Mark Higgins and Rory Kennedy won the Safety Direct Galway International Rally after a tight tussle with the long-time leader, Tim McNulty. The weather dominated the entire weekend as heavy rain, snow and ice made the roads treacherous.

 By David Fallon in Ireland

Ice on Stage One claimed the number one seed, Gareth MacHale, when he slid into a bank and broke his intercooler. With his Suburu Impreza gone, Tim McNulty guided his favourite Subaru S11 (World Rally Car) around to take an 8.5 second lead from the Group N car of Colm Murphy/Ger Loughery. Murphy’s time was extraordinary given that he was driving a Mitsubishi Lancer for the first time. He drove a Subaru to last year’s Group N championship, and had decided to switch manufacturers because of the new Mitsubishi Ireland Evo Challenge. Driving for JFR (James Foley Rallysport), he had put himself in position to be the first ever winner in this new series.

After the first two stages, McNulty and trusted co-driver Eugene O’Donnell held a 6.8 second lead over another Subaru driver, Eamonn Boland. Double British Rally Champion, Mark Higgins, driving for the sponsors Global Group, held fourth place behind Murphy.  Stage 3 was cancelled due to ice on the stage and the drivers returned to service in Athenry.

With his crew working on his Pierse-sponsored Subaru, McNulty reflected on a tough morning. “The first three or four kilometres were very slippery with lots of ice. Gareth clipped a wall and I hit a rock after him but it was just one of those stages and our gravel crew did great work this morning.

“We worked to their notes and where they said it was icy, it was! Where it wasn’t, we pushed hard. Stage 2 was a very fast stage - we were only on it for four and a half minutes. It was easier to get through but after being cautious on the first one, you were naturally slightly cautious. There were a couple of slippery points on the stage two breaking points.”

McNulty was hoping that the ice would lift for the midday stages and he would be able to attack more. He had M3 tyres on in the morning which weren’t completely cut out. “Being mindful of the fast flowing roads, you can’t cut them out completely because if you cut them too much, you lose a lot of traction, so we try and play it in the middle.”

The star of the first morning was Colm Murphy. “My first time in this JFR Mitsubishi, I was very surprised with the amount of power compared to my own car. It was phenomenal and I’m very happy to come off the stages without hitting anything - the tyres worked well. There is a little bit more work left in the car as regards set up. It is very wet and slippery out there, this is rallying after all, but it was also my first time in the car so there was no pressure to perform. The power is there all the time and I kept my lines tidy. Where there was ice, I came off the throttle. Gareth McHale came off in the ice so it just goes to show that you are on the limit and if you go to the wrong place, it could be all over. I think I was only going about 8/10ths today and it’s a happy medium.”

Young Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen was fifth overall but never made it to afternoon service. His rally ended in stage four when his Ford WRC suffered a broken right steering arm.
McNulty held the lead up to the afternoon services with Boland 28.1 seconds adrift and Mark Higgins third. Higgins was suffering all day with misting problems inside the car but he was staying ahead of Aaron McHale who was fourth.

Also in the top ten was Eugene Donnelly, the four-time Irish Tarmac Rally champion who had secured a late deal to drive for Jack Slater. I asked Eugene were these conditions typical Galway?

“Aye, Galway is famous for throwing all types of elements at us. In fairness, you always get a little bit of ice but not as bad as this but the stages have cleaned up. We’re having a problem with the car today with a throttle sensor that has failed and we dropped quite a bit of time with it. We lost nearly 45 seconds on one stage and 30 seconds on the last stage.”
He wasn’t surprised that Tim McNulty was leading. “In fairness to Tim, he did say at the beginning of the year that he was really up for it and he’s proved that- he’s really flying. He’s putting on a fantastic performance in very difficult conditions.”

Whilst Murphy was leading the Evo Challenge, Brendan Cumiskey was six places behind him but he was pleased just to be still in contention. “Conditions are still very wet but it’s the same for everyone. Stage 5 had a lot of lying water on it so it was tricky braking but I had a good clean run. We have new brakes on the car and we were braking too early instead of coasting into junctions. The last stages will be slippery but that applies to everyone.”

McNulty retained the lead at the end of Day One by 34 seconds from Mark Higgins, with Boland third and MacHale fourth. Colm Murphy held the Group N and the Evo Challenge lead.

Day Two had driving rain and snow in the first three stages and retirements were frequent. As the cars returned for their only service in Ballinasloe, Mark Higgins had eaten into McNulty’s lead, a fact that McNulty acknowledged. “Treacherous conditions and all to play with.  I knew that Mark would be quick and the last couple of stages suited him. There are a lot of big straights on it; he might have the pulling power on those straights. We have to think of the championship, it’s a long year and we are not willing to throw it away.”

Higgins was a man with a mission and that was to catch McNulty.  27 seconds behind, he won stages 10, 11 and 12 reducing the gap to 5.4 seconds. McNulty won stage 13 but Higgins won the last stage and stormed to a 13.4 second win to claim maximum points in the Global Group Irish Tarmac Rally Championship first round event. Eamonn Boland held third, despite breaking a gear stick on the last stage, and Aaron MacHale was a solid fourth. The Group N winner was Cork’s Kevin Kelleher with a fifth place on the finishing ramp in Eyre Square and Brendan Cumiskey won the Evo challenge as Colm Murphy broke a drive shaft in stage 10.

Higgins acknowledged that he had to push hard to catch McNulty. “The pressure was always on and Tim drove really well and made no mistakes. We had to push really hard all day and it was great to get on the last stage. We couldn't afford to back off as the plan was to attack.”

The misting of the windows during the rally was so bad that he had thought of retiring from the event. "It was that bad, we just couldn't see where we were going. The conditions have been very difficult, very challenging but the tyres have been great and the car was perfect. Next up - The Circuit of Ireland, bring it on!"

McNulty, despite being pipped to the win on the last stage, put forward a positive attitude. “It’s great to grab 12 points at the start of the tarmac championship and it’s something we can build on now. We would have settled for this, or third or fourth on Friday but it is a bit disappointing not to take the number one spot. We live to fight again and the confidence is well back now. We can definitely put together a plan for the championship.”
However McNulty will not be using the Suburu S11 again after this rally and he now intends to sell it. “The S11 has been a fantastic car and as it showed it can still lead an international rally and in fact, probably win one. I have had it two years now and there is a bit of familiarity about it but the car did what I asked it today. We didn't put a mark on it. It will be a good buy for someone and it is run by Dom Buckley Motorsport.”

So McNulty will be using his new Suburu 12B in the Circuit of Ireland Rally in March with his trusted co-driver alongside him. “Eugene did a fantastic job and worked very hard. To be honest, I don't know how they sit inside calling notes . We were sideways more than straight, but he's been at it a long time, he's confident and he trusts me and I trust him.”

Aaron McHale held fourth place for most of the weekend and explained how difficult it was. “We had snow, ice, rain and it was just the hardest conditions you'll get in Ireland. It is very important to get points at the start. I thought Rally Ireland was one of the hardest rallies I ever did but this was definitely on a par with it, if not harder. So that is why I am just delighted to get to the finish and finish fourth. A rally like this is great learning curve with the conditions you face.”

Group N winner was Kevin Kelleher, with Martin Kelleher calling the notes alongside him. Kevin wasn't even thinking of a top 15 finish let alone a top five! “We came here with a new tyre package and were just hoping to test the car for the National Rally Championship in Ballina. We started setting good times on Saturday so kept the push on. We had a great battle with Colm Murphy on Saturday. We were going further and further up the field and were looking at more and more World Rally Cars behind us!"

Kelleher confirmed that with a 5th place in this championship, he will now enter the Circuit of Ireland Rally.

After Colm Murphy’s demise, Brendan Cumiskey and Owen Murphy had only 12 seconds between them with two stages to go. Murphy suffered a puncture and Cumiskey overhauled him to be the first ever Mitsubishi Evo Challenge winer outside the UK to which he remarked, “I will go down in history!"

Owen Murphy’s crew discovered a problem with a back end shock during the early Sunday service which meant he couldn't push too hard. “It was all going fine until the second last stage when unfortunately I got a puncture and had to drive seven miles on the rim and we finished second in the Evo Challenge.”

Safety Direct Galway International Rally results

1 – Mark Higgins/Rory Kennedy (Suburu Impreza WRC)
2 – Tim McNulty/Eugene O’Donnell (Suburu Impreza WRC)
3 – Eamonn Boland/Damien Morrissey (Suburu Impreza WRC)
4 – Aaron MacHale/Killian Duffy (Ford WRC)
5 – Kevin Kelleher/Martin Kelleher (Mitsubishi Evo Lancer, Gp N)

Group N

1 – Kevin Kelleher/Martin Kelleher (Mitsubishi Evo Lancer 9, Gp N)

Mitsubishi Ralliart Evolution Challenge

1 – Brendan Cumiskey/Peter O’Toole ((Mitsubishi Evo Lancer 9, Gp N)

Photos courtesy of:
Trevor Mc Grath


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