Keith Cronin and co-driver Greg Shinnors recorded a resounding victory by over four minutes from Nik Elsmore and Craig Drew in round six of the Mitsubishi Ralliart Evolution Challenge, the Todds Leap Ulster Rally.

Contrasting fortunes saw series leaders David Bogie/Kevin Rae out of the running on the opening stage when their car ran wide and clipped a verge, the subsequent impact removing a wheel.

The Ulster Rally provided the Evolution Challenge with its second asphalt event of the season and the one round of the year where the many Irish crews that support the championship don't have to board a ferry or aeroplane to get to the event.

Featuring six stages on Friday evening and a further ten on Saturday, totalling a competitive distance of 134 miles, the undulating tarmac roads around the host town of Armagh makes this one of the most demanding rallies of the year for both cars and crews.

Right from the word go, Cronin stamped his authority on proceedings and emerged from the opening stage 14.5 seconds ahead of Neil McCance/Sean Ferris, the anticipated pressure from Bogie dropping away after he lost a rear wheel when the back of the car stepped out and clipped a verge. Unable to continue, the Scottish youngster took the decision to get his stricken Evo recovered and, with the event being run to International rules, was still able to record a finish by running under SuperRally regulations.

By the time cars reached the final service halt of the day in Armagh, Cronin had pulled out a lead by two minutes - a margin almost unheard of in Evo Challenge circles.

Second place was the territory of Daniel Barry/Martin Brady, who had defied their car's tendency to understeer due to a suspected problem with the centre differential.
Nik Elsmore/Craig Drew were just eight seconds behind in third, not bad, considering they were unable to complete the pre-event recce, as Elsmore had contracted a bout of food poisoning the previous day.

McCance had now dropped back to fourth due to two punctures - both collected at exactly the same spot on the Parkanaur stage - one on the first run through and the other on the second.

David Meredith/Dai Roberts in fifth also reported problems early on, when a wire came off their car's starter motor resulting in them having to be push-started in order to begin the very first stage.

However, there was no doubt that Elsmore had the biggest fright of the night, when he rounded a right-hander on SS6 and found barrier tape stretched across the road. Thinking he and Drew had taken the wrong route they turned around, but quickly realised that they were correct and the tape was the work of a thoughtless prankster. Unsurprisingly flustered, they were later caught by Cronin and consequently lost over a minute in the confusion.

However, the leader also had cause for concern, when his car's rear diff started to make unusual noises. Sportingly, David Bogie's team came to the rescue with a replacement unit, which was fitted at Friday's final service halt before cars went into Parc Ferm?.

As usual in Ulster, Saturday's ten stages would provide a real test for the teams. However, for Cronin it was a case of carrying on from where he left off on Friday and continued to dominate the Evo Challenge field as the day went on.

Most of the Evo drivers found the going a little easier on the first of Saturday's stages, Barry trying to come to terms with his car's irregular handling, Elsmore getting his confidence back after his ordeal the night before and McCance just happy not to get another puncture.

However, for Meredith the second service halt of the day heralded retirement and dependence on SuperRally regulations to record a finish after something went wrong with his car's turbo-charger.

At this point it started raining and all crews knew that the wet roads would bring a different dimension to the stages. However, Cronin proved to be completely unfazed and continued to set fastest Evo Challenge times.

In contrast, with the handling of his car still not right, Barry was ready to throw in the towel, especially as he had now been passed by both Elsmore and McCance on SS12, but the young Irishman gritted his teeth and continued.

With all Evo Challenge drivers respecting the slippery conditions, the final loop of three stages saw Cronin leading by over four minutes, with Elsmore extending his second place advantage over McCance to 23 seconds. He was now being caught by Barry who was now just 0.1 second behind! Seizing the opportunity, Barry pushed hard through the last few miles and emerged six seconds ahead of McCance and in third place when the cars finally crossed the line in Armagh.

But after setting the fastest Evo Challenge times on all of the event's 16 stages, plus having recorded his second Mitsubishi Championship win of the season, it was Cronin's day.

"I'm delighted. Other than what I think was a problem with the diff pump in the closing stages, it all went according to plan", said Cronin. "I could have done with more performances like this earlier in the season, but it's always good to take a win, whenever it happens."

The consequence of this weekend's result sees Bogie and Elsmore share the top spot in the driver's standings, both tying on 44 points. This means that Bogie has to finish fifth or higher on the seventh and final round, the Bulldog Rally on 18th October, to secure the title. Elsmore however, has posted consistent finishes all season and therefore must drop a score from his worst round, which is six points.

With Richard Cathcart having withdrawn from the series, it means that McCance (38 points), Barry and Cronin (36 points) are all in with a mathematical chance of lifting the title.