MacHale in hunt for inaugural ITC title

TITLE contenders in both the Citroen Irish Tarmac Championship and the Dulux Trade British Rally Championship face similar tasks on this weekend’s penultimate rounds of the series, that while featuring the same stages, headquarters and service halts, will run under two different names.

The complexity is due to a rule change and the top seeds in both championships will display the number one decals. There are just four seeded drivers (all in World Rally Cars) in the Todd’s Leap Ulster Rally, the remainder of the ITC brigade are seeded within the BRC category (Rally Northern Ireland), albeit still eligible to score both ITC and BRC points.

The intricacy of the situation is demonstrated by the fact that ITC leader, Alastair Fisher is seeded amongst the entry for Rally Northern Ireland while his title rival, Gareth MacHale heads the list in the Ulster Rally. Meanwhile, the top two seeds in Rally Northern Ireland are Gwyndaf Evans and Keith Cronin.

Having gained his inaugural victory in the ITC on last year’s Donegal Rally, Gareth MacHale has since added the Galway International and this season’s curtailed Donegal rally to his list of successes. He trails Fisher by a single point. Fisher, who has finished all four rounds to date, has benefited from 10 bonus points awarded for the top Group N contenders in the overall finishers list.

MacHale, with a non-finish in the Rally of the Lakes under his belt, cannot afford any further mishaps if he is to land his inaugural ITC title. The Dubliner contributed immensely to a cracking event in Antrim some 12 months ago where he had the measure of Eugene Donnelly only to overshoot close to the finish. This time around, his rivals include local hero, Derek McGarrity, seeking to claim the Ulster for the very first time; Gareth’s brother, Aaron and Arjen de Konig (Mitsubishi). Midleton’s Daragh O’Riordan (Subaru WRC) is a non-starter due to the late arrival of suspension parts.

Based on last year’s performance, Gareth MacHale is the favourite to lead the way through today’s six stages and a further eight tomorrow. Meanwhile, Aaron MacHale, also in a Ford Focus, is only three points off the top. Both championships allow a dropped score and offer a 1.5 points coefficient on its final round. For that reason alone, the second-placed drivers in both championships (Gareth MacHale and Keith Cronin), earning maximum points is crucial.

Certainly, for Cronin, the reigning British champion, it’s a prerequisite especially if Evans finishes, otherwise, he has to rely on a slice of good fortune on the final round. Although Ulsterman, Jonathan Greer heads the BRC table, both Evans and Cronin have more pace. They both have two wins to their credit in the present campaign. Last year, Cronin went on to take the title despite crashing out in the Ulster, however, there is no safety net this time around. Fisher will concentrate on his ITC bid.

Dovetailing both championships, Waterford’s Craig Breen (Ford Fiesta S2000) has endured a mixed campaign, the highlight being his performance in Galway. The competition debut of the new Citroen DS3 R3 in the hands of Bryan Bouffier will attract great interest. Other entries in the Rally NI are the Mitsubishi trio of Neil McCance, Sam Moffett and Alan Ring, Tommy Doyle (Renault Clio) and Citroen C2R2 trio, Marty McCormack, Rob Barrable and Mark Sheahan. Championships such as the Mitsubishi UK and Ireland series, the Citroen C2R2 campaign, the Swift Cup are all within the structure of Rally Northern Ireland. Based at Antrim’s Junction One, the first stage near Ballymena, begins shortly after 2pm today.

Meanwhile, Motorsport Ireland president Joe Corcoran has admitted that there’s been a disappointing reaction to the “Way Forward” document that was published last week. “There’s been varied reaction but on the balance of it, people are disappointed,” he said. “The public consultation phase should have come sooner.” He added that he didn’t expect the Rallies Committee to cancel last week’s meeting with the clubs, however, he respects the clubs position in looking for more time to discuss the matter at local level.

Dubliner, Niall Murray (15) has become the youngest driver to be selected as the Dunlop Young Racing Driver of the Month. He won the award for the month of July during which the Firhouse ace won both of the opening rounds of the new Ginetta Junior Ireland class at Mondello Park.

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