The PROTON R3 Rally Team was the talk of the Barum Czech Rally Zlin on Saturday afternoon after Irishman Keith Cronin turned in a drive of exceptional speed and precision on the slippery and highly specialised roads around Zlin. And what made Cronin's times even more astonishing was the fact that he'd never competed on the event before, or competed in the PROTON.

Both Cronin and his PROTON R3 Rally Team team-mate Niall McShea took their time to play themselves in through Saturday morning. The team's pre-event test in the Czech Republic had been run in sunny conditions, with temperatures approaching 30 degrees. It was all change when the rally started. The rain arrived and, with it, brought tumbling temperatures and what seemed like a Teflon coating to the stages. Already recognised as one of the most demanding rallies in Europe for its inconsistent grip level, the rain made the event even harder. Even local drivers like Jan Kopecky (Skoda's hometown hero who led the event after day one) admitted this was one of the toughest Barum Rallies he'd known.

With a car ill-at-ease on the super-slippery stages, both Cronin and McShea took a cautious approach to the first loop. Once back in service, they made the necessary set-up changes to the Satria Neo S2000s and then returned to the roads and made the most of the car's grip, poise and power.

On the first stage out of service, Cronin was only 3.8 seconds off the fastest time, and faster than local superstar Kopecky. The reigning British Rally Champion was on the same pace in the next stage and heading for another incredible time, only to drop time with an overshoot at a junction. Unfortunately for Cronin his fantastic run came to an end a kilometre from the finish of the next test. The split times earlier in the 11.24-kilometre Semetin stage showed that Cronin and the PROTON would, once again, be troubling the leaders, until he slid off the road at the exit of a long corner. The Satria went off the road and dropped down a bank, coming rest close to a river. Unfortunately for the super-fast Irishman and the equally quick Satria Neo S2000, that was the end of the event.

Running in the sister Satria, McShea also turned up the pace through the afternoon, but his efforts were foiled when he detected a noise in the car's bellhousing. He parked the car up one stage after Cronin had retired.

While neither driver registered a result on their Czech rallying debut, both drivers demonstrated the speed of the PROTON Satria Neo S2000 in the most competitive of rallying environments. The entry for the Zlin-based round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge was one of the strongest in the series' history, and, on Saturday afternoon, PROTON came within an inch of beating them all on one of the most challenging events on the calendar.

The PROTON R3 Rally Team will return to the Intercontinental Rally Challenge later in the season.

Keith Cronin said:
"The rally has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride of emotions, to be honest. The overriding feeling I have is one of massive enjoyment from driving the PROTON; it's an incredible car, fantastic. There's no doubt it took me a little while to get to grips with the car, having driven a turbo car on an event the week before. But once I knew where I was with everything, it was perfect. Testing in the dry and competing in the wet wasn't ideal, but these were great lanes. I felt better and better with the car on Saturday afternoon and felt we could have gone up a gear again. It was really frustrating when we had the overshoot in the seventh stage, that was going to be a good time for us. And where we went off was a tricky place: it was a really long corner with lots of mud at the exit. We started to slide, I saw a bridge and the hedge and went for the hedge. We dropped off the road and down a bank. I couldn't believe it: so disappointing. I hurt my wrist a bit when we went off, but that was nothing compared with the feeling of being out of the event. I have to thank the team for giving me the opportunity to come here and drive the PROTON in the IRC. It's been a fantastic chance for me and one I'm not going to forget for a long time."

Niall McShea said:
"It was great to be back with the team again, and fantastic to be driving again. This was certainly not the easiest of places to come and compete for the first time though. During the recce, you could see that the roads were going to be really tough: the surface and grip level didn't seem to be the same from one corner to the next and the last thing we needed was the rain. But the rain came! Our times were coming through Saturday afternoon, we'd made some changes to the car and we were happier with the way the set-up was running when I heard a noise in the ninth stage. I switched the car off straight away. It's a real shame as I feel that everything was coming together."

Chris Mellors (team principal) said:
"We feel hugely positive leaving the Czech Republic. Okay, we haven't got the result we would have liked, but what we have shown is the capability of the car here on the Barum Rally. The conditions were absolutely terrible on Saturday, not least because they were the polar opposite from what we had been running in during the test. That meant the boys were pretty much starting from scratch on set-up work during the first loop, which was reflected in the times. But, on Saturday afternoon, once they were up and in their stride, we saw a great performance from the drivers and the car. Niall was very unfortunate to have a problem with a part in the bellhousing on his car, but Keith was going tremendously well. To come here for the first time and set the times he was doing was exceptional. He had a huge weight on his shoulders, driving a car which he wasn't used to on roads he'd never seen against the best S2000 competition in the world, and he didn't let himself down. He certainly came here and gave the ball a kick. The crash was frustrating, but that's the sport. Keith certainly turned in a head-turning performance." 
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