Tour of the Mournes 2008

25 January 2008

The 2008 Energia Northern Ireland Navigation Rally Championship started with the Tour of the Mournes. The 2008 season began as the 2007 season finished with reigning champions Willie McKeown and Patrick McCollum claiming victory in the rally.

As the crews gathered in Rathfriland, it was the general feeling that it would be difficult to pick a winner of the rally or indeed the championship. Of the five Expert Crews, four of them were proven rally winners, and any of them were easily capable of winning a rally. At number 1 was McKeown/McCollum, but Leslie Young and Lewis Boyd were runners-up in the championship last year and could well go one step higher this year. Gary Sheridan and Lloyd Cochrane had a tremendous second half to last season, with 2 consecutive wins in North Armagh and Newry and Eddie Murphy and Barry Taggart have already won the championship on two previous occasions. The only Expert crew not to win a rally as yet is Ronnie and Aaron Mitchell, but they dominated the Semi-Expert Class last year and indeed mixed it with the Expert Crews on many occasions, so a number of people are tipping them to claim their first victory shortly.

The rally was run, as usual, out of Rathfriland, and the RGJ Developments sponsored event followed the familiar pattern of two loops between the Co Down village and Banbridge. Nineteen cars started out on the 70 miles, with a reasonably straightforward start for most crews. All five Expert crews cleaned the first two sections and from then to the relaxed section only picked up a small number of penalties. By the time the crews stopped at the halt, McKeown/McCollum were still clean, but they were only 2 marks ahead of Sheridan/Cochrane, who in turn were only 1 ahead of the Mitchells with Young/Boyd just one mark behind them. The first significant error came from Young/Boyd, who faltered in the Clock Face section. But the Mitchells shortly had bigger worries. They hit a bank, and although they were able to drive on, the radiator had been damaged and the temperatures soared, so they were out. The tricky final section saw most of the penalties of the night. The route instructions had three lines, with 2 of them describing an identical route, and the other describing a very similar one, but with only 1 road being different. Sheridan/Cochrane realised only after they had passed the different road, and picked up a 30 for their trouble, which cost them 2nd place. Next in line to be second was Murphy/Taggart, but they faltered at the same spot, although they found the route after some time loss to earn them 3rd place. Second, then, went to Young/Boyd, who were the only crew to clean that difficult last section. But no-one could match the consistency of the winning crew of McKeown/McCollum, whose only fault was 2 marks dropped on the last section, despite their brakes failing within 6 miles of the finish.

The Semi-Expert Class was won by David and Kyle Preston, which was very impressive indeed considering this was their first attempt at the more difficult instructions after being promoted as Novice Class champions. Second in this class were David Kerr/Maurice Cresswell, ahead of another Omagh crew of Gary and Robert Milligan.

One of the finest performances of the night came from young Rebecca Fletcher, navigating for her very well known father, and ex-Northern Ireland champion, Neil, in the possibly even better known orange MkI Escort. They won their class on several occasions in the past, but this was their first rally as part of the championship, and they picked up a miserly 1 mark for a clear and emphatic win. Second, and 14 marks back from the Fletchers were Barry Gilpin/Denis Morton, with Richard Beattie/Ian Hawthorne in third.

Ian and Aaron Johnston were the best of the Beginner crews.

Only time will tell whether this opening round proves to be a fitting overture to the 2008 championship with familiar themes recurring throughout the year. But who can tell what we might see over the 9 rallies, which cover approximately 450 miles in the upcoming 11 months?

Patrick McCollum

Posted by PMcCollum on 13/5/2008; Last updated by PMcCollum on 13/5/2008