Connor McCloskey wins Tyrone Stages Rally thriller!

Winners Connor McCloskey and Noel O'Sullivan. Image: William Neill
Winners Connor McCloskey and Noel O'Sullivan. Image: William Neill

Connor McCloskey and Noel O’Sullivan secured victory at today’s MJE Wheel Repair sponsored Tyrone Stages Rally, the final round of the McGrady Insurance MSA Northern Ireland Stage Rally Championship.

The Kilrea driver controlled the Cookstown Motor Club organised rally from start to finish, eventually crossing the finish ramp 11 seconds clear of William Creighton and Liam Regan who impressed on their debut in a Citroen DS3 R5.

“I really enjoyed the event,” McCloskey said at the finish. “It was a last minute decision to enter the rally and it’s great to get the result. We had some brake trouble early on when the pedal went to the floor but we got it sorted and I was much happier after that.”

In second position, William Creighton and Liam Regan put in a mighty drive with their hired Citroen DS3 R5. It was Creighton’s first event with an R5 spec car and he only completed a few practice laps of Kirkistown Race Circuit on Friday before diving in at the deep end.

He held an early third overall but he became increasingly comfortable and confident behind the wheel of the Citroen. After five stages, he was 11 seconds adrift second placed Derek McGarrity and Paddy Robinson...but then he started to turn up the wick!

While 2018 Champion McGarrity struggled with a rear differential problem as well as a handbrake that didn’t work, the latter half of the rally saw Creighton set a string of fastest and equal fastest stage times. He not only ate into McGarrity’s advantage but also McCloskey’s, promoting himself into second overall and finishing the event just 11 seconds behind the rally winners.

“I’m really happy with the result,” a visibly delighted Creighton said at the finish. “I didn’t look at the results all day and just drove my own rally. It’s a great car and I really enjoyed it.”

Meanwhile, Derek McGarrity had to settle for third overall after a difficult day in the ex-Keith Cronin Irish Tarmac Championship winning Citroen. He held an early second position but was thwarted by rear differential trouble as well as a handbrake that refused to work, which contributed to time loss on every stage.

“I drove as quick as I could with the problems,” a sporting McGarrity admitted after congratulating Creighton on his result. “One of the rear wheels was spinning in the corners but there was nothing I could do about it.”

However, for McGarrity and Robinson, they didn’t need to worry about today’s results as they had already clinched this year’s McGrady Insurance NI. Championship title!

In the two-wheel drive category, James and Heather Kennedy enjoyed a tight battle with John Devlin and John McCarthy throughout the event. Kennedy seemed to hold the edge and going into the last two stages, it looked like the battle was over. He had a nine-second cushion over Devlin, and Devlin was resigned to finishing second in class.

“We can’t beat them in the Championship,” Devlin admitted after stage 12. “We needed to win the class and hope that someone else finished the rally between me and James so that’s the fight over.”

However, in a final twist, Kennedy was judged to have missed a chicane on stage 13. As a result, he incurred a maximum time for the test, dropping him outside the top 10. However, he protested the decision and was reinstated to fourth overall, ensuring that he won the class and picked up the overall 2WD Championship spoils!

John Devlin and John McCarthy put up a good fight but they had to settle for second in class and fifth overall ahead of Barry Morris and Declan Campbell who claimed seventh. Alastair Cochrane and Paddy McCrudden also finished inside the top 10 with their two-wheel drive Escort.

In the hotly contested Group N category, another young gun made his mark as Josh McErlean sealed a fantastic class win as well as sixth overall on what was his first event in a four-wheel drive car. Navigated by Aaron Johnston, the crew stunned the opposition as they powered to an emphatic victory with their borrowed car.

That opposition included James Laverty and Paul Britton, who were both fighting for the NI Championship’s Group N title. Laverty and navigator Paul Hughes emerged as champions despite a few spins. They finished ninth overall and second in class.

“We had a bit of a clutch issue all day,” Laverty said. “Once we got the car off the line, it wasn’t too bad.”

Paul Britton and navigator George Tinsley lost time with a time-consuming puncture on stage four. They led the category after three stages but the puncture put them on the back foot. A couple of spins and overshoots compounded their problems and they eventually finished 15th overall and third in class.

Fellow Group N contenders, Chris McGurk and Liam McIntyre, retired with clutch failure after stage 10.

Gareth Sayers and Gareth Gilchrist had a difficult day in their Subaru Impreza WRC. A misfire that was later traced to a faulty water injection pump thwarted their progress but they eventually recovered to finish eighth overall and first in class nine.

With Group N’s James Laverty in ninth ahead of the 2WD category’s Alastair Cochrane in 10th, Alan Atcheson and Martin Connolly finished 11th in their Ford Fiesta. Jonny and Simon Morrow were 12th while Championship sponsor, Fintan McGrady, won class seven and claimed the class seven title in the process by finishing 13th.

Neither Desi Henry nor Marty McKenna started the event while Martin Cairns and Peter Ward retired with engine problems after stage nine. Philip Greenlee and Domhnall Lennon struggled with a misfire and retired after losing second gear on stage 11.

Richard Hall and Graham Henderson retired their beautiful Porsche 911 with fan belt troubles. Conor Cochrane had an early bath when he took ill, Daniel Hamill retired with a broken throttle cable and Jack Cairns exited the event on stage one with gearbox trouble.