Mark Higgins entered the history books by winning the International Rally Isle of Man on Saturday for a record breaking fifth time, surpassing rally legends Russell Brookes and Tony Pond - but the Manxman was made to fight hard for the victory.

The 2009 International Rally Isle of Man, the fourth round of the MSA British Rally Championship, saw the fight between Higgins and rising Irish star Keith Cronin reach new levels as both drivers were forced to dig deep.

While Higgins may have had the benefit of local knowledge, he was once again using the ageing Subaru N11 that he has campaigned for the past two seasons. With Cronin seemingly unfazed by his lack of experience on the tricky island roads, the two ran away from the rest of the field, sharing the twenty fastest stage times equally between them.

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It was advantage Higgins on the opening stage, but then Cronin pulled out a 17 second lead by first service after Higgins had a brief 'moment' on SS3. Cronin then lost this advantage though on the fifth stage when the front differential let go, forcing him to limp through the next few tests, costing him over a minute.

Day 2 began with fraught action for Higgins when the clutch seized on his Impreza. With Higgins soldering on clutchless through the first loop he was powerless to stop Cronin eating into his lead, and when he clocked out of service a minute late after a rapid gearbox and clutch change, Mark found himself five seconds behind the young Irishman with just four stages to make up the deficit.

However a puncture for Cronin on the 13 miles of Cringle effectively handed Higgins the victory, the duo now enjoying a buffer of five minutes over their nearest rivals.

The battle for the final podium position meanwhile was just as fraught. A three way fight between Adam Gould, in his Pirelli Star Prize Subaru Impreza N14 and the two Mitsubishi Evos of Alastair Fisher and Jonnie Greer saw the trio trade times on every stage. Greer's attack lasted until the eighth test when a big crash on the Dog Mills Stage ended his run. The opening day ended with Gould and Fisher separated by one second, but Gould fell victim to the islands notoriously bumpy lanes and ended his rally upside down on the second pass through Newtown, allowing Fisher to back off and take the final podium position and along with it the Pirelli Star Driver award.

Euan Thorburn and Dave Weston Junior had their fair share of dramas, but the two Manx debutants survived the irregular weather conditions to return to Douglas fourth and fifth respectively.

The class battles were equally as fierce. Class R3 was fought out between two Clios and a host of Fiestas.

Kris Hall suffered the ignominy of not only crashing his Fiesta on shakedown but also by rolling on the opening stage. He soldiered on in a very battered Ford to eventually finish third in class, behind the similar Fiesta of local driver Richard Leece. Top Fiesta for most of the rally had been young Craig Breen until he crashed out with four stages to go. Winning the class was Tommi Walster in his R3 Clio despite struggling with setup issues early in the event.

Class R2 was equally as close to begin with. Only 13 seconds separated all four Citroen C2R2 Max's after the first loop. But then Andrew Hockridge lost a wheel and nearly collected a massive electric control box and Mark Gamble spun backwards into a house on the first run through the Castletown spectator stage. Jason Pritchard dropped back with damper problems before re-challenging Irishman Martin McCormack on Saturday, closing the gap on every stage until a broken third gear forced him to back off and nurse his car to the finish. McCormack survived to take top two-wheel drive honours and extend his lead in the C2R2cup.

Class R1 saw Luke Pinder triumph whilst series leader Molly Taylor experienced the biggest accident of her career when she slid straight over a hedge after being caught out in damp conditions. Local man David Harrison finished second with Jim Clark winner Gordon Nichol making up for his 2008 crash with a fine third position.

After two thirds of the 2009 MSA British Rally Championship Cronin and Higgins are equal on points at the top of the chart - both having notched up 76, while Alastair Fisher is third on 57 points and Dave Weston junior fourth on 40. But with the next round being the Ulster Rally, will Cronin hold the psychological advantage? Either way the battle is sure to be hot when action recommences on Friday 21 August across the Irish Sea.

by Geoff Mayes