Keith Cronin has moved a step closer to a stunning third MSA British Rally Championship title with a comprehensive victory on the Todds Leap International Rally Northern Ireland.
The Irishman, who won the title in 2009 and 2010, led the Ulster-based rally from start-to-finish to move into a joint-championship lead with Elfyn Evans, who secured a sensational second place to wrap up the R2 class title.
Cronin led from the front throughout the event, winning all six stages on the opening day to hold a 55 second lead overnight. Victories on the first two stages of the final day grew his lead to over a minute, though Evans then brought his winning streak to an end on SS9.
There was no chance of a comeback though, Cronin going on to win four of the final five stages to take the rally win by over a minute and a half, giving him his third consecutive win of the season, adding to his successes on the Pirelli International and Jim Clark Rally.
Evans stunned his rivals with some incredible times in his less powerful R2 Fiesta, the joint-championship leader heading into the event setting top three stage times throughout the opening day to end it second overall.
He held the spot on the final day to secure his fifth R2 class win in five events and with it the class title, finishing over a minute clear of his nearest R3 challenger and over two and a half minutes ahead of his nearest R2 rival.
Behind, a titanic battle took place for third between Northern Irishman Jonny Greer and Welshmen Osian Pryce and Tom Cave in a trio of Citroen DS3’s. Pryce held the spot over most of the opening day, but a strong end gave Greer the advantage overnight by 4.7s. Cave meanwhile had managed to recover to sixth after being forced to fight back after a spin on the first corner of the first stage dropped him to fifteenth.
Cave joined the battle for third on day two. He looked set to take the spot, but after overcoming a slight scare when he lost his brakes towards the end of SS10, he received a 50 second penalty when his car wouldn’t start as he went to leave final service.
This gave Pryce third on only his sixth ever tarmac event, earning him the Pirelli Star Driver Award nomination for the event, with Greer 6.7s behind rueing time lost with a spin in SS7. Cave ended up fifth, aided by taking the stage win on SS13, joining Evans as the only other driver to win a stage apart from Cronin.
Matthew Cathcart took an impressive sixth overall and second in R2 class in his Fiesta, while Callum Black took seventh as he continues to adjust to his new DS3. Finishing tenth overall in his Twingo Renaultsport R1 was Garry Pearson, the result, coupled with a retirement for rival Steve Røkland in his Fiesta R1, giving Pearson the 2012 MSA British Junior Rally Championship title.
The fast stages were to catch out many drivers over the course of the rally, with the Antrim-based event proving to be a rally of attrition.
The first retirement on SS2 was a dramatic one, Jussi Kumpumaki rolling his Fiesta on a flat-out downhill section, with the stage having to be stopped and the remaining competitors given notional times to allow for the recovery of the remains of the Fiesta.
Chris Ingram was another to have a big accident, going off on a flat out section on SS7, while on a slippery SS8, Gethin Jones hit a wall, with Desi Henry doing likewise to bend his rear axle, both seeing their rally’s over. Alex Parpottas meanwhile also had trouble on the stage, but managed to continue, before eventually ending their rally in a ditch on SS10.
Alistair Fisher ran as high as fifth overall and second in the R2 class at one stage in his Fiesta, before losing around three minutes on SS5 before ending his rally in a ditch on SS11. One stage later, Jukka Korhonen was forced to retire his Skoda Fabia R2 with a broken driveshaft, while a tough rally for Mark Donnelly saw him retire prior to the final stage, after having suffered gearbox and clutch problems throughout the rally in his Renault Clio R3.
Also seeing his rally end agonisingly close to the finish was Guy Wilks. The former double BRC champion returned to the series to help Renault develop its Twingo Renaultsport Evo R2, with a strong performance seeing him run in the top eight throughout before an engine oil leak forced him to pull out before the final stage.
Doing a similar job to Wilks was 2010 event winner Craig Breen, who returned to the BRC to drive Peugeot’s new 208 GTi R2. The Irishman ran as the course car for the event, as part of the new car’s test and promotional programme.
Photo Credits: Jakob Ebrey Photography