Keith Cronin won the Ulster Rally to claim his second Prestone MSA British Rally Championship victory of the season and set up a battle for the title at the final rounds on the Isle Of Man.
Cronin, who used his experience of being defending Irish Tarmac champion to full effect, won the event in changing conditions ahead of championship rival Fredrik Ahlin with Marty McCormack claiming third in BRC1.
The Irishman led from start to finish on his home event, despite suffering a puncture early on Saturday morning and the M-Sport driver now lies second in the championship standings as Osian Pryce, who was seemingly on for a strong finish, again was forced to retire with a fuel pump problem for the second event in a row.
“It started out with a big fight early on and there was nothing between us after the first day,” a delighted Cronin said on his victory. “Tyre choice was a complete lottery and we capitalised on a good decision on the second day to bridge a gap.
“Unfortunately we then got a puncture so we had to build a lead all over again! We have the best chance other than Fredrik [Ahlin] to win the title and he is the clear leader but rallying is rallying. We had a bit of bad luck at the start of the year, maybe we will have some luck at the end to give us a chance to fight for the title.”
Not for the first time this season it was Pryce battling with Ahlin with the pair swapping stage times across the event until the Welshman retired on the beginning of day two, and he has now fallen to 40 points behind Ahlin with 50 still to play for in the Isle of Man.
Third on the road was BRC regular Jonny Greer, but the Irishman, who was aiming for an outright victory, wasn’t able to score championship points as he was using un-homologated tyres on his Citroen DS3 R5 and as result it was McCormack who would benefit and claim the final spot on the BRC podium aboard his Skoda Fabia R5.
A fine fourth in BRC1 went the way of Desi Henry, who returned to the BRC after missing the previous round on the Nicky Grist Stages after rolling his Fabia R5 back on the Ypres Rally, while Alex Laffey in the second M-Sport Ford Fiesta R5 took fifth.
Matt Edwards, who took two podium finishers in the previous two events would not make it three out of three as the Welshman was forced to retire the Swift Group Fiesta with throttle cable issues that had hindered the team all weekend.
In the Prestone Motorsport News Junior BRC class, it was again the two championship leaders, William Creighton and Callum Devine who were battling at the front in Ireland with Creighton ultimately claiming victory as many of the chasing pack retired from the event.
The dual at the front was seemingly going to go all the way up until stage 10 where the Opel Adam R2’s alternator failed and Devine was forced to retire from the event, giving Creighton both his first win since the Pirelli International in April and with it a clear lead at the top of the championship standings.
After the demise of Devine, it was Oscar Solberg who claimed second in his Ford Fiesta R2T. The Norwegian had planned to have a slow and steady approach as he made his debut on Irish tarmac stages, but that idea soon changed and he had several incidents across the two days with the car being needed to be repaired on several occasions.
With drivers such as Devine, Marty Gallagher, who retired his Peugeot 208 R2 on the penultimate stage of the rally after a seized gearbox and James McErlean all retiring from the event, it meant only two drivers in the BRCJ class were classified finishers.
Josh Cornwell took his fifth victory of the season in the BRC Cadet class and sealed the championship victory as a result.
Going to Ireland with the title all but mathematically wrapped up, Cornwell dominated in the class and was even battling with newer and in theory faster R2 machinery as he stormed to the win.
Second in BRC Cadet went to Cornwell’s only championship challenger Alex Waterman with the Harper Adams University-ran car of James McDiarmid taking third in the class.
Finally the sole runners in the National Rally Cup and BRC4 classes, John Morrison and David White, both finished the event to claim the championships in each respective class, with White finishing the rally in the top 10 overall and scoring BRC points as a result.
The penultimate and final rounds of the 2017 Prestone MSA British Rally Championship take place on a double-header weekend on the Rally Isle Of Man between September 14-16.