Keith Cronin charged into a 7.5 second lead over Matt Edwards on day one of the Prestone MSA British Rally Championship season finale at the 138.com Rally Isle of Man.
Championship leader Fredrik Ahlin claimed third on a day of conservative driving, in a bid to nurse his Ford Fiesta R5 to championship glory.
Day one began with M-Sport‘s Cronin striking first, the Irishman’s electrifying stage two time enough to elevate his Ford Fiesta R5 into an early advantage ahead of Edwards. Taking a cautious and conservative approach with the title in reach, CA1 Sport‘s Ahlin settled for third behind both his title rivals – 13.6 seconds back of Ulster Rally winner Cronin.
A tight and twisty 0.9km super-special stage three at the Villa Marina saw the top two of Cronin and Edwards post identical times, however neither could best the effort of Alex Laffey, who charged to a maiden BRC stage victory, 0.7 seconds ahead of Cronin and Edwards.
Ahlin meanwhile dropped further time behind his championship foes, falling into the clutches of the chasing Rhys Yates in the battle for fourth in the rally.
The title-chasing trio advanced further up the east coast as darkness began to descend on the Manx stages, with Cronin once again claiming victory in stage 4 – opening up some much-needed breathing space ahead of Edwards’ Swift Group Ford Fiesta R5.
A torrential downpour created treacherous conditions under nightfall with one stage remaining, however the tricky weather posed no problems for the front three, with a similar story unfolding in stage five. Cronin bagged a fourth stage victory to end a dominant day, narrowly ahead of Edwards and Ahlin once more.
Despite Cronin’s emphatic day one performance, a valiant effort from Edwards saw the lead gap at only 7.5 heading into day two, with a cautious Ahlin in third – 23.4 back of Cronin’s combined time.
Yates cemented a comfortable fourth, 18 seconds up from stage-winner Laffey who rounded out the top five.
In the Prestone Motorsport News Junior BRC, title-leader Will Creighton muscled his way into top spot to end day one – despite losing 20 seconds in stage two after sliding into a ditch.
An early lead for Creighton was soon shattered by an off-road excursion, leaving Callum Devine ahead after the opening pair of stages.
Creighton soon bounced back however, bridging the gap to those ahead with a blazing super special time, clambering ahead of James Williams, Oscar Solberg and Marty Gallagher. Devine suffered a two-minute time loss through the 0.9km Villa Marina stage, plummeting out of contention.
Devine and Creighton cancelled each other out in stages four and five with a win apiece, with Creighton opening up a 15 second lead over Gallagher to end day one.
A healthy 19-second lead sees class champion Josh Cornwell in a commanding position in the Cadet Cup in front of Tom Williams, whilst Gee Atherton maintains an 18-second advantage ahead of runaway BRC4 champion David White.