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Ryan Champion has charged to the head of the British Rally Championship field on the first leg of the Philip White Tyres Ulster Rally, putting his accident on the previous round to the back of his mind.
Champion, who won the first round of the Tesco 99 Octane MSA BRC, is sure to have the double in mind as he looks ahead to the second leg tomorrow.
The crews faced four stages in the first leg after stage one was cancelled when Irishman Tim McNulty crashed, blocking the road. With only one car through to the finish of the stage the rest of the crews were given a notional time.
Champion, and navigator Craig Thorley, finished the evening’s stages with a 1.9 second lead over Mitsubishi Motors UK team-mate Rory Galligan with Welshman Gwyndaf Evans in his Hankook Mitsubishi Evo 9 snapping at his heels a further 1.5 seconds behind.
Champion said at the days’ last service: “We had some brake problems on our first competitive stage but we are delighted to be sitting in this position at this stage.”
“I am going to bed thinking I need to come up with some way of getting the rally cancelled for tomorrow. This is the result we need.”
Galligan, who had a huge accident on last years’ Super Special stage decided to take things slowly this time round.
“The times today have been very close so tomorrow will be interesting. I’d like to think it could go any way at the moment.
“The car ended up on its roof last year and I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again. We didn’t do anything special in the last loop, it just looks like the lads are playing a game and want to stick us up the top for tomorrow.”
Reigning BRC champion Mark Higgins failed to get it all his own way and had to settle for fourth, 1.1seconds behind Evans after the five stages.
“We took the first loop of stages fairly steady. Everything seemed to be okay but Ryan and Rory have been going well all day,” said the Stobart VK Subaru driver.
“We pushed harder in the second loop but we dropped too much time in the first stage after service. We will be aiming to push even harder tomorrow to close the gap.”
Citroen Junior World Rally Championship star Kris Meeke, on his home event, set the stages alight in his Super 1600 C2, finishing the first leg second overall ahead of six World Rally Cars.
Although not eligible for BRC points Meeke is running on Tesco 99 Octane, the control fuel for the series. “As you can see from how today has gone the Tesco 99 Octane fuel is performing as well as what we use on the JWRC.”
Leading the Mitsubishi Evo Challenge, a contest run within the BRC which offers a seasons drive next year with the Mitsubishi team, is Evans. Northern Ireland’s Philip Morrow is lying 19 seconds behind Evans, but has a comfortable 41-second advantage over Jonny Milner, who felt there was still more to come from the engine this weekend.
Morrow is hoping a little bit of local knowledge may just swing it tomorrow as they head out to tackle the remaining 62 stage miles. “The twisty stuff in the second loop suits me, I am pleased with the times and it is the closest I’ve been all year to the top guys.”
Stuart Jones in the other Hankook Mitsubishi had a frustrating start to his event, feeling his pace-notes were too cautious.
“We had the big accident from the Manx on our minds, but every time I came out of a corner I felt I should have been a higher gear. We will try and up the pace a bit tomorrow.”
Barry Clark was the fastest Super 1600 BRC contender and is leading in his Stobart VK Fiesta. Clark finished the first leg just over 22 seconds ahead of rival James Wozencroft in the Suzuki Ignis S1600.
Clark said: “We came over a jump after a long straight on stage four and had a heavy landing. The lights, the engine, everything went off. We were coming up to a hairpin and in trying to work out what happened I flicked the master and everything came back on. I don’t think we dropped too much time.”
Clark’s team-mate Roman Kresta retired on the days final stage in his Stobart VK-backed Super 1600 Fiesta but hopes to return under Superally tomorrow.
The rally restarts at 7.15am on Saturday morning when the crews tackle a further 10 stages before the celebrations back at the Armagh City Hotel at 5.40pm.
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