Cronin out to dent Higgins’ title hopes in Manx

ROUNDS of the Irish Tarmac, National and British Rally Championships take centre stage over three days beginning today with the former and the latter dovetailing on the Rally Isle of Man International.

Meanwhile, the Sligo Rally on Sunday begins the second half of the Dunlop National Rally Championship season.

A pact or boycott by the regulars of the Irish Tarmac Championship means that there are no WRC cars on the event that is now essentially a British Championship event.

The likes of Eugene Donnelly, Eamonn Boland and Tim McNulty all agreed to skip “The Manx” and even though championship organisers haven’t any difficulty with the decision of its top drivers, it must surely send out the strongest signal that the event is doomed in terms of ITC status.

Whether the TROA (Tarmac Rally Organisers Association) are willing to address the situation remains to be seen.

The main focus will be on BRC leader, Keith Cronin and how he will fare against former triple champion, Mark Higgins, who is seeking an unprecedented fifth victory on his native soil.

Cronin is two points ahead in the title race and he is sure to adopt his usual tactics of finding a comfortable pace and then attacking if he is in the right position.

Even if he has to settle for second on this occasion, it would be prudent to take the points rather than risk everything and hand the edge to Higgins. In terms of mind games, Cronin has the initiative and another victory over Higgins would damage the latter’s challenge.

Both are well ahead of their rivals in the BRC, however, any slip up would give the likes of Northern Ireland pair, Alastair Fisher and Jonathan Greer and British pair, David Bogie and Adam Gould some encouragement to improve their championship positions.

Both Cronin and Fisher are registered to score points in the Irish Tarmac series where Cork driver, Darragh O’Riordan (Renault Clio) seeded at 23, is the highest-placed Irish Tarmac Championship driver. Elsewhere, Craig Breen and Mark Donnelly chase points in the Fiesta Sport Trophy UK series and Marty McCormack has a similar role in the Citroen C2 R2 Cup. Today’s opening leg that begins at 10am has 12 special stages.

In Sligo, on the sixth round of the Dunlop series, reigning champion and event top seed, Patrick Elliott (Subaru WRC) will try and prevent Niall Maguire (Subaru WRC) from taking his third successive set of maximum points. Cavan man, Elliott won the opening three rounds and threatened to run away with the title. However, a final stage crash on the Circuit of Munster and third overall (second placed Dunlop points) on the Raven’s Rock just two weeks ago has seem him drop 16 points behind Maguire.

Confidence plays a huge part in Elliott’s game plan and he must overcome those disappointing outings to have any chance of stopping Maguire’s recent surge that has seen the Monaghan ace regain fine form.

Both may look to Dunlop regular Kevin Barrett to bolster their position on the nine-stage encounter. The Maynooth man has yet to split the title rivals in any event this season, if he were to achieve the feat in Sligo, it would be crucial to the title bid of both drivers.

Welsh ace, Mel Evans, also in a Subaru WRC is seeded at number four as he seeks points in the MSA Asphalt series while Carrick on Shannon’s Sean Gallagher (Subaru WRC) is next off the start line. The other half of the top 10 is completed by the Group N contingent of Garry Jennings, Kevin Kelleher, Danny MacBride, Anthony O’Halloran and Eamonn Daly, all onboard Mitsubishi’s.

All with the exception of MacBride are chasing valuable points for the Patterson’s RallyNews award. With current leader, Thomas Fitzmaurice starting from the number 11 berth, he is likely to have his lead cut by his challengers.

Of those, Jennings is his closest rival – four points behind with Kelleher some 14 points further adrift, on current form, they are the duo most likely to displace him on the overall classification. Jennings should be quick around Sligo while Kelleher, having made a string recovery in Carrick on Suir to take second behind Jennings, will not be lacking in confidence.

Elsewhere, former Tarmac champion co-driver, Paul Kiely (Mitsubishi) makes his annual appearance as a driver and is well capable of notching up a top-10 finish. Based at the Sligo Park Hotel, the first car away is at 9.30.

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