stages, while Richard Cleary joined Mark Barnett aboard yet another Mk2 Escort. Kenny McKinstry made up for his Circuit disappointment by taking victory, his fourth top score on the trot in this year's Northern Ireland Championship.

The Mitsubishi Evo 9 of Donagh Kelly took second just 17 seconds back, while Johnny Greer rounded out the top three in his Fabia S2000, 40 seconds back from the flying Kelly. Adrian Hetherington definitely shook off his early-season blues, as the Dungannon man led the twowheel drive race all the way until the last stage when they were overtaken by local ace Camillus Bradley.

As the rain came down as the cars sat on the start line on slick tyres, the two Escorts went at the last stage hammer and tongs but Bradley put in a cracker of a time to take the win. Both Escorts were nearly 40 seconds quicker than the next two-wheel drive car on the last stage. Hetherington and Nolan took seventh overall and second in class eight, while Mark Barnett and Richard Cleary took 23rd overall and fourth in class seven, with J.T. Warnock and Andy Hayes taking 39th overall and third in class 6.

And then to Carlow! Along with regulars McNulty, Maguire, Barrett and Barrable, multiple Carlow stages rally winner Stephen Murphy joined the fray. Along with the main field was the well-renowned Escort challenge. Double winner Simon Mauger led the Escorts of Gary McPhillips, Daniel McKenna and Trevor Mulligan and many more in what many saw as the bestever Mk2 challenge.

Surprisingly and quite amazingly in the early morning damp conditions, it was the rear-wheel drive Escort of Daniel McKenna and Andrew Grennan who topped the times on the opening stage. Although he ended up third, it was definitely the drive of the day by the Monaghan man.

Tim McNulty recovered to take his third national championship win, 25 seconds ahead of Robert Barrable, with McKenna a further 25 seconds back in third.

And it was McKenna and Andrew Grennan who took the honours in the Escort challenge, over a minute ahead of fellow Monaghan men Gary McPhillips and Paul Sheridan, with Sam and Alan Smyth taking a very commendable third aboard their 2-litre Escort on their local event.

Ninth overall and fourth Escort were Adrian Hetherington and Gary Nolan, while Stephen Cullen and Seamus O'Grady took eleventh overall and first in group N. John Somers and John McGrath were 18th and second in class 15.

Other results of note for Wexford crews were Simon Kehoe and Declan Stafford who won the inaugural front-wheel drive challenge, Peter Murphy and Darren Deary took class 3 honours in their Renault Clio, John O'Donnell and Brendan Furlong were the winners in class 10 in their Toyota Starlet, Paddy Murphy and Caroline Cleary were third in class 15 in their Subaru, while Andy Nash and Emmet Cleary were third in class 2 aboard their Honda Civic.

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